How to Run Discovery Sprints with Your Remote Ad Product Team

MaryLauran Hall
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I first ran a product sprint at Sparkfund, where our small but growing startup team faced a pivotal moment when we needed to find our next great idea — fast. I ended up leading and sponsoring many more sprints as our business and product team grew, and even had the good fortune of bringing in product discovery coach Jim Morris to lead us.

For many of these, the sprint team was co-located in a big conference room, surrounded by sticky notes and colorful voting dots. But for some sprints, team members were divided between the office and remote locations, so we developed new templates and practices to bring the power of design thinking to the screen.

Now that I'm at Adzerk — a remote-first company — and we're faced with a global pandemic, my discovery is now all remote, all the time.

With so many product managers working from home, I'm sharing my tactics and go-to resources for remote product sprints. I hope more ad product teams can enjoy the benefits of discovery while working from home.

Why run a remote product sprint?

Here's why it's important to keep doing product discovery while we're remote:

To keep up with customers

Most obviously: talking to customers is core to product work! Testing continuously with customers leads to the innovation and success we need to advance our business goals. Product pro Teresa Torres says we should be talking to at least two customers per week.

To maintain innovation

According to research by Humanyze, when the pandemic started, professionals spent much more time speaking with our five closest colleagues at work. At the same time, contact with our "weak ties," our colleagues who are more distant, dropped by 30%. This could be a disaster for innovation.

Our best ideas often emerge when we collaborate with people we don't usually work with.

Bringing together a cross-functional group for a product sprint can help alleviate some of this loss by creating a venue for innovation that includes perspectives from across the business.

Types of sprints

These resources focus on the Google Ventures-style week-long discovery sprint made famous in Jake Knapp’s Sprint.

But a full structured week is not the only type of sprint-like activity that will help your product discovery efforts. You could pick and choose elements from the sprint as needed, focusing on just a few of the pieces you need for your project. Or, you could institute continuous customer discovery, using design thinking techniques along the way.

Do what works best for your team! The resources I provide here are for the classic week-long sprint. Feel free to adapt them to your needs.

Before you start

Get yer software

That last thing you want is to be in the middle of a productive sprint session, when suddenly you realize that you need to get permission to buy the next usage tier so that Bob can use Lucidchart.

In my opinion, you'll need the following types of software:

Digital meeting with video and screen share

Obviously. Use whatever your team is most comfortable with here. At this point, we're probably all familiar with the big ones:

  • Zoom
  • Teams
  • Google Meet

Document editing

This will be important too. Again, use what your team is familiar with. I prefer something with simultaneous editing, like Google Docs, but you can use a non-collaborative tool if you do a lot of screen-sharing. Options include:

  • Google Docs
  • Word
  • CryptPad

Virtual whiteboard / flow charts

Essential for user maps, sticky notes, and dot voting. Anything that allows you to draw shapes and move them around is going to work. In my opinion, it's best to also have collaborative editing and infinite paper.

  • Lucidchart (my personal favorite)
  • Creately
  • Slides in SharePoint
  • Google Slides

Prototype and design

Again, use what your team (and most importantly, your designer) is most comfortable with.

But, as the GV team caveats, choose a tool that you can move fast with — not the tools you'd use to build a real product.

  • Keynote
  • Figma
  • Sketch
  • Adobe Suite
  • Marvel
  • InVision

Set the schedule

The classic week-long GV sprint looks something like this on a calendar:

Example of a remote discovery sprint schedule
Example of a remote discovery sprint schedule

It's a lot of time. The GV team says a week-long sprint is best when you're facing a big challenge:

  • When the stakes are high
  • When there’s not enough time
  • When you’re just stuck

If you're going for a week-long sprint, it should be to tackle a problem that deserves those chunks of time from your team. If you feel like you are in a situation that requires this much time and you need to get buy-in, the GV team has recommendations on their website for getting alignment.

Once you have the time, you want to be clear with your team about the commitment.

I recommend blocking the time on everybody’s calendars, with clear events like in the snapshot above, showing when there will be work and when there will be breaks.

Ideally, you want to avoid people ducking in and out to go to other meetings. It distracts from the work at hand.

That said, it's also important to be flexible. It's a wild time, and if somebody’s kid pops in the frame or your colleague needs to step away to deal with the AC repair person, that’s OK. We’re all going to do much better work and feel more psychological safety if we make space for the challenges our colleagues run into.

Get people the supplies they need

Before you start, think about the office supplies you'll need your teammates to have on hand.

The pandemic has made it clear how much of an equalizer the office can be. It might sound small, but this can seriously be an impediment.

I once led a sprint with a remote engineer who couldn't find a single piece of blank paper in their house. Don't let the absence of office supplies in your colleagues' homes get in the way.

I suggest thinking ahead to understand which supplies your team will need and mailing them in advance. It will feel special for the people participating in your sprint, and will show that the company is willing to invest some dollars in this process just as they’re willing to invest their time.

Here's my shopping list:

  • 3x5 post-it notes
  • Felt-tip pens with a few color options
  • Thick felt-tip marker in black. I love refillable white board markers
  • 8.5x11 printer paper, for folks who don't have it already

Create templates in advance

Before the first session, create templates for all the online artifacts you're going to need.

I suggest having One Document to Rule Them All, which will be your source of truth for the entire sprint.

Here's my mega-template. Feel free to make a copy and use it for your sprint, or change it to suit your needs!

Remote discovery sprint template
Remote discovery sprint template

This is where you'll write your sprint goals, questions, and link all the artifacts you co-create. You can even keep user testing notes there. After the sprint, you can come back to this document to see what you did and why.

During the sprint

Keep people engaged

Everything is ready to go, and you're diving into your sprint agenda. Because you’ll work over video, it’s especially important to keep an eye out for social dynamics that might be easier to spot work through when you are in person.

A lot of this is common-sense facilitator stuff, but it bears repeating because when the same voices tend to dominate in our meetings, we lose out benefits that come from ideas arising from cross-team work and connection with weak ties.

My tips:

  • When you notice somebody isn't saying as much, take extra steps to ask them open-ended questions so that they have opportunities to offer their perspectives. As with user interviewing, questions like, “What do you think about this idea?” or “Tell me about your reaction” are better than yes or no questions.
  • Look for signs that somebody is about to say something, but doesn’t. Maybe they take a breath but don’t have an opportunity to talk before somebody else comes in. Maybe they were interrupted. Find a way to come back to them with something like, “Renee, were you going to say something?”
  • And finally, I suggest establishing conventions about how your team has group conversations in Zoom during the sprint. Maybe you agree on no interruptions. Maybe folks raise their hands if they want to say something but don’t want to cut somebody else off. Find what works for your culture and your team.

Create a user map
Example of discovery sprint user map
Example of discovery sprint user map

The user map is a key part of the first day. It’s a tool to align understanding with our expert interviewees (like Ad Ops), and to identify the advertiser persona and part of the journey your prototype will focus on.

I find that it’s pretty straightforward to port your user map with stickies and whiteboard lines over to a digital white boarding tool like Lucidchart or a slide deck tool.

I definitely recommend that the person updating the map share their screen in real time. Ask a lot of questions to ensure that you capture the wisdom of the group as you’re editing. “Is this right?” “Does this go here?”

I made a Lucidchart template that you can copy and edit yourself.

Example of discovery sprint screenshare template
Example of discovery sprint screenshare template
Capture “How Might We?” notes
Example of virtual How Might We notes
Example of virtual How Might We notes

Writing and processing “How Might We?” (HMW) notes are a key part of the sprint process. They help us frame challenges as opportunities to address key needs in the advertiser journey.

It’s a little more painful to transition to digital here. We lose the benefit of all standing in front of the same wall and physically moving and clustering sticky notes.

But it can be done! In remote sprints, I like to create HMW notes in a tool like Lucidchart. In my template, you'll find stacks of notes with a workspace for each person:

Example of virtual How Might We notes
Example of virtual How Might We notes

Folks can create as many notes as they need, just by copying and pasting the shape. No trees harmed!

When it’s time to organize the notes, everybody can copy their notes into a different workspace (in Lucidchart I use a new tab) and cluster together cards that thematically relate.

Example of virtual How Might We note clusters
Example of virtual How Might We note clusters

For dot voting, I use little and big circles instead of real stickers. Make as many copies as you need!

This is one place where it’s nice to have a tool that allows real-time collaboration, like Lucidchart or Google Slides.

Conduct lightning demos
Example of discovery sprint lightning demo
Example of discovery sprint lighting demo

Lightning demos warm my heart. They mark the time in a sprint when we start to explore the solution space, first by looking at ad products we like from other companies and competitors.

Lightning demos might be the hardest step to port over to digital because they involve so much drawing. My recommendation is to pick a person on the team who can draw the lightning demo images in real time. The designer is often a great fit for this. The drawer can upload images to the digital white boarding tool as they go:

Example of virtual discovery sprint lightning demo
Example of virtual discovery sprint lighting demo

If you can’t have a dedicated drawer, you can take screenshots of the tools people demo and add them to the digital board. You can find this example in my template:

Example of virtual lightning demo screenshots
Example of virtual lighting demo screenshots

I like this method a little less because it lets us off the hook from boiling down the things we like into a simple drawing. Still, better than nothing!

Create prototype sketches

With prototype sketches, sprint participants look at everything discussed so far, and distill ideas into one concept that we could prototype and test with advertisers.

When it comes to sketches, I highly suggest that folks work on their own pieces of paper and sticky notes. Paper is powerful here because it’s a lot more seamless to translate our ideas freehand on paper than it is to figure out how to represent whatever shape we want in an online design tool. You can do all steps of the sketch process (notes, crazy 8’s, and the sketch) on paper.

Then, when it’s time to do an “art museum” — where the team reviews, discusses, and critiques the sketches — everybody can submit a photo to be laid out side-by-side on your digital whiteboard.

Here’s another place where an “infinite paper” tool like Lucidchart succeeds.

Example of virtual prototype sketches
Example of virtual prototype sketches

Maybe the best part of a digital sprint: you can do dot voting with little circles. For some reason, I find this immensely satisfying.

(Did you catch the flag that a colleague constructed with a bunch our voting dots on top of striped wasi tape?)

Build your storyboard

Your storyboard — the big-picture, comic book-style layout of your prototype — can be a combination of paper and digital. Grab screenshots of parts of the solution sketches that will represent different steps, sketch out new sticky notes to upload them, or make a quick digital sketch.

Use it as a guide to build a prototype with the tools your team already uses and likes best.

You can use this example as a starting point in my template.

Example of virtual storyboard
Example of virtual storyboard
Conduct user tests

Once you’ve created your prototype, it’s time to user test!

When following the GV process, recruitment happens earlier in the week. I think it's important to be super explicit in written communication with testers about logistical stuff like instructions for joining and the technology you'll use. If they need to be on a specific device like a phone, tablet, or desktop, make sure that’s clear. Specify what meeting platform you’ll use, and send the URL as soon as you can. I even like to send a link to download the Zoom client.

Make a clear script and practice it beforehand. I have a basic script and note-taking template; feel free to riff on it!

Example of user testing script
Example of user testing script

Be prepared to explain technical things, since not everyone is familiar with your tools.

Take notes as you go and grid results from the tests so that you can easily compare results across interviewees.

Example of how to compile product user test results
Example of how to compile product user test results

Go forth and discover!

I hope this has given you a few ideas to test as you incorporate more discovery into your remote ad product work.

Whether you’re building a new ad platform or developing new features, the more you can collaborate, the more innovative your product will be.

Join the discussion in our Ad.Product LinkedIn group to share your discovery sprint feedback and experiences.

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MaryLauran Hall

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