Practical Design Thinking Part 3: A better way to run remote workshops? "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs January 01 2021 True Collaboration, Design Sprint, design sprints, Design Thinking, Pack-Agency, remote teams, Remote Working, remote working culture, Team Alignment, Workshops, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 3046 Product Management 12.184

Practical Design Thinking Part 3: A better way to run remote workshops?

BY ON

Remote workshops are broken. Are immersive design sprints a better way?

Remote workshops, they’re a thing right?!

Remote workshops aren’t a new thing and, with the soar in popularity of tools like Mural (our personal favourite) or Miro (another great alternative), alongside the disparate nature of product teams in 2020, more and more remote workshops, (including full-blown Design Sprints) are being run every day.

At Pack, before the pandemic hit, we would be regularly running workshops with teams, talking at events, or finding new ways to improve our offering in front of our audience. Although we had experience in working remotely with our clients which included running remote workshops, historically we’ve always pushed to do this in the real world, face to face using a shared physical space.

It wasn’t until remote working recently became more of a necessity that we decided to rethink how our remote offering actually worked. Our goal was to try and maximise the overall experience, and ensure the best engagement and value for our clients.

the difference between in person and remote workshops

Design Sprint origins

Before we go on, let’s take a quick step back to when the Design Sprint first came about. It was invented by two very talented, bright minds over at Google Ventures: designers Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. They created the process to help teams, often in the early stages of their product journey, work better together, identify a key challenge, turn ideas into solutions, and validate them with real users, gaining valuable insights in the process.

participating in an immersive design sprint

By their very nature, Design Sprints make for a very intensive week but are also great fun and super engaging. Our own take on the process is something we’ve worked hard to perfect.

Newsflash: remote Design Sprints can be hard!

As in-person workshops became harder to manage, and remote working became the new way to communicate with our clients, we knew we had to try and recreate that same ‘in-person’ experience in a remote setting. We went about using every tool we had at our disposal to do so.

We created what we thought would be the ultimate remote Design Sprint using Mural as our interactive platform of choice. We booked in our first remote Sprint and excitedly waited to get started. Before we knew it, the end of the week came and the Sprint was over. It was a bit of a blur!

Matt facilitating a virtual design sprint, collating and clustering post-it notes.

The excitement at the beginning of the week had dispersed and we took a few steps back to take everything in, and to run the obligatory retrospective. The results were good, but we unanimously agreed the remote design sprint was lacking something that the in-person equivalent had.

Naturally, it’s not as easy to manage everyone in a remote Sprint the same way as you would in person. There are many challenges to remote workshopping.

So, what was missing? Let’s break it down

  1. We are ‘people’ people. A big part of what we do means bringing energy and enthusiasm to a roomful of people. You need to get them pumped at the start of the week, energised for the possibilities that lie ahead. And what’s more, people feed off of each other’s enthusiasm! Easy in person, not so easy to do remotely.
  2. Design Sprints are tactile and experiential by nature. The feel of the Post-it Notes, the touch of the sharpies, the smell of napalm in the morning! Well…maybe not that last one, but you get the idea. Yup, the in-person equivalent is an experience in itself, and something you can quite literally reach out and touch. As you work through your challenges, framing problems and coming up with solutions, the sprint room turns into the design equivalent of a detective’s casework area – everything up on the wall, each insight and clue leading to a new breakthrough. In the remote design sprint, that just isn’t so. It’s screen-based all the way, and as a wise rapper once said, ‘I told you, homeboy… you can’t touch this’.
  3. The change of scenery. Not enough can be said for this one. We always push our clients out of their comfort zone, and a small part of this when it comes to Design Sprints is making sure they’re in a new place for the workshops. Subtle as this sounds, the theory is solid. Go to the same office, meeting room, desk each day. Nothing feels new. Zzzzzz….
    Go to a new space, designed just for the task at hand?! Well, that’s new and exciting and puts you in a new state of mind. You’re automatically much more open to new ideas and experiences.
  4. The inclusion of technology. This might sound like an obvious one, but with an in-person sprint, it’s all about cutting out devices and being present. In the original book, it states a no-device policy in the sprint room. If you need to send a message or make a call, that’s fine, but you do it outside the room, and you keep it to a minimum so the rest of your sprint team can keep focused. The problem with the remote design sprint is, it’s all about the technology. You have to be on a video call, you have to fill out a virtual Post-it with non-existent sharpies. You can’t spin round the room and see how far you’ve come at the end of the day in the same way.
  5. There’s no central sprint room! One of the best parts of an in-person Design Sprint is walking into the dedicated sprint room as things unfold. It’s a place where you can return to after a break (or between days) and feel a sense of progression and immersion. in 360°. For that period of time, that room is headquarters to your sprint team. A band of brothers and sisters united by sticky notes, sharpies, blood, sweat, and tears!

We couldn’t bear it any longer. It was time to discover a better way.

Case Study: Rethinking the remote Design Sprint…

Now don’t get us wrong, we are far too invested in running Design Sprints remotely to give up. And as we’ve continued to run more, we have learnt from and adapted each subsequent workshop, iterating the experience we deliver along the way to make it more engaging and immersive.

Once we felt we had enough experience in the bag running remote workshops, including sprints, we had some tangible results to work with. Our next step was to take that insight and set about running our own Design Sprint about our remote Design Sprint workshop, to see what we could do to think outside the box and improve upon the process as a whole.

That’s right! A Design Sprint about Design Sprints!  

After all, ideas are far more powerful when they have been created and crafted by the whole team, allowing everyone to have an opinion, share accountability, and to be involved in how the ideas shape up.

Brainstorming potential ways to upgrade and improve online workshops

Day 1 – Ideas 

Taking all of the insights gathered from running remote workshops, we started to formulate what our key challenges were, before settling on one to focus our attention on during Day 1.

The Challenge

How might wecreate the ultimate in-person experience in a remote setting?

Matt championing one particular ideation prompt.

Ideating on the key challenge

Using this key challenge, we worked together throughout the first day to find out what our long term goal was, the key sprint questions we wanted answered, and to map out the key journey we wanted to test. It soon became clear that we were aligned in what we wanted to achieve within the sprint,  and working through it together, exercise by exercise, really helped instill confidence that we were heading in the right direction.

Initial brainstorming in response to potential ideation prompts

Feedback back on initial sketches and ideas at the end of Day 1 of the design sprint.

By the afternoon of Day 1, we were super excited to get sketching ideas and collectively come up with our own unique take on how we think the ultimate remote design sprint experience should look like.

🔥 WE WERE ON FIRE 🔥

We came up with 3 different concepts.

Concept 1: Operation ON & OFF

  • Focused mainly on how to optimise the on and offline interactions that occur throughout the sprint period.

Concept 2: Operation Welcome to the Jungle

  • Focused on how we could create the ultimate welcome pack to put our clients in the right mindset before and during the sprint.

Concept 3: Operation 3 Acts

  • Focused on how we could turn the Beginning, Middle and End into an engaging virtual experience which would enable people to interact with the work they had done throughout the design sprint process.

Voting on some of the potential concepts.

Day 2 – Storyboard

When day 2 arrived, half of the boardroom was covered in ideas and sketches we had created together the previous day. It always feels like you’ve got a great head start walking into this setting!

Our solution sketches were on the wall and laid out in an art gallery style format, ready for us to review and vote on our favourite ideas.

Storyboarding and sketching potential ideas.

Voting

As we each worked our way through the solutions, digesting what had been done the day before, we could see how the heat map was developing. It was clear that there were some winning ideas across all 3 solution sketches. Phew!

Although a decision was made to choose Concept 1 ( Operation ON & OFF), we took the best bits from each of the sketches and moved them over to our storyboarding area, ready for our next session in the afternoon.

The participants dot-vote on the ideas they have the most confidence in.

Storyboarding

The way things were shaping up, it was clear our remote Immersive Design Sprint would contain suggestions and ideas from the whole team involved. It had been a truly collaborative experience and we knew we were on to something special.

By the end of the afternoon, the storyboard was complete and we were all very excited to craft the experience the following day, ready for testing.

The team votes on the ideas they have the most confidence in, and discusses the concepts.

Day 3 – Prototype

We couldn’t believe prototype day had come around so soon, but we were armed and ready for action. The previous day had given us all of the ammo we needed and it was clear what was to be done. Time to get to work!

As the day went by, we rapidly tried and tested mini-experiments to formulate the perfect journey we wanted to test out. VR was part of our solution and headsets were broken out, alongside health drinks and energy bars, which were tested and consumed (yum!) and lots of workshop-based interactive exercises were crafted.

The feeling was starting to settle in. That beautiful moment of clarity that makes itself clear at this stage of a Design Sprint.

We just might pull this off!

Prototyping some initial VR concepts, and potential packaging.
Prototyping some initial VR concepts, and potential packaging.
Extended prototyping of some initial VR concepts, and potential packaging.
Extended prototyping of some initial VR concepts, and potential packaging.

Demonstrating some of the glossy proof-of-concept packaging

Day 4 – Testing the prototype (AKA Judgement Day)

The big day had arrived and the user testers we’d lined up were ready and raring to go. We invited our first tester in and began to talk through the experience we’d been working so hard on. It was time to unleash our solution on the world. One tester at a time.

Testing out the prototype immersive virtual design sprint pack with a potential user.

We asked them to imagine they were a client of ours and that they had just received an exciting package from us, via post, containing their Design Sprint Welcome Pack! Christmas has come early, they exclaimed!

Inside we had placed all of what we deemed to be the essentials to get them set up and ready for their first Design Sprint session with us, including:

  • a special plant-based energy drink,
  • a healthy snack bar,
  • branded Post-it Notes,
  • pens,
  • pads,
  • and, most importantly for their immersive experience, a VR headset.

Their first offline task before starting the session was to put together their eco-friendly cardboard VR headset in preparation for ‘Day 1’.

The unboxing experience of the prototype immersive design sprint kit.

When ‘Day 1’ arrived, we immersed them in a virtual space where they could talk to their team members and watch a welcome video that outlined what to expect from the experiment. This was the equivalent of our sprint room, only a much nicer virtual representation. Win!

The user's VR experience of the immersive design sprint.

We then guided them through our interactive platform, Mural, and began the initial warm-up exercises.

Reviewing the collaboration results of some virtual design sprinting

Showing off the prototype to a potential user.

As part of the prototype, we put together guidelines for on and offline activities – including when to take breaks and even when to exercise between those activities –  allowing our participants to keep up their momentum. Our testers were able to immerse themselves in the full art gallery experience, which allowed them to explore a virtual space with solutions we created in our Design Sprint.

We then continued with the final exercises, again populating the virtual space with artefacts they’d created, allowing them to see a full 360 view of all of the hard work they’d done throughout the experiment.

Demonstrating the basic (cardboard) VR headset

It’s judgement time…

Much to our relief, the overall feedback on our solution was really positive! Everyone we tested with loved the welcome pack, and mentioned that it made them feel special and part of the Immersive Design Sprint experience before they even got started. It also broke them out of their usual mindset and got them thinking differently! Result!

They also loved the idea of a virtual sprint room they could return to as they progressed through the process, and felt they could come ‘home’ to their work, feeling more connected to their sprint team, thanks to the inclusion of this space.

Testing out the virtual sprint room.

Some insights we gained:

  1. Engaging with the welcome pack, and in particular, the process of building the VR headset had helped to create a sense of excitement from the start. People began the session excited and ready to get to work.
  2. The use of both online and offline activities tested well for most participants. It was a welcome break away from the screen when they could complete tasks offline.
  3. Although we only tested out a small experiment over the period of an hour, all participants said they wanted to be part of a full Immersive Design Sprint to really experience the whole workshop from start to finish. They were hungry for more!

Changing mindsets and the remote Design Sprint

When it comes to a remote Sprint, one of the biggest challenges we wanted to address, outside of the process itself, was how do we change the mindset of our clients to feel like they are experiencing something similar to that of an in-person session. As opposed to being sat looking into the void of their computer screens for hours on end, leaving them feeling drained. Here are a few of our key findings:

Facilitation

Usually with newcomers to any kind of Design Sprint, it can be a little daunting to step into the new process knowing you’ll be co-designing as a team.

As a facilitator, you need to work hard to set those anxieties aside and guide your participants into the process. With an immersive approach like the one we tested, it takes additional time to prepare your participants and make sure they are in their comfort zone with the experience rather than creating too many barriers to getting great work done!

Providing instructions in a slow ‘drip-feed’ fashion is the best way to achieve this. It ensures you don’t overload participants. No matter how excited you are to take them on that journey, go slowly and things will be smoother as a result.

Equally, giving them something to read or watch before the ‘big day’, or even a small run-through over a video call of what to expect, works wonders for that workshop kick-off fight or flight moment when someone feels out of their depth.

Use Mural or similar

Alongside experiential or offline activities your best digital sidekick will be in the form of a digital collaboration tool such as Mural, Miro or similar.

This will help you run the crux of the activities throughout the experience and gives you a central place to collaborate with the sprint participants.

You can take content from here and add it to your immersive space.

Use immersive technologies sparingly

Used right, an immersive experience can be super effective and create a great sense of immersion and inclusion, but overused it and it’s purely a gimmick that gets very tired, very quickly.

Remember that VR headsets are also not for everyone, so make sure you have a backup such as a 360 video space people can explore without headsets or a flat 2D representation they can explore if they prefer. Design Sprints are about inclusion, so be careful not to alienate!

Create a buzz

You’re doing something new and exciting, and your participants are too. You can create excitement around any new take on the Design Sprint process, and have fun!

Workshops are a break from the norm, a chance to ideate and collaborate in a safe space where no idea is a bad idea and all that jazz. So lean into it, embrace the new, and get stuff done while you’re at it!

Online / Offline

Using a fusion of on and offline activities is a great way to break things up. For certain tasks the digital tools are more of a barrier to feeling comfortable creating; sketching is a great example of this.

You should try and identify activities where it’s easier for participants to complete them offline. Then, work out points of the process where you can digitise the results of these activities quickly and easily, and bring them back into the fold for all to see.

It can be done! And your participants will thank you for some much needed time away from the screen.

Wrapping Up

We loved redesigning the remote Design Sprint, and based on the feedback received from our testers, we believe there’s a hunger for a more ‘immersive’ take on remote workshops in general.

Why not try it for yourself? You can take the templates from our previous article: The Secret Sprinter: How to embed Design Sprints into your teams, stealth style

And put your own immersive remote Design Sprint workshop together! Good luck, see you in the sprint room…

Enjoy this article?

If you’re hungry for more, catch up on parts 1 and 2: