Occasionally during website design critique sessions, opinions and experiences are easily conveyed. But more often, participants find themselves struggling to express what they truly see or feel. It’s these times that we find ourselves trying to use words when a picture could convey so much more.

These situations aren’t uncommon. In today’s busy world, many times these sessions are a series of emails or a simple conference call where adequate words escape us. “This isn’t what we were expecting” is a stinging and vague critique, and often leaves the listener wishing he could read minds or had a clearer understanding of the expectations. Even though we cannot read minds, there are things that we can do to improve this process even before it gets to this point. One such way is by conducting a sketching studio.


What is a Sketching Studio?

A sketching studio is a structured, collaborative, and iterative design exercise that is used to gain a shared understanding of viewpoints and critiques based on the experiences and goals shared by everyone involved.

User focused sketching studio

That’s a mouthful, but it’s accurate. Put a little more simply, it’s a collaborative design exercise where members of the project team design the product together in a structured format, review each others’ designs, and then revise them. This technique is used by and increasing number of UX thought leaders because it helps build a shared understanding of everyone’s points of view and expectations through each generated design. In addition, each iteration speeds up the process of reaching the final design.


What do you need to perform a Sketching Studio?

Before we get into what items you need to grab from the supply closet, understand that the most important element of a Sketching Studio is the people. The whole purpose of this exercise is to help bring people to an understanding, and without people you have silos of interpretation that never seem to align.

So, who should come? Anyone associated with the project (or even a different project) should be a part of it, not just designers. Invite project managers, client liaisons, engineers, designers, VPs, etc. Anyone can and should contribute. Some of the most obviously brilliant design decisions I’ve seen have come from people not in design-related roles because they are focused on the users’ needs instead of design trends and techniques. While I say anyone can and should participate, the more people you have the more likely you may have to break into micro-teams during the session instead of a single large group.

Aside from the people aspect, we also need supplies with which to sketch – simple items such as copy paper, markers, and a timer. Pencils can be used; but it’s better to not promote erasing as even bad ideas can spark a conversation and critique for the better. And remember, these sessions are structured and thus timed. If you worry about erasing mistakes, you are losing time to get your ideas across.

And last, you need a subject. Many times this turns into a list of business requirements that are written and outlined prior to the design phase of a project. One interesting thing about the list for the sketching studio is that it should be curated and expanded upon during the session itself. Requirements documents are necessary, but dull reading – even for designers and developers. Your subject – the requirements for a screen or feature – should be easy to digest and review. In addition, they should be prioritized so that people in the session understand what’s a “must have,” a “nice to have,” and a possible “wish list” item. This helps convey flexibility and importance to each requirement and allows the stakeholders in the session to easily review and edit such if need be. Some might call this scope creep, but we’re trying to design a product that meets the expectations of users and stakeholders alike. Being able to reset and clarify expectations immediately is priceless. And if the items are discussed and deemed useful or crucial, its is instantly communicated and everyone ends up on the same page in minutes as opposed to days.


What does a Sketching Studio look like?

Now that we know everything that needs to be a part of a session, let’s look at how a session breaks down. This is where structure is applied in order to facilitate an efficient flow. Each step is timed to keep things manageable, applying a constraint to the process while ensuring only the most important, high-level concepts are illustrated.

The first thing the team should do is spend 5-10 minutes discussing the requirements for the screen or feature. The time is a bit fluid here since different features will need more review than others. For example the requirements for a screen to book a flight will be unique, while most login screens will have a few basic elements. Try to focus on making this time consistent for each feature in order to plan accordingly and to build a cadence.

Next, every member of the team should sketch the screen for 2 minutes. Initially, this is short window is difficult because we tend to want to focus on the details. In most sessions I’ve facilitated, the majority of first timers do not completely finish their first designs. Regardless, stick to the 2 minute restriction in order to keep things moving. This is an iterative process and the second time around will be better as people will refocus on what’s most important to them before moving to details.

Sketching session outputs

After the sketching, each team moves to a critique step. During the critique step, each person takes 1 minute to present their design to the group. This is not a lot of time and will force the person to focus on the most important elements. After that person has presented, each member of the group has 1 minute to critique the design. During the critique, the presenter is silent and makes note of the critique and any questions that may arise. Questions about the design illustrate an opportunity to be more expressive or explicit in a design in order to make it more intuitive overall. Once each other person has had their 1 minute, the next person presents their design and the critiques continue.

Once all members of the team have presented and noted the critiques from their peers, it’s time to start over and sketch another version. While two iterations per feature tend to cover 80% of the design, a third iteration tends to produce a design that almost all members agree upon. This third iteration can sometimes be used to create one “final” sketch; however, it depends on how disparate the designs of the group are. The goal is to get to a point where the general direction of the design is understood by all members so that a designer can translate them into a higher fidelity composition.

Sketching Studio Timetable for 5 People

  • 5 minute requirements review
  • 2 minutes to sketch
  • 5 minutes to presentation and critique
  • 7 minutes for Iteration #2
  • 7 minutes for Iteration #3
  • TOTAL: Approximately 26 minutes (about 30 minutes factoring in time to reset the timer and general transitions).

If your group has multiple teams within the session, it is best to take the last 15-20 minutes of the meeting time to present the designs to each group. This presentation should not be focused on critiquing the designs of each feature, it should focus on theming and building consistency across features and screens. This means that each team has to trust each others’ design decisions.

Last, the facilitator of the session should collect each set of sketches and notes so that they can be communicated out and archived digitally. Photographing each sketch and the notes are a quick way of doing this and allows for easy sharing and storage. In the event that someone brings up a sketch from the studio in a future discussion, the sketches and notes are available.


What comes from a Sketching Studio?

So what comes from all of this? The largest take away is that you have a massive amount of input from different areas of the business in the form of the sketches themselves and the and stories told by everyone who contributed. In addition, everyone leaves with a sense of involvement and knowing that they all had a part of the design. Also, each design has immediate critique and feedback. This means that there is no waiting to set up meetings or emailing feedback back and forth. This also means there’s no context switching during the designing itself. Lastly, there is consensus about the designs (usually).

A sketching studio enhances the communication around the design process. It generates 10-50 different designs and ideas depending on how many participate, whereas a staged approach may only show a couple. In the end though, it causes people to talk  and to share their unique opinions and experiences in a more visual manner while becoming part of the process itself. Whenever everyone can be a part of the process, their sense of ownership and pride for the project grows and that only enhances the experience for everyone.

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