Can a remote design sprint work?

With COVID-19 still affecting the way businesses can operate, can you run a design sprint remotely? The answer is yes. 

Design sprints, also known as five days of interviews, brainstorming and workshops, can be used to answer a complex business or project question quicker than it would happen otherwise. 

A process first invented by Jake Knapp of Google Ventures, it uses business strategy, design thinking, innovation and a deadline. By bringing people together to generate ideas, it can be used to make decisions about a product or service.

Last year, we used the design sprint process to inform packaging and marketing design work for Orange’s new range of Neva mobile devices. Read more about what we did in our case study here.

Design sprints are a quicker, more efficient process of brainstorming, creating and testing a  product and often lead to breakthroughs that could otherwise take months to happen.

In just one of the many stages of the sprint process, user testing surfaces early feedback when it is still possible to make quick and easy changes. 

If you’ve ever seen a design sprint in action, you’ll know that it involves many post-it notes and collaborative, face-to-face tasks. You may be wondering how this translates into a remote design sprint. We’ve outlined the challenges that a remote design sprint faces and the solutions that are available.

The challenges of a remote design sprint (and the solutions)

Challenge: Communicating remotely

The ability to effectively communicate is reduced by not being together, but technology can help, as long as participants in the design sprint use it and are disciplined about attending meetings. 

Solution: Set ground rules

It’s important for everyone involved to increase their verbal communication on whatever platforms and video conferencing software are being used; this means more messages and video chats to communicate the same volume of thoughts as would be communicated in person. However, this can lead to people struggling to get their opinions heard. Set some ground rules from the start and make sure you don’t start shouting over each other!

Challenge: Limitations of technology

Regardless of video conferencing solutions and other visual collaboration options, a remote design sprint is challenged by its reliance on technology. If the internet fails for a participant, their contribution may be put at risk and if they miss out on any progress, this could slow down the success of the design sprint. 

Solution: Have a plan B 

As a facilitator or someone that is organising the design sprint, you must ensure that there is a plan B for any technology failures and that all participants are aware of other options if the technology fails them. E.g. if their WiFi shuts down, can they use their phone data until it restarts, while the facilitator halts progress until they are back and involved or updates them on all changes and suggestions in their brief absence. If the software you are using as a team stops working, the facilitator must have another way of communicating with everyone to let them know the alternative that keeps the design sprint running.  

Challenge: Different time zones

A remote design sprint can help to get people together despite different time zones. However, it may cause a challenge when trying to find consecutive days with time that all members of the team can collaborate for. 

Solution: Work out the overlap

While there is less time together than in a normal design sprint, there should be an overlap for most participants in different time zones. Work as a team to find the time that everyone can be available for, whether this is working outside their normal hours (something they may need to check and communicate to their teams) or finding the overlap between time zones. Navigate the planning of the design sprint by splitting activities into ones that require collaboration and ones that don’t; plan these around the time zones and available collaboration time like this article suggests. If this is still a challenge that you face, check out this article on a remote design sprint that was conducted in 24-hour shifts between team members in the UK and the US. 

Challenge: Organising schedules 

With remote testing, it’s important to consider the increased time it takes to complete tasks and projects, as with all remote working scenarios. It can take a lot longer to reach someone for approval or input, which as a result it can set back the schedule incrementally by days. 

Solution: Factor remote working into your timelines

It’s very possible to work around this challenge for your remote design sprint, you just need to remember to factor in that extra time for each task to ensure that the project remains on schedule. For the interview stage of your design sprint, you will find that the organisation of interviews can be quicker and easier, removing the need for people to travel to you. 

Challenge: Collaborating remotely 

As you may have found out from remote working, it can be difficult to communicate as effectively and collaborate successfully with people that are not in the same room as you. Note-taking can be a challenge. Not being able to use pen and paper for notes that all of you have access to can mean less visibility. While not being in the same room is a challenge to user testing, we have your solution: selecting the right virtual tools. 

Solution: Online, visual collaboration tools

There is no reason why you cannot complete your design sprint remotely and successfully if you select the right online tools for the job. This includes choosing a great video conferencing software that you and your intended design sprint participants can access easily, as well as using online visual collaborations tools like Miro that show your colleagues working and brainstorming in real-time with you. Miro can be used to replace the action of pen and paper, providing visual note-taking that everyone can keep track of. Check out the remote tools we recommend in our article here

Challenge: Video conferencing for groups

As many of us know, video conference calls with large groups of people can make it difficult for each person to contribute in the way they would a normal meeting. It can be chaotic and less productive for your design sprint, but it doesn’t have to be.  

Solution: Smaller groups

Reducing the size of your design sprint group can ensure that the video conferencing calls and progress of the sprint is more successful. Consider this the perfect opportunity to trim the group down to only those that are necessary for the success of the project. Additionally, for the stages of the design sprint that require group participation, you can split the group into smaller teams of one or two that can then present back to the group. Check out our top tips for hosting remote meetings to optimise the discussion meetings for each task.

How long do you need for a remote design sprint?

Our latest design sprint for Orange took place in person over an 8 day time frame as follows:

  • Day 1: Interviews
  • Day 2: Interview analysis and generation
  • Day 3: Solution ideation
  • Day 4-6: Concept prototyping in 2 directions
  • Day 7: User validation
  • Day 8: Iteration and toolkit structure 

However, we have found examples of remote design sprint processes that either conduct the sprint over a smaller time frame due to the busier schedules of team members working remotely or state that it didn’t need to take place on five consecutive days. 

Firstly, Mural, a digital workspace for visual collaboration, recommends the full, original five days for a remote design sprint as follows:

  • Day 1: Map out the problem and pick where you will focus
  • Day 2: Sketch competing ideas and solutions on paper
  • Day 3: Turn ideas and solutions into a hypothesis
  • Day 4: Build a high fidelity prototype
  • Day 5: Test your prototype with real users

However, they state that their remote sprint took place Wednesday to Friday and then Monday to Tuesday, resulting from the fact that they couldn’t find five days that they could all block out in one week.

The second example is from, Miro, the visual collaborative whiteboard platform we mentioned earlier. They run their remote design sprint process in just four days and suggest the following plan of action:

  • Day 1: Map and sketch 
  • Day 2: Decide and storyboard
  • Day 3: Prototype
  • Day 4: Test and learn

A shorter, more succinct plan of action, the four-day design sprint is an updated version by AJ&Smart and Jake Knapp, recommended by many other companies as it requires less time from everyone involved and results in the same conclusion.  

How to set up your remote design sprint 

Without travel or location logistics to consider, the remote design sprint can be organised at times more easily than in-person design sprints. 

The facilitator is responsible for managing and motivating the participants and, remotely, this is a more challenging role. It involves ensuring that everyone attends each meeting and completes their tasks, collaborating on docs and mural boards. 

Appoint one or more note-takers to keep a record of your progress. Recording meetings is a great way of supplementing note-taking and capturing discussions for future reference.  

To run your design sprint, you will need the following:

  • 5 or 7 stakeholders with the availability
  • An effective facilitator
  • Designated note taker(s) 
  • Laptop or computer with a webcam
  • Headset with microphone or laptop with a microphone 
  • A quiet place 
  • Good internet connection 
  • Some table or wall space for sketching and post-its 
  • Video conferencing software, e.g. Google Hangouts or Zoom
  • Recording software, e.g. Piezo or ScreenRecorder (if possible and appropriate)
  • Google Drive or similar to store and share documents
  • Mural or Miro for visual collaboration, e.g. virtual post-it notes, and voting
  • Slack or equivalent for link sharing and conversations
  • PingPong or equivalent for user testing and recruitment
  • Figma for prototyping in the cloud

Even if the design sprint fails and your product solution doesn’t work, you will have saved time and resources coming to that conclusion. 

To learn more about running the remote design sprint, read our follow up article here.

If you’d like to learn more about remote design sprints and how we could help you conduct yours, email freya.wallace@makeitclear.co.uk.

Design sprintUser experience

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Sophie Whyte

Junior Strategist


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