The role of a facilitator sits at the foundation of a successful design sprint. As a facilitator, you don’t determine the result or the destination, but you are the North Star in the journey. Whether the group makes it out of the woods in one piece, rests a lot on your shoulders.

If you’re new to facilitating or curious about what’s involved, then read on. I’ve been facilitating for almost 3 years, and I’m still learning new things, especially in this pandemic where design sprints must be done remotely.

What does a design sprint facilitator do?

A design sprint facilitator is an MC, timekeeper, coach, and inquisitive detective all rolled in one.
They’re responsible for:

  • Preparing the design sprint
  • Providing the tools needed, usually as part of a facilitator’s toolkit
  • Establishing the 5-day schedule
  • Briefing the participants
  • Following the design sprint process
  • Asking questions and extracting every input
  • Keeping time
  • Maintaining the motivation, peace, and energy level in the room
  • Following up post design sprint

What’s in a sprint facilitator’s toolkit?

A facilitator toolkit consists of all stationeries needed to run a design sprint.

I’d advise you to provide everything yourself. If you let participants or the company provide on their own, you’ll likely end up with a shortage of supplies, dried up markers, and a rainbow of colourful stickers of varying sizes, which means voting won’t be anonymous.

Your toolkit should have:

  • A timer
  • Whiteboard non-permanent markers
  • Sharpies, pens, highlighters
  • Paper
  • Masking tape
  • Glue
  • Loads of dot sticker (in one colour)
  • A stack of Post-it notes
Design Sprint Toolkit

My top facilitating tips for a design sprint

Before the design sprint

1. Read up

You want to walk into a design sprint with a clear understanding of the problem, the customer base, the market, the product, and the current user experience. This is not only important if you are an external facilitator, but also if you’re an employee facilitator. As an insider, you may have preconceived ideas, which is no longer valid or true, and that could affect the sprint you’re facilitating.

2. Plan breaks wisely

Don’t let your participants sit through half a day without a break. Morning tea, afternoon tea and toilet breaks are compulsory to help maintain the energy level in the room.

3. Control the snacks

Watch what you eat and drink. Sugary carb-loaded snacks will give you a temporary energy boost before it all comes crashing down. And the same rule applies for the sprint participants. Cater for healthy snacks such as nuts, fruits, and yoghurt and drinks such as green tea, coffee, and water.

4. Brief the participants

You don’t want to spend the first half an hour explaining what will happen and establishing the rules. Send an email out and a reminder prior to the sprint. Include the agenda, a brief description of each activity, and what to prepare. Clearly outline the rules such as no phones and other work allowed during sprinting and maintain your manners when discussing.

During the design sprint

1. Start on time, stay on time

It’s not easy to get everyone in the same room for 5 days, so use the time wisely. Make sure everyone arrives on time in the morning and after breaks. Send out reminders if needed the day before. If someone keeps turning up late without a proper excuse, you need to remind them nicely of this rule.

And always, keep an eye on the clock. A sprint’s schedule is quite packed that it’s hard to reach the goal if you keep running late. Your participants won’t be happy either to stay over time.

Design Sprint Time Timer

2. Remember names

You’d be surprised how people forget names, especially if they are not working in the same department or team. If you’re an external facilitator, you have good reasons to ask people to use a name sticker. This makes your job easier because nobody likes it if you forget their names too many times.

3. Listen and acknowledge

You will meet different types of personalities in a sprint. There will be people who can easily and readily voice out their opinions and ideas, while there are others who may struggle. It’s your job as a facilitator to heed to the unspoken words and prompt for more. The easiest way to do this is to listen and observe. A design sprint can only be successful when everyone contributes to the solution.

4. Reassure them

Some people may feel they can’t draw, write, or are not creative enough to give ideas. You need to reassure them that this sprint does not require an Einstein-level genius, or an artist’s fine hands. If you understand the problem clearly, the answer will present itself in your head.

5. Tend to a conflict early and politely

If there’s tension, tend to it immediately. Don’t brush it off. Listen to the argument, note down the ideas and opinions, thank them and then move on with the process politely. A sprint is designed to break deadlocks through the voting system and a decider. Remind yourself that you’re not a judge, you’re just a facilitator following the process.

6. Trust the design sprint process

It’s crucial for you to trust the process, because the participants may not, especially if this is their first design sprint. At various points during the sprint, people may feel:

  • Excited to start
  • Doubtful of the 5-day process
  • Impatient to see the result
  • Tired or bored
  • Upset their idea didn’t win

As the host, you must be the one to project confidence in what they are doing. Otherwise, people can sense your doubts and the sprint will fail to hit its goal.

7. Be wise, not smart

You’re here to guide people through the process. You’re not here to devise the perfect solution. It’s okay if you’re not the smartest, that’s what the experts or deciders are for.

However, it’s better if you have some experience in the product, and in business. You need the capability to tell the difference whether an idea is good or bad, or if discussions are going down the wrong road. That’s when you will need to steer the activity back on track.

8. Get adequate rest

In between days, make sure you get enough sleep. You will need serious stamina to facilitate 5 days of discussions, design, and user testing. Remind everyone to have a good rest too.

9. Enjoy the process

It can be exhausting physically and mentally, but make sure you enjoy it. It will reflect in the momentum of the sprint. If you’re not loving it, everyone else will take your cue and things will start to go downhill from there. Revel in it, have fun and do your best.  You’ve got this.

After the design sprint

1. Analyse what worked and didn’t

Based on the post-sprint report, get a clear understanding on the good, the bad and the ugly. If the prototype failed, it could be you got the problem wrong, the idea was bad, or the idea was good, but it was badly executed in design.

2. Assign a follow-up person

Appoint someone to follow up on the recommended next steps to move the process along. It could be you if you’re an internal facilitator or someone else if you’re a third party. Otherwise, you and the company just threw 5 precious working days down the drain.

Alvin Hermanto

Alvin Hermanto

Alvin Hermanto is a design leader who is passionate about practicality, quality, and human-centred design. As founder of award winning digital design agency, Relab, his clients include leading businesses in retail, education, real estate, and hospitality. He has personally grown Relab to be one of Australia’s leading design sprint agencies. You’ll find him speaking at design sprint, business, and educational events. His mission is simple: help others build and launch products faster without compromising quality or sacrificing user satisfaction. He also thrives on mentoring small businesses and startups, getting them to simplify processes, build better businesses and create productive teams.