Designing for Sustainability with the Global Virtual Design Sprint

Earlier this fall, I started researching ways to get more involved in design sprints. I’ve always been drawn to sprints because of how quickly concepts can be tested, and how they can combine business acumen with creativity. I was especially hoping to get experience facilitating a sprint. I had experience facilitating people from my time as a crossfit coach, but I wanted to transition that skill into sprints. On twitter, I came across the Global Virtual Design Sprint organized by Robert Skrobe. It’s an online design sprint event with people all over the world who choose to work together on different challenges relevant to the world today. This was also appealing to me because it was a completely virtual experience. I worked remotely in my last role, as well as in a stint doing some consulting for a small non profit startup, but getting more experience on how to work better virtually is something I’m always attracted to.

The GVDS used Mural as its primary working space, where all of the participants interacted. I’m a very visual person, so I couldn’t have been happier about this. I’ve been in meetings where people are walking through things without any visual aids, make mistakes, backtrack, and use acronyms that aren’t known, and it usually ends in confusion. As I scanned the mural early on to see what the participants did for work and where they were from, I reached out to a few folks who incorporated design sprints into a corporate role. I’ve always been interested in using sprints more in my own career, so I was eager to get advice on how to do that. I was fortunate enough to reach out to Lee Duncan, who is a design sprint leader at IBM. He gave me some great tips for my own career, and separately, he brought a great challenge idea to the GVDS…Designing for the circular economy with a focus on mobilizing awareness and action for regenerative products and services.

All of the GVDS teams were primarily organized by challenge topic as well as geographical location, with a few exceptions. My team had 7 primary team members located throughout the US, Europe, and Australia, as well as a few other GVDS participants observing our sprint via slack and zoom. The team was made up of myself, Lee Duncan, Fatima Kamali, Josh Fryszer, Fatima Bambo-Jaïtay, Mehmet Karakus, and Marybeth Hill. We had a great mix of experience in design, research, facilitation, and business, and it really helped us throughout the sprint. Even though we had some very experienced facilitators on our team in Lee and Mehmet, they took on more advisory roles, which allowed me to step up and facilitate a large portion of the sprint. I’m very thankful for that, since it has given me a lot of confidence running sprints in the future.

The GVDS ran like a traditional design sprint, having activites around framing the challenge, interviewing subject matter experts, developing lightning demos and ‘How Might We’ questions, solution sketching, story boarding, developing a prototype, and user testing.

Pre Sprint Activities

Before the design sprint week officially began, we did some contextual work in order to frame the problem, so we could understand the true problem we were trying to solve for. We used affinity diagramming to figure out WHO has the problem, WHAT is the nature of the problem, WHERE/WHEN does the problem occur, and WHY is the problem worth solving. Once we had those answers, we transformed them into a singular problem statement. Looking at the yellow post it below — we decided to focus our efforts on consumers who purchase products, but aren’t aware of how the supply chain process of a product being created, can have a negative impact on the environment.

We then moved on to the subject matter expert interviews to get additional insight for our design sprint week. We interviewed consumers who either wanted to purchase with more of a sustainability mindset, or those who were already purchasing with a sustainable mindset. We got a lot of great insight from the interviews, with some common themes being ‘convenience is most important to me’, as well as ‘I’m willing to pay slightly more for sustainable products, but not a lot more’. With those insights learned, we were ready to move on to our design sprint week.

Day 1

The purpose of the first day of the sprint was to develop our ‘How Might We’ questions (HMW), our sprint questions, and our long term goal (LTG). This involved A LOT of affinity diagramming. For that, we took all the feedback that we heard from the interviews, and put each insight onto a separate post-it in mural. Once we had them all written down, we grouped all the similar post-its into clusters. Once the clusters were completed, we voted on the post-it we thought was most relevant for the exercise we were doing. We repeated this throughout the day and kept building off the results of previous diagramming.

After the first day, it was very clear that our team had good chemistry working together. We were very collaborative in our thinking, open to others’ opinions, and moved through all the activities smoothly. We were ready for day 2.

Day 2

The second day of the sprint involved lightning demos, mapping the user journey, and choosing target areas to focus on within the user journey. The lightning demos were a way for our team to get some ideas flowing, and to help our creativity come out. We all took time on our own to research ideas/services/concepts that existed out in the world, that were somewhat related to the challenge we had. We each presented our demos, while the rest of the team took notes on things that caught their attention. I really enjoyed this exercise because it’s one that can connect many dots that you may not think can be connected. I’m always fascinated by the idea of seeing one idea or way of doing something, and then applying that concept to something else that will help it thrive.

Mapping the user journey was one of the more involved exercises of the entire design sprint. This was where we really had to think about the users, what goal they have relative to our sprint questions and long term goal, and then map out the steps for them to reach that goal. It really breaks the journey down into steps that you may not think of initially. We wrote user journeys for online consumers, offline consumers, and small businesses. In the end, we voted on the online consumer.

The last piece was looking at our user journey, and identifying the target areas that we felt most aligned with our HMW questions. Within our user journey, we chose the ‘typing in search’ criteria step as our main target, because we felt it aligned with our HMW about making sustainable options more convenient. We also chose ‘search results’ and ‘checking reviews’ as supporting targets because we felt they aligned with our HMW questions about easy access to sustainability data and sparking a movement for sustainable production.

Day 3

The third day felt like the turning point in our sprint. In any sprint, people can be a little skeptical in the beginning because things can be a little ambiguous, and not tangible yet. I believe Lee used a term called ‘The valley of despair’ for this. Day 3 was about getting out of that valley, and to a point where we felt like we would have a tangible prototype that we could share with users. The activities that helped us get to a tangible prototype were solution sketching and storyboarding.

For the solution sketches, we built off of the user journey and the targets defined in day 2, and each person on the team sketched out their own idea of what a prototype could be to answer the HMW questions. We had quite a variety, ranging from an desktop browser extension, to sustainability filters embedded in an online shopping experience, all the way to using blockchain to make sure retailers prove the sources for their products and production. All of the sketches could have been made into a prototype, but in the end, we voted on a Sustainability Browser Extension. Two of the most attractive elements about this sketch were that they focused on both convenience for the user, as well as making sustainability data available.

The last step we had before the actual prototype was built was putting the storyboard together. For this, we took the browser extension concept, and wrote all of the steps that a user would go through while using the extension during an online shopping session. We had to keep our targets from day 2 in mind, so we made sure to align the storyboard with the HMW of making sure finding sustainable products could be convenient. We wrote storyboards individually, and the team voted on the best one at the end. This exercise was a great one for our team. As the facilitator, I probably let it go on a little too long, but we did have a great discussion around what made sense for a prototype and what didn’t, as well as what elements from other solution sketches could be used for what we wanted to build. That required challenging others’ opinions within the team, but we were able to do it respectfully and thoughtfully. It was just another example of how well this team worked together. After the storyboard was completed, our designers worked hard to have our prototype ready for day 4.

Day 4

The fourth day of the sprint was a nice little break after the intense third day. We felt more certain about the progress we had made to this point, because we now had a tangible prototype to show for our efforts. Our team used Figma to put a 15 slide shopping experience together for our user tests. Again, I was really impressed with what our designers turned around after just one day. Both Fatimas, Marybeth, and Mehmet did an awesome job. We decided to name our prototype ‘Sustain.ly’. In other cases, it may have been more appropriate to spend more time to focus on a proper name. Being transparent here, we decided on that name pretty quickly, but we were all happy with it. When we met online on day 4, we reviewed our prototype and took notes on things we wanted to change before we had users go through it.

The other offline exercise that was part of day 4 was developing a guide and script for our researchers to use when they were conducting the user tests. Josh, who was a researcher on our team, took on this responsibility, and developed a great guide that helped us get really good feedback from our users. He also facilitated the sessions for day 4 and 5, since they were more focused on design and research. Now that we had our prototype in a good place, and had a proper interview guide, we were very excited to get users to try it out and give us their feedback.

Day 5

Since we had some scheduling issues, we cheated on our design sprint a little bit. We pushed the sprint into two weeks, so we actually held the user tests over the weekend in between weeks. We had 8 user tests set up, which is a lot, but we had plenty of help with Mehmet, Marybeth, Josh, and Fatima all conducting the tests. Watching their different styles was great for me to see, especially because it’s a skill I’m new to, and need to develop as I get more involved in design. We learned so much from the user tests, and some things that made us smack our own heads and say ‘How did we not realize that?!?’ when building the prototype. It can be amazing which blind spots are revealed when others are looking at something you’ve built. As we were watching the user tests, we took notes on post-its and grouped them into positive/negative/informational/insightful statements.

Once all the user tests were done, it was time for us to reflect on the design sprint as a whole. We had 3 specific questions we had to answer to help us understand how we did. We used a voting session to do this.

Did the prototype answer the sprint questions?

Will the prototype properly address the long term goal?

Do you think we addressed the challenge we took on as a team?

When we looked back on our sprint, our answers were mixed. The borders on the images below show to winning vote. We voted on each sprint question individually.

I was really happy this exercise was done at the end of the sprint. It made us look at our work critically, and think about what we could have done differently. Could we have stayed better aligned to our HMW questions, sprint questions, and long term goal as we progressed through the sprint? Did we think ambitiously enough to try to tackle our long term goal? Although I think our team did a great job on the sprint overall, I want to make sure that I keep these results in mind for the next sprints I work on, and maybe use them to adjust how I do plan to do things.

Because our team felt we did a great job overall, and we worked so well together, we do have plans to continue this work going forward. That may mean building a minimum viable experiment (MVE), presenting the sprint results to companies with similar interests, or building on this idea again in the next GVDS. I’m not sure of the exact path, but I’m excited to keep this work going.

GVDS Showcase

Now that our design sprint was officially over, it was time for us to showcase our work. We met with Robert and we walked through our entire week, highlighted our sprint questions, the prototype, the user test feedback, whether we validated our challenge, and our personal highlights for the sprint. I mentioned it earlier, but being able to facilitate a sprint like this when I didn’t have any previous experience doing it meant a lot to me, and has given me a lot of confidence to do it more going forward.

The GVDS showcase was a great way for others to see what we accomplished, and we were able to watch other teams’ showcases as well. There were so many challenges that were worked on, with some really cool prototypes coming out of them. I know Robert and the powers that be, are working hard to make the next GVDS even better, and I can’t wait to participate and see what happens.