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Running Remote Sprints

One of the core values of USDS is “go where the work is” and we have found that there really is no substitute for going to where your discovery participants are. Whenever possible, you should do this. However, with the advent of a global pandemic, it may not be practical to put yourself or others in danger by traveling. We have found that while it is not the same, that it still can be valuable to run a discovery sprint if you can’t go to your stakeholders. This section has some things to consider as well as some best practices if you have to be remote.

Develop good relationships as quickly as possible with your stakeholders

  • You won’t be able to walk around and knock on doors to get a full picture of the environment the way you could if the team was in person. Be creative with ways to connect with your sprint partners outside of the established meetings, such as taking advantage of the minutes before and after the agenda starts to make small talk.
  • There may be situations where someone there will need to act as a proxy for you so opening lines of communication and setting clear expectations, especially about time, will be key.
  • Work with your stakeholders to pre-plan as much of the schedule in advance as you can before the kick-off.

Use available tools
Figure out what meeting and collaboration tools are practical for the widest amount of people participating in the sprint.

  • This may mean that you need to adapt to the tools they already use in order to prevent spending the first week doing more tech support than interviews.
  • Most organizations will have some form of enterprise-wide tools that many of their people have access to like Webex, Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Slack, Mural, Miro, etc. If you can work with what they already have, it will make things easier for everyone.
  • Try and avoid situations where an interview participant needs to download software to participate in a conversation as this can be intimidating to non-tech savvy folks.
  • Note that government versions of these tools may sometimes be much more restrictive than you are used to, so always try to run a practice session beforehand to make sure everything works as expected.

Secure research artifacts
Going in you should have a solid understanding about who will be responsible for any recordings after you use them, where they will live and who will have access to them.

  • It is easier and easier to record interview sessions using remote meeting tools as many of them have this functionality built in.
  • This is especially a concern if you are screen sharing to look at a participant’s work, or if their work reveals their (or a third party’s) PII, PHI or other sensitive information.
  • You and the team should consider up front what the potential trade-offs are for the topics you may be covering:
    • A test account, or dummy log-in information may be just fine to show you what you need to learn, without putting anyone’s data at risk.
    • Single screenshots of a step-by-step process can be gathered before or after an interview session and even printed out and redacted then photographed or scanned by an interview participant.
    • Drawing or post-it type diagramming can be done collaboratively in tools like Mural or Miro, or even by someone screen sharing with a pen tool.
    • Think about what kind of artifacts you will need to understand their universe and get creative as needed to get there.

Most of the information in the interview guide will still hold true for remote interviews, with a couple of extra caveats. When running remote interviews it can be very tempting to open up the opportunity for more people to observe an interview with an end user. We advise against this due to the Hawthorne Effect, which is the alteration of behavior by the subjects of a study due to their awareness of being observed. Basically people get performance anxiety in front of a big audience. If you are using software that allows the interviewer to control the environment, it may still be fine, but one random observer who doesn’t mute their microphone can quickly tank any trust you have built up during a session. We recommend curating the sessions much the same way as you would in person. If you decide not to record the sessions then have any extra observers be notetakers to keep busy. If you do record the sessions then members of the team can watch them asynchronously after the fact if they would like.

Thank your participants
It’s harder to give sincere thanks when you can’t look someone in the eye. Consider dropping a note to the interview participant’s boss (you can CC them!) as a thank you note that will give dividends in the future. You can do this for in-person interviews too!

Writing the report
Most of the report writing process will be the same. Be sure to schedule some points for the team to sync in real time. Even if you’re writing asynchronously or physically remotely from each other, it can be really easy for some parts to spin out while writing without regular check-ins.

Delivering the report
The report readout may be the one place where you may want to send an emissary or some of the team to be in-person with the stakeholders. If it is not safe to do so, then this is a situation where you may want to put the time in for a more polished presentation to accompany the report itself.