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How discovery design sprints work remotely

One team. Five days. In one room. A week to analyze a problem, develop ideas, implement them in prototypes and test them. This is the classic Google Ventures design sprint according to Jake Knapp. In times of COVID-19, flexibility and creativity were required for our sprint with Merck*. Christiane Dietz (Senior Expert HR Talent & Development Digitalization, Merck) and Henrik Rieß (Creative Direc-tor, UID) report about how we adapted the process to the new conditions.

*Merck KgaA, Darmstadt, Germany (hereinafter referred to as Merck)

What was the project about? Why did you opt for the design sprint process?

Christiane: Once a year, Merck hosts an international talent conference at board level during which the succession for all strategic positions is discussed. At present, the preparation and realization are still pretty much based on manual processes. Moreover, many different systems serve as data sources. Therefore, we want this process to be easier, visually more appealing and more digital. In a design sprint with UID, we developed ideas for tackling this challenge.

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During a design sprint, the participants usually undergo five phases in five days on site. How does your remote design sprint differ from the classic process?

Henrik: The advantage of a classic sprint: The project team gets together in one room for 5 days to exchange ideas, intensively working on solutions. Due to COVID-19, this was unfortunately impossible. Therefore, we hosted the workshop as an online discovery sprint. Analysis and ideation took place in two weeks, followed by a prolonged, two-week prototyping phase for more variation in the interface design.

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How does the new process feel for you as a client/moderator? What are the benefits of hosting design sprints remotely versus on site?

Christiane: Especially in times of corona, it was a relief for Merck to have more flexibility thanks to this virtual alternative. It was important for us to be able to continue our work on strategic projects. By spreading out the days, we had enough freedom and capacities to take care of our daily business. And even though the individual parts of the sprint were spread out, we never felt that we had “lost” the participants – quite to the contrary: everybody was very committed.

Henrik: In my opinion, the leeway this process gave us made the task far more enjoyable. At the same time, the team spirit was great: Due to COVID-19, everyone was trapped in their office at home. This really brought us closer. I personally feel this was one of the most exciting sprints in my career as a design facilitator.

What is important for a design sprint to work remotely?

Henrik: In a classic design sprint, all participants get together in one room. The team interviews external experts, sharing their understanding of problems and unsolved issues. Remotely, we had to find another solution. We as external designers had to ensure an exchange of ideas in order to understand the complex HR processes at Merck and to be able to pass them on to the entire sprint team. Which decision makers have to get together where? When are individual or team meetings required? Which tools are used in what form? Here, Christiane’s onboarding was extremely helpful – for the technical introduction, the advance introduction of the stakeholders and the recruitment of interview partners alike. Despite the remote setting, we always received the exact input we needed from her.

It seems that you worked a lot with collaborative online tools. How did they support you? How did you as a client familiarize with these tools?

Henrik: The right tools combined with the right timing were the second most important factor for success apart from the onboarding. I assume we probably created the largest "process and wireframe wallpaper" in the history of design sprints. Online, the workspace is unlimited. And this is why perfect time management is indispensable. Personally, I prefer to drill down the agenda to exactly 5 minutes. Even though you can work very efficiently online, nobody can stay focused in a team discussion in front of a monitor for more than 45 minutes. Therefore, we divided larger sprint blocks into smaller units and split the work up among teams.

Christiane: In contrast to Henrik and his team we had never worked with tools like Miro or Mural before. Even though it took some time to find your way around in the vast sprint map, it felt right and very intuitive afterwards. The sprint made us aware of Miro, and we have used it internally a couple of times since.

After the onboarding, what were your next steps in the project?

Henrik: As a first step, we developed a map of the subject, in which we visualized possible sprint questions and priorities. As per Jake Knapp, the sprint team conducted about 2 to 3 interviews to fill the map with additional know-how. However, Merck’s recruiting and HR processes are very complex. This is why we uncoupled the interviews from the rest of the team and conducted 7 in-depth interviews within one and a half days. This broad and in-depth knowledge allowed us as a team to decide about the sprint target in no time.

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After deciding on the sprint questions, we looked at existing solutions: How do other corporations organize large data volumes? How can decisions be supported by visualizing information? Can we learn from them or even base our ideas on such solutions? In addition, we used more experimental techniques such as picture storming to generate ideas. This resulted in initial sketches in the form of wireframes and collages, which we reflected on and improved in several iterations together with Christiane’s team. Here again, the fact that we were able to reuse many Miro elements as templates, such as interaction concepts or information design visualizations, proved to be an advantage. This enabled us to create new variants relatively quickly. Such a broad variance would have been impossible in an analog sprint using sticky notes.

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You tested the result with users, opting for group discussions. This is rather unusual for a design sprint. Why did you decide to "deviate" from the standard?

Henrik: The prototypes provide for an interaction concept in which all board members can make a detailed career plan for their own sectors on their iPads. The iPads are connected to larger screens in the meeting room which track the agenda, visualize survey results and visually support data views.

Thanks to the extremely individualized discovery sprint, we were already able to work with very detailed concepts at this stage. Moreover, a lot of previous knowledge was required in order to assess the level of proficiency and innovation of the ideas. Instead of conducting user tests we discussed the ideas in a focus group with our stakeholders. The participants disposed of the necessary expertise to uncover weaknesses and carve out the strengths. Also, with a view to time management, the one-hour focus group was far superior to 6 one-hour user tests. We were able to implement the resulting feedback and present an optimized concept only one day later.

Have you got some final tips for others who have to tackle the challenge of conduction a remote design sprint?

Henrik: Give the participants some breathing room. If you have experienced classic design sprints, you will know: After four days at the latest, people run out of steam. Spreading the sprint over several weeks was extremely beneficial for the team and the result. There were breaks for reflection and discussions. This gave us the opportunity to look back on our solutions from a distance and discuss and optimize them intensively. That way, the results of the prototyping phase were far more refined than if we had rushed through the sprint for five days in a row under constant time pressure. In my opinion, varying methods and processes makes a lot of sense. What fits the current situation? How can you get the best result from the available resources? What makes sense from a professional point of view?

Christiane: In my opinion, our approach was very productive. I can strongly advise other companies to think carefully about which stakeholders need to be involved at which stage, taking extra care to avoid "doublings". This isn’t always easy because obviously you want to be inclusive. I would recommend a maximum of five to six participants. This makes it easier to come to a solution.

And the result? What do you think about it? What will be the next step?

Christiane: First, I would like to say that working with UID was great fun and at the same time extremely professional and effective. There was a great exchange of ideas and we received inspiring momentum – despite the remote setting. And we are very happy with the results. We pursued a targeted approach to addressing the task at hand. Above all the design sprint gave us clarity with regard to individual topics and work packages and their correlations. We presented the results internally. Now we have to discuss with other internal stakeholders, such as the IT, when and how we want to push things further.

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Henrik:Christiane said something very important: Many people believe that a design sprint can solve all problems. But this project shows very well that a design sprint is about setting the direction in which further investments make sense. From my point of view as a facilitator I can say: We, too, are excited about what we achieved in the project remotely. I can’t wait to see how the results will be implemented. For those 4 weeks, we were one design team – not client and agency. Considering the complexity of Merck’s guiding question, I dare say that we are able to get to the bottom of literally EVERY complex subject using such a discovery sprint.

The interview partners

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Christiane Dietz has been working for Merck KGaA in Darmstadt, Germany, in her current role as a Senior Expert Talent, Development & Recruiting since 2015. In this role, her focus is on the digitization strategy of HR development as well as the user-friendly setup of the Talent & Development portfolio "50,000 talents" at Merck worldwide. Christiane has many years of experience in HR, e.g. through her job as a recruiter and program manager for Merck’s global trainee program and working in Amazon’s recruiting section. She studied International Management in Frankfurt am Main.

Henrik Rieß is UID’s Creative Director, a UX designer and technology enthusiast with more than 15 years of experience in strategic design. In UID’s innovation team in Berlin, he explores how social and technological developments will influence our lives in the future and supports companies in finding the right path to get ready for these future developments today. Being an expert for experimental design, Henrik has been acting as a lecturer at various design universities, e.g. in the Interface Design Department at Potsdam University of Applied Sciences and in the Masters’ course Cross Media / Digital Business Management at Magdeburg University of Applied Sciences. He teaches user experience, coaching and training in design thinking as well as the exploration of future variants using speculative design.

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The interview was conducted by Juliane Markotschi.