In just five days, a design sprint can give you a sneak peek into the future of your product. But what if you are being blinkered by a lack of perspectives? Then that future cannot be bright.

Design sprints, like other workshops, get better the more perspectives you can gather. And that’s why diversity is so important.

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There’s no inclusion without diversity

Diversity and inclusion are terms that have been buzzing around for a while. Let’s break them down real quick so we are on the same page.

According to Wikipedia, diversity as seen in sociology and political studies is the degree of differences in identifying features among the members of a purposefully defined group. In our case, the defined group is the design sprint team, along with the experts we interview and our user testers.

The Queensborough Community College adds to this with its Definition of Diversity statement: “Diversity is a reality created by individuals and groups from a broad spectrum of demographic and philosophical differences.” Not only are the group members different, but they also come from a  “broad spectrum” of backgrounds. When it comes to design sprints, I believe this is what we should be going for.

First, I want to point out the different dimensions of diversity we need. We need to focus on the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or other ideologies. Just think about the people you’re building a product for — they are likely not only straight white men. You need representation in the room!

You might have heard the story about NASA giving Sally Ride 100 tampons for her one week in space. While that might just make you laugh and shake your head, there are more serious issues to consider. One example is facial recognition not being able to identify people of color correctly and wrongly accusing a Black man of a crime he did not commit.

Within a design sprint, we also need to look at the diversity of roles. I have seen too many sprint outcomes blocked as “not being technically feasible” because there was no engineer in the room. Quality assurance people have amazing attention to detail. Don’t just invite designers and maybe a product manager.

Who is in the room?

Take a good look at the team members you are about to assemble for the design sprint. Do you see a diverse group of people?

When running internal design sprints, it can be hard to have diversity in the classic sense, so make sure you have role diversity and do better when inviting experts for the interviews on day one.

Who are the experts?

Do the people you invited as your subject matter expert show a broad spectrum of demographic and philosophical differences? Depending on your industry, you might think it is not easy to find diverse experts. Use your network — try harder. 

Who are the user testers?

Again, look at your user testers. Are they a diverse group of people, and do they represent your diverse customer group?

To make the sprint environment as inclusive as possible, keep the following considerations in mind:

  • In-person: Is the location wheelchair accessible?
  • Remotely: Does everyone have the tools they need to participate, including a strong internet connection? Are there other accessibility needs?
  • Is the prototype accessible? What about color contrast or font size, e.g.?
  • Ask for people’s pronouns at the beginning or beforehand.
  • What can you do so people feel safe and supported? Ask them beforehand in a survey.

Rules are for breaking? That’s a myth

There are very few rules in a design sprint. In fact, I use the same set for every workshop I run:

  1. Distraction-free zone: No devices (in-person) or no notifications (remotely)
  2. We time-box everything
  3. Almost no discussions

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I set these rules right at the beginning of the sprint. If I can, I put them up on the wall so they are constantly visible. Also, I keep in mind that this might be a completely new way of working for some. I tell them that it’s ok if it feels a little weird and maybe uncomfortable and that I am there to support them every step of the way.

As the keeper of time, I get the group’s ok to stop discussions. It is super helpful to do this so that you can refer to it later. Sometimes, I use a parking lot, where we leave the topics that are outside the scope of our design sprint. I do this to make sure people feel heard and let them know we won’t forget about their ideas afterward.

How is everyone?

Check in with participants regularly about how they feel. Here are three easy ways to do this that I use all the time:

  1. The Weather Forecast: Describe your current mood using weather icons/emojis like 🌨🌩🌧🌥☀️🌤☄️. In an in-person setting, they can just draw on a sticky note.
  2. The Mood-O-Meter: Create a scale using emojis and let people vote, e.g. 🤩 🙂 🤨 😟 😫. You can also let people choose their own emoji.
  3. The One Gif Check-In (for remote sprints): Let people choose a gif to showcase their current mood and post it in the online whiteboard. I have to say this one has been the most fun.

You can also use some icebreakers to encourage participants to get to know each other a little better and loosen up the mood.

How to handle challengers

I don’t think I have ever run a design sprint or workshop without at least one challenging personality in the room. As the facilitator, I need to handle these people effectively and ensure they do not derail the exercise and/or and make other people feel uncomfortable or unsafe when participating. 

Always be confident and friendly, but very clear when addressing these challengers. Do not get angry, but let them know their disruptive behavior is not welcome. In general, there are a few different types of challengers — this video can help you handle them.

Interruptions

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Studies have found that men speak more than women in meetings. Also, women are twice as likely to be interrupted, and women of color even more so. Based on this knowledge, we as facilitators need to pay attention to the time participants monopolize in discussions. 

Since discussions are set to a minimum during the design sprint, our rules come in handy. And by enforcing them, we can balance participation: 

  • Always set a visible timer for all activities. Additionally, you can set a “no interruptions’ rule at the beginning of the sprint.
  • During expert interviews, quickly stop discussions that go off-topic. However, questions are allowed.
  • Point out the time constraint. This could look something like, “Thanks, Sean, for your input. We only have X amount of time left and I would like to give others a chance to voice their opinion as well.”
  • If the challengers don’t take the hint, speak to them in private during a break.

Microaggressions

Another form of challenge you can encounter are microaggressions, and these should get addressed and stopped straight away.

As Wikipedia explains, a microaggression is a term used for brief and commonplace daily verbal or behavioral indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups. You can Google examples if you’re not familiar with the concept yet.

Working “together alone” removes bias

If you have been in a design sprint before, you know there are sticky notes everywhere.

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This method is referred to as “Note and Vote” in the sprint book and described as working “together alone” by a number of design sprint experts.

Have you ever been in a brainstorming session in which everyone latched onto the first idea? Or the boss’s idea? Or the idea of the loudest or most charismatic person in the room? 

You might have heard of convergent and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking describes a rather analytical and logical (sometimes considered more realistic) way of thinking, while divergent thinking is what we do in brainstorming sessions, like when we think outside the box. It is a lot easier for our brains to do one at a time instead of switching back and forth.

The “together alone” way of working keeps context-switching to a minimum. It gives everyone time to get into divergent thinking mode and slap out as many ideas as possible. And once that time is up, the group changes to convergent thinking, which is what we use to evaluate ideas. We do that in the next step when we dot-vote.

Because nobody stops other ideas, we can remove more biases, like the HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion). This in turn lets our diverse and inclusive group come up with ideas that might have otherwise gotten shut down.

Depending on the exact method you follow, you might or might not share ideas before creating the final solution sketches. If you do, this creates another opportunity for people to get inspired by and learn from each other’s perspectives.

Putting in the pre-work

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A lot of the inclusion work for a design sprint happens before the workshop week even starts. Invite a diverse group of people as team members, experts, and user testers. Then, create an inclusive environment by being mindful of accessibility, participants’ pronouns, etc. Do not allow behavior that can make people feel unsafe, like interruptions and microaggressions. And don’t forget to check in with your team members.

Further reading

Radically Inclusive Virtual Workshops

Foster the Human Connection in Remote Work — 5 Small Ideas

About the Author

I am a product person with a strong focus on inclusive and empowering product management. I believe the most effective product leaders excel at strategic skills like empathy, listening, and facilitation. Put your team first and trust they will put your customer first.