How to run effective Design Sprint workshops

Recently I’ve been lucky to run a range of design and product workshops with Outlandish, the worker-owned tech agency. It’s something I love doing. From 5 day Design Sprints based on the Google Ventures handbook approach, to one day MVP planning, design sprint-in-a-day sessions and more.

Through this there are a few simple techniques that I’ve come to appreciate that can significantly improve the experience of those in the room and the output of the day.

Some of these have already been recommended by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz in their book Design Sprint. I reiterate them here because, when you’re reading the book prior to running your first sprint, it’s easy for their importance to be overlooked.

Others have been learnt the hard way or developed with input from Outlandish colleagues.

Okay, in no particular order, here we go:

If you say sketch, then sketch

In a design sprint there is a lot of sketching. There needs to be. However some people don’t feel comfortable sketching because they’re worried about presenting their drawing skills to their peers. Also they’re concerned they can’t capture what’s in their head.

They will want to write their ideas instead.

But you should avoid your participants writing instead of sketching at all costs.

A written response feels clear and complete. But the beauty of sketching is that it IS crude and unfinished.

A sketch invites more contribution and engagement. It leaves space for the idea to be explained by its drawer and interpreted or elaborated upon by the listener. Because of the space around a sketch the potential feels larger, and more gets opportunities are seen within it.

Sketches, crude flowcharts, stickmen – these are all fine. But written responses should be discouraged.

Reassure your participants that no-one is judging, we are seeking to be inspired. Use the explanation above if need be. Explain why sketching is so important.

Make them stand

There’s something about tables that puts lead in people’s butts and makes them want to sit. This is murder for a collaborative process.

Keep the space more space than table. Give plenty of room around the whiteboards.

Take as many tables out as you can. Leave enough for people to sit at and make notes, but ensure that it’s light on tables. Even a little cramped. People will feel inclined to get up and out of their seat.

Equally, direct them. Don’t be afraid to explicitly ask people to stand up. Ideally before explaining the rest of the activity instructions.

Tell them directly: “Okay, for this next activity I need everyone out of their seats. So, please stand.

“What we’re all going to do is take one sticky note, write on it a user type, and post it on the board. And we’re going to do that for as many user types as we can think of for the next 2 minutes.”

And know where to stand during their feedback

As the facilitator and someone who’ll probably doing the majority of the speaking during the session, attendees feel naturally inclined to address any feedback to you. Be aware of this. They need to be feeding back to their peers, not ‘reporting to teacher’.

So when people are feeding back, try to stand in the midst of the group. Even better, stand behind them, so others are between you and the person at the board explaining their work. This way eye contact is made with their peers, group engagement happens and feedback is taken board.

Two people standing, drawing designs on a board.

Be aware of the power in the room

The main client has a lot of power. They’re probably an important decision maker too and it’s important that they’re invested and involved.

However they’ve got a team with them, and some of them in that team have a very different status. The intern. The assistant. The new hire. The student help. And the reality is they’re likely to have just as valid input.

It’s probably imperative, in fact, that new thinking is required on this project – and perhaps even they’re closer to the product’s target user than the CEO.

However it’s easy for the CEO to have a louder voice and the intern to be excluded. So, ensure that everyone is given full chance to speak and participant. And make sure that the intern, the assistant don’t just get a turn at the end of an activity, after everyone else has spoken and now the clock is ticking to move on. But rather, mix them up. Mix everyone’s turn to speak up.

As an aside: Outlandish, where I spend much of my time these days, uses a consent-based decision making process on their projects called sociocracy. Using it in design sprints is a great way to help level the playing field. They offer training in how to apply sociocracy in your own work here.

Make those sticky notes work for everyone

There’s a reason why sticky notes are sticky, and that is so they can be unstuck. And moved.

The process of design requires that people form associations and take action.

Writing notes and sticking them to a wall allows us to immerse ourselves in the chaos of information. Our brains kick in and try to form associations, and soon enough we find ourselves making connections and spotting common themes.

Moving the notes and resticking them elsewhere allows us to spark ideas and conversation, and so on.

If an activity requires sticky notes (e.g. for an idea generation activity, or capturing insights and research), make sure that they go on sticky notes. And insist on one idea or insight per note. Then get them up on the wall.

Really, do push your team to do this. They’ll find it unusual at first, and you’ll need to guard against over-talking and discussion of the notes as they’re created, but soon they’ll see the value of doing this.

A woman looks at a wall in the street, covered with sticky notes

Use the board to cut down discussion

A simple yet effective trick: partition a slice of your board off at the start. Draw a line to make a column to one side of your board.

This is your park board.

Here you’re going to park any questions that are taking up too much time.

In my experience they’re usually questions about what-ifs. I.e. other things that the project may or may not need to connect with in the future and how this challenge might be resolved; what other stakeholders who are absent might say; and risks.

Although these can’t be resolved in the room right now, you will find that one or more people will start discussing it like it’s part of the output of the day. It isn’t

I like to capture these things as questions, and refer back to them in the Design Sprint How Might We…? session, if you’re running one.

And when the day is over, you should also refer back to the park board to see if any of the issues and questions parked are still valid and actionable after the sprint.

You can also use the park board to list vocabulary that your team might be unfamiliar with, key dates, or other headline insights, and so use it to reduce the cognitive load on your participants.

Show the running order

Let’s think about the setup for a minute.

In the Design Sprint book Jake Knapp recommends showing the agenda at the start of the day, indicating all the different stages and activities you’ll be running.

There is something so fundamental about doing this, but it’s easily forgotten as you strive to get everyone settled and to get going.

Sure you can just launch into the day and try to take people on a creative journey, but attendees derive confidence in you if they know there is a grand plan. That things are heading in a certain direction – even if they don’t understand what the items on the running order mean or what they’re going to be doing.

Showing a topline running order means they relax. They give themselves over more to the activity. And your day just got a lot easier.

Ask permission

Another simple win. After the introductions and showing the order, check the understanding of your guests. Then, explain your role and the desired outcome of the day.

Finally, ask your attendees to allow you to lead. That’s all. Just ask your attendees something along the lines of “if I have your permission, I will be running through these activities and taking us towards this goal. How does that sound?”

They will say it sounds good – yes, you have their permission. And of course they’ll say this. But in this moment there is a transaction that takes place and trust is imparted to you.

Speak less

It’s scary to speak to a room, to lead a workshop. There is the fear that you won’t be understood. You feel a pressure to fill the air and over-explain. You feel that people expect you to have all the answers.

But that’s not true. It’s mostly in your head.

So breathe. Take a moment before you speak. Talk a little slower than you usually might in a conversational setting. Actively listen to yourself as you talk.

And when you’ve said what you have to say, lean into the pause. Leave it hanging in the room.

Generally your attendees will want to help you or rise to your challenges.

And as for questions: recognise that you don’t need to have the answers. If someone asks a question, open it to the room. You are there to help the day run beautifully and the attendees to be as productive as they can be.

When you do these things, you pay more attention to what you’re saying. You see where your tongue is taking you and how to finish the idea you’re halfway expressing.

Prepare. Prepare prepare prepare…

And finally, preparation is key.

When I was teaching English, I liked to have a running order, by the minute. For example, prior to running a class I’d make notes like this.:

  • 3 minutes – warm-up activity the ‘eee’ and ‘i’ game
  • 5 minutes – write past-perfect example sentence; elicit other examples; elicit grammar points
  • 15 minutes – set questions
  • 5 minutes – check answers and understanding
  • … etc

At every step I would also prepare what I needed say, almost like a script.

And I do the same thing with running workshops.

However I know that we will probably stray from this. I know that I can’t keep referring to the running order every few mins – it’s impossible. I accept that I will get sidetracked, or I’ll forget something.

But that’s okay, because the act of preparing helps me really get comfortable with the activities and feel relaxed. And in the room, it helps me have a better awareness of time.

So there you are! A few tips to help you run sessions. Hope they’re of use 😉