Virtual Sprint How-To-Guide
The following is a collection of notes on various issues with respect to conducting remote or virtual sprint events. These notes are based on both experiential data and from reading dozens of articles on the subject. We do not advocate for any specific tools but provide reflections of our experiences with them. Our intent is to help you conduct a successful sprint on your own.
Since each sprint is different and people have many different ways of conducting a sprint, this document does not describe the sprint process. Instead, we describe the functional issues you’ll need to address in order to provide a successful virtual sprint.
This is not an exhaustive review of various tools and methods, just experiential knowledge cultivated over time. Therefore, this is a rough guide to use as a data point, not a comprehensive set of rules.
The most difficult aspect of conducting virtual events is maintaining participant engagement and momentum throughout the event. To that end, we provide these tips and tricks:
Social distancing rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to develop a remote sprint capability to replace our in-person design sprint events. We quickly determined that we could not just cut and paste our renowned 3-day sprint process into a virtual environment. The virtual domain demanded we change the process, deliverables, and expectations according to the challenges presented by the participants and available technologies.
That said, we have had enough success with virtual sprints to consider this alternative when logistics (or acts of nature) prohibit us from bringing everyone into our studio.
If this works, what about combining virtual participants and in-person participants during an event? We wouldn’t recommend it. To put it simply, in-person participants will most likely end up dominating the conversation. Virtual participants can become frustrated and eventually become disengaged and go silent.
Participant engagement is a critical factor of a successful UX event. It’s a much more balanced level of engagement if everyone is either virtual or in-person, but not a mixture of both.
An in-studio sprint is usually a 2-3 full day effort with lots of different group and breakout exercises. When everyone is in the studio, it’s easy to manage this kind of breakout and regroup process. In a virtual environment, this process is limited due to the technology and distractions in the participant’s workspace.
Distractions make it difficult to maintain attention on long conference calls. A virtual environment allows for a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous events. Synchronous events occur when everyone is together on the conference call for shorter periods of time. Asynchronous events are basically homework participants can complete alone or as a smaller team when timing (and lack of distraction) is best for them.
One good method is to describe and practice an exercise synchronously, such as creating storyboards or personas. Participants can then add to that body of knowledge by creating more of these artifacts asynchronously before the next session.
When we have 50 people fly in for an in-studio event, it makes sense to run the sprint over 2-3 days. In a virtual event, we can skip a day between events without losing momentum. Giving homework assignments on the off days keeps the participants engaged in their free time. Moreover, it allows more time for ideas and methods to sink in.
Attending a long conference call can be difficult for some. We recommend keeping the sessions to 2-3 hours and spread them out over several days. Separating the sessions by a day allows you to assign ‘homework,’ asking the participants to revisit the digital whiteboards and adding any additional insights that occurred to them. This approach proved useful in capturing insights that attendees did not have time to bring up during the session. This also helps to keep them engaged with the effort.
Since we ran 3-hour sprints, we found a single 15-minute break in the middle of the session to be good. When participants returned, we asked them to announce in (Zoom) chat that they were back from the break for accountability.
If you have more than 6 participants for your event, we have found breakout rooms are a useful feature in a video conference tool for conducting remote sprints. You may want to send small teams into a breakout room to allow for more focused discussions and the generation of ideas. If your sprint expects to use breakout rooms, be sure to enable the breakout room features in the account settings (Zoom). You’ll know it is enabled in Zoom if you see the Breakout Room icon next to the Record button at the bottom of the screen. Different tools do this differently, just be sure to check that your tool has all of the features you’ll need enabled.
There is currently no consistency across the Air Force about the use of Zoom. Be prepared to switch to another tool. The Zoom Gov version is acceptable in some locations whereas a paid Zoom subscription is acceptable in others. The free version of Zoom is always questionable. In any case, avoid any sensitive discussions (FOUO, PII, etc.).
We tested only a few tools that offer breakout room capabilities:
Zoom – This is our top choice. Most folks know how to use it or need little to no training.
Blackboard – Less common, but an Air Force-accepted platform (licensed by AETC and used for academics at the Academy).
Blue Jeans – Pretty good functionality and similar to Zoom. Has a history of being unstable, but that may have improved over the years. This tool may not be approved for use on AF networks.
We didn’t test some tools for various reasons: time for testing, cost (free version insufficient), ease of use (based on reviews and discussions), software install required, and more.
Reviewed but not tested conference tools with breakout rooms:
NewRow – A remote classroom tool
Remo – A webinar tool
Recommend to the participants that they use their phone to call in to the conference call. They can use the video conference tool to connect visually, but should not rely on the tool for their audio. Using a computer for both audio and video can double the internet bandwidth and create audio drop-outs. A video drop-out isn’t usually much of an issue, but audio drop-outs are disruptive.
To ensure their phone connection follows them into breakout rooms, participants should link their audio to their video persona. If they aren’t linked, the video goes to the breakout room, and the audio remains in the main room.
As mentioned before, we highly recommend tools with breakout room capability. The difficulty of using tools without breakout room capability isn’t the technology, but the human factor. To mimic a breakout room, the host needs to create separate conference sessions for each team, send separate invites to the team members of each room ahead of time, tell them to log out of the current conference, and login to their specific room. You also have to make someone the moderator of each room. Procedural problems can arise if the chosen moderator doesn’t attend that session.
Each of the sprint moderators will have to login to each room separately to answer any questions or make announcements. On top of that, there is no easy way for members to ask questions of the facilitators. When the breakout session is done, participants have to repeat the process of quitting a room and login again to the main line.
This cumbersome process adds frustration to participants, interrupting their engagement and the sprint momentum. We found this takes extra time to reestablish engagement. Using standard video conference tools is acceptable for events that don’t require breakout teams.
There are many collaboration tools, but Mural and Miro are the most common tools of many UX teams who offered suggestions during this research. Tools fall into three categories: digital whiteboards, prototype and design tools, and full design activities support. Since every sprint is different and every team has their unique ways of conducting sprints, we recommend that each team identify tools that serve their needs. Remember, this is a living document and you are encouraged to add you knowledge and experiences here.
There are several digital whiteboard tools available, but the free versions limit the number of projects or team members. I hope you try them out and report back.
Some common examples are:
Everything Explained – Getting some attention from Uxers
Stormboard – Trending with some UX teams
These are common collaborative tools used for for sharing and commenting on visual design concepts. As such, they are not optimized for supporting activities like task flows or journey maps.
Some common examples are:
This category is like a whiteboard, but with extra options that enable both design and non-design activities. We tested and used two tools successfully:
Mural offers a few more desirable facilitator functions, but it’s also a bit more difficult to learn how to use within the constraints of a virtual sprint.
This feature shows the moderator’s board on all of the participant screens so they can follow the facilitator’s work. A useful feature, but not used that often for sprints.
Easy to learn and use. It only takes a 15 minute practice session to get everyone up to speed. Miro lacks a few facilitator features that Mural offers, but it’s still quite good.
Miro Board invites
Invites are one of the more bothersome quirks of Miro. The host needs to invite people to each project or board after they’re invited to the team. A recent update allows you to make the board public and invite guest editors via a URL but be aware that anyone with the link can access your board (and therefore the information on it).
Through use, we created a best practice to streamline using Miro: keep a list of every invitee and their email address ready to resend them invites and double-check that each participant is invited to the Miro boards and conference tool (Zoom).
We settled on Miro for our sprints after testing both Mural and Miro with the AF CyberWorx staff. Even better that we already had a license for it, it made sense to use it.
All facilitators, despite their role, need to have the right permissions in both the conference call and the collaboration tool to enable smooth transitions and quick answers to questions.
Because of the various technology requirements, it is best to have someone on the periphery to take command of the conference rooms and collaboration tools as a sort of producer. This enables the moderator(s) to focus on activities without being distracted by technology issues.
It is better to work with the project stakeholder to identify the team make up. Avoid overloading teams with participants who share the same perspective or role. Assign attending participants based on these predefined teams. Reevaluate these teams during the sprint as some folks may need to drop off and may not be available during the time allocated for the breakouts. This is one of the tasks the ‘producer’ needs to perform behind the scenes so that the facilitators don’t have to interrupt the sprint.
Moderators need to be assigned as co-hosts. Each breakout room should have a moderator assigned and each moderator must be assigned to a team, otherwise, due to technical issues, they will not be able to bounce around to other rooms.
For breakout sessions, it may be necessary to provide a separate private board available only to the members of that specific team. Separate boards reduce distractions and confusion over where on the collaboration screen each participant should focus.
We have yet to test these processes on a tablet but we recommend participants use a laptop or desktop computer with sufficient processing and graphics capabilities. In some cases, depending on the collaboration tools used, personnel will need to use a personal device on a commercial network while others may be able to use government devices on a government network. Highly recommend testing out the tools prior to start with enough time to work any technical issues.
If possible, it is advisable to use two screens, one for the video conference tool (Zoom) and one for the collaboration tool (Miro). There are times when the moderator will be sharing a screen on Zoom and participants will be interacting with their collaboration boards.
Recognizing that different sites have different internet access rules and not every tool can be used on a government computer or behind a firewall, it makes sense to test each site that a participant would use to make sure they can access and use each of the tools. For instance, not everyone may have access that allows them to use the collaboration tools (Miro and. Mural). Therefore, you may need to simply share your screen in the video conferencing tools. Test this far enough in advance to allow time to make adjustments to the plan.
Create visually large anchor points in the main project board (Miro) that are easy to find. This makes it easy to direct participants to the right area of a board (which can get pretty large). A large numbered circle is highly visible from the navigation map.
A practice board lets invitees login to the board and use some of the common features prior to the event. Let them know you will be monitoring that board to make sure everyone can log in to it. Have attendees leave a “Kilroy Was Here” message on the board so you can track who was able to login. If someone doesn’t leave a message on the board, be sure to reach out to ask why before the start of the sprint.
We developed practice boards for each feature we expected users to use during the sprint. We provided a sample artifact using each tool for users to recreate on their own. For instance, in one frame we showed some colored shapes and had users recreate those. In another frame, we had users connect shapes with the arrow connection tool.
In some cases, you may want the participants to draw things. Not everyone is comfortable drawing on a digital whiteboard. Therefore, be prepared to let participants draw things on paper with marker pens and upload a picture of it to the board. To facilitate this, you should have participants practice taking a picture and uploading it.
This also means that you should let participants know to have paper and markers on hand. Regular pens and pencils don’t register well enough when photographed and uploaded. Include this information in the invitation email.
Be sure to ask for their preferred email address, not just their official address. Military email can have connection and delivery issues that would inhibit participants from getting essential sprint-related emails in a timely manner.
Be sure to test all of your tools and features prior to launching your sprint. Enlist your colleagues to participate in a dry run of your process and tools. Something will need adjusting, so plan for about an hour to do a full dry-run.
Introduce the collaboration tool (Miro) and review the practice steps to show how it should be done. This helps those who didn’t practice and those who struggled with the tool to better understand how the tool works.
Be sure to demonstrate how to navigate the boards using the map tool and the different pointers.
When it comes time to vote on something, have a PowerPoint slide ready to describe how to use the voting feature and show an example of what it looks like to the users. Indicate what to click on to place their vote. For instance, in Miro, if they click on an object in a drawing, that object will get the vote, not the drawing. This can be leveraged to promote some conversation by asking users to clarify what they were voting for.
Be sure to record the meetings. It’s better to store the recordings on the local computer to avoid running out of space in the cloud. Zoom offers 1GB of cloud storage with a paid subscription, but that fills up in 4-8 hours.
Because Zoom only records what is shown in the Zoom screen, be sure to have the moderator share a screen with the digital whiteboard tool displayed in it.
Remind participants to call in on their phones and link their phone to their video feed. It may be best to describe how to do this as part of your welcome message. The Producer Behind the Curtain can tell who is linked and who isn’t and prompt them via direct chat.
Recommend capturing the session recording and make it available to the necessary parties.
Take advantage of the tool to capture relevant info on the boards. Miro has an export board function to save parts to your computer as an image or vector PDF. The vector PDF allows the greatest clarity and zooming features for later use.
Create a survey asking folks what they would like to see to improve their experience.
While conducting virtual sprints was a direct response to the limitations imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown, we learned that virtual sprints may be useful when gathering a group in our studio is not feasible. Hopefully, you will find this information useful when you need to conduct a remote or virtual UX event.
Remember, this is a living document that will benefit from your experiences – both successful and unsuccessful. Feel free to add comments or questions.