I’m a collaborator. I like to get multiple heads on a project to see what insight and perspectives they bring that can build on mine. So naturally, one of my go-to activities to get a project off the ground is running a sketch studio.
Sketch studios are a collaborative exercise where the project team designs and iterates an interface together in a structured format. They can be as simple as a three-person one-hour sketch fest, or as extensive as a series of workshops with a larger group. However you decide to approach them, sketch studios are an incredible way to get team members invested and excited about a project. With multiple brains at work ideating and challenging each other, your team can iterate and test ideas faster and in real-time.
Sounds good, right? Let’s break down what you need to run a successful sketch studio, step by step:
Define Your Objectives
A good sketch studio needs clear objectives, and starting with research helps establish those objectives. As you conduct interviews and gather the project’s requirements, start drafting a Feature Report — a document that captures and prioritizes the project’s key features. At Pixo — a digital agency where I work as creative director — we typically use a Google spreadsheet for our Feature Report so that multiple people can contribute simultaneously.
Here is an example of a Feature Report we created for a recent intranet redesign project. The first column identifies Pixo’s recommendations based on the pain points uncovered, with a more detailed explanation to the right. Next are columns identifying Value and Effort, with the letters L, M and H indicating whether the value and effort needed to implement the recommendation are Low, Medium or High. The final column is for notes from the client.
The Feature Report helps define the problems you’re trying to solve. Your Feature Report may take a completely different form than this, but the most important thing is to identify what you want/need to work on, what value that brings to the project, and what the level of effort is to implement it.
Keep It Focused
Based on your Feature Report, team size and timeline, decide how many sketch studio sessions to conduct. You may want to do one broad session to cover high-level ideas for the project, or you may decide, as we did for our intranet project, to run several sessions based on the number of features in the project. In our Feature Report we broke down the intranet into ten distinct features. With one sketch session per feature, we held a total of ten two-hour sessions over the course of a few weeks.
Include a Broad Team
In addition to UX-ers and designers, invite developers, project managers and maybe even your (ahem) clients. The more diverse your participants, the more buy-in and insight you gain from your team. Having a developer involved means she can immediately veto things that won’t work technically and maybe even provide alternate, more efficient ways of solving the problem. Having clients on hand allows them to fill in any knowledge gaps as they arise and give approval and feedback in real time. Most importantly, because everyone’s thoughts and ideas are heard and explored together, sketch studios build the team’s camaraderie and trust.
If you’re doing several sketch studio sessions, consider starting with the lowest feature on the priority list. This helps get everyone comfortable with the process and lowers the stakes of the initial sketch session.
For the intranet project, the organization’s least important feature was their classifieds section, which offered value to their employees but was not crucial to the day-to-day operations of the organization. We worked on this feature first. It helped us get through the kinks in our process, so by the time we got to the really important features, we were really on our game.
The more prepared you are, the smoother the sessions will go. Feature Briefs are handy way to get your team on the same page before taking pen to paper (or marker to whiteboard). They help give structure to the session and a jumping-off point for ideas and discussion. Ours typically include a concrete task list for the session and a comparison analysis in a very simple Google doc.
To create a Feature Brief, identify page types you will need to consider and sketch during the session. For a classifieds section, these would be the list page, item page, and ‘post an item’ page. Look at other sites for examples of how they approach the feature you’ll be working on. We looked at things like what expiration date length each listing had, and how the categories of listings broken down. Include screenshots of each comparison, highlighting elements for the team to consider including (or at least discussing).
At the beginning of each session, review the Feature Brief with the team to make sure everyone knows exactly what they’re working on for the next hour or two.
Sketch, Erase, Sketch, Erase
This is the fun part! If you’re working with a smaller team (2-4 people), use a whiteboard to quickly iterate on ideas. Have team members sketch an idea for the feature, discuss it, take a photo, and then erase and sketch another approach if someone has a different direction to explore.
For larger teams, break into smaller groups and sketch on paper. While I typically like smaller sessions to be free-form, setting a structured timeline for larger groups helps keep everyone on task. Once each group is done sketching, have group members post their sketches on a wall or large piece of butcher paper for discussion and critique. You may need several rounds of sketching with a larger group to come to design decisions. Snacks are helpful, too.
If you’re including the client in your sketch studio, consider running the sessions at the client’s office. That way they can pull staff to answer specific questions and give real-time feedback on your sketches.
After each session take the time to document your decisions. At Pixo, we typically pull our ideas into an interactive, annotated wireframe that serves as a record of all of our design decisions.
Adapt Sketch Studios for Your Team and Project
The first time we ran a series of sketch studios at Pixo, we were able to get more progress and consensus on the project than we historically got in double the time. And we came in 40 hours under budget. Score.
I encourage you to give this technique a try and adapt it to work for your team and your projects. If interface design has been a struggle for your team and/or clients to get on the same page, sketch studios will help you save time, bring your team together and have a lot of fun in the process. Sketch away!
If you like collaborating with your team to help ignite the creative fire, this bundle of creative rocket fuel is just what you need! Jim Krause, master of all things creative, will give you countless new strategies and exercises to keep your team engaged.