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BLOG:Sketching: You with the business degree, start drawing!

Sketching: You with the business degree, start drawing!

How to use sketching to gather application requirements.

How often have you participated in early conversations of a client project and have been unable to spur discussion around user needs or business needs? Perhaps the stakeholders are sitting back and casually sniping ideas, or the technical leads are disengaged since they feel all this “user stuff” doesn’t really apply to their field. It’s important to talk through user needs, business requirements, etc., but you might’ve found it’s difficult to get those conversations going - try sketching and have everyone sketch with you. Doing a workshop activity will help encourage those conversations without forcing people into verbally hashing things out.

While those in non-artsy fields may think a sketching activity sounds like a form of torture or social shaming, it’s far from it. Creating a sketch is nothing to be afraid of, after all, sketch is nothing more than just that - a quick visualization of an idea. Everyone from stakeholders to developers all have ideas on what they want to see in the final product. Instead of tossing up tons of stickies and then trying to make sense of them, have everyone quickly render what they want to see, using little more than a few straight lines.

You might hear, “But that’s the designer’s job!”Nope, the designer’s job is to create design solutions to problems, but one of the earliest challenges in a project is determining what are the problems we’re trying to solve and what thoughts have people had on how we might solve them. A great way to identify the problems we’re trying to solve is to get everyone to contribute to the conversation however, with all the different roles, user needs often get lost in the mix- stakeholders lead the discussions, developers just go along with it, designers focus on the visual design, and project managers focus on meeting deadlines.

Sketch. The biggest advantage to a communal sketching session is that it requires everyone to render a solution, not just to list a problem but to sketch out a solution to a problem.

Step 1: Anyone can sketch

To overcome the idea that someone “can’t draw” simply prove them wrong. Have everyone start with a basic sideways U-shape and instructions to draw from the shoulder (to help make straighter lines).

Once we have our container down, we’ll draw a box in the upper left, then populate the area around it with 3 sets of three horizontal lines. Adding a paragraph symbol over the lines will imply that the data is meant to be linked together.

Lastly, add a pencil looking shape to the right, a small half circle closing off the top, three lines in the center and voila - we now have a user interacting with our sketch. In color, we can add some arrows to show that this is a scrollable area to provide some simple annotations.

Anyone can re-create this, and it serves as a great starting point for getting someone who’s never sketched before to gain the confidence to take part in the exercise.

Step 2: Sketching Round 1

The first iteration of sketches entails everyone simply jumping right in. Start with the Login or Home screen and start sketching. Sketching in pen is fine for this exercise, this workshop is less about creating finalized designs and more about getting information out of people’s heads; what pre-conceptions they have around the application, and what issues they’re looking to solve. Sketching in pen forces users to commit rather than to edit and perfect. Participants should sketch for about 20 minutes and aim to get between 3–8 screens drawn, all of which will be hung up on a wall. Allow each participant to talk about their sketch for no more than 3 minutes. Participants should be encouraged to take notes about what they like about each sketch. The goal here is for everyone to learn from what everyone else did and in the second part of the exercise, create new hybrid sketches of what they liked.

Step 3: Sketching Round 2

For the second round, rather than focusing on new areas, the goal here is to re-work what was done during the first round. This time, borrow from ideas that were submitted by other members of the group, did you see something you really liked ? Incorporate it into your sketches for this round.

Step 4: Vote!

Once all of the sketches for the second round are completed, tack them up on the wall. Allow each participant to talk through their sketches for 3 minutes but this time, provide each participant with a number of blue and red dots. Using the blue dots, they should mark things they like and using the red dots, have them mark things they don’t like or don’t understand. You’ll end up with blue dots being clustered around ideas that the group likes, and the red dots will expose weaker ideas. You’ll also end up with that ever elusive vixen of early project meetings: consensus!

Step 5: Secret Designer Step

Is that it then? Day one and we’ve already got finalized sketches for the final application? Nope! As the facilitator for this and also the UX designer in the room, what you’re looking for are overall Design Principals; what’s the feel that the stakeholders and other participants are striving for? What are the same features that keep showing up in all of the sketches? Is this a comprehensive MVP (minimum viable product) or a solid starting point?

Following the workshop, you can enter in to conversation with a better understanding of expectations, and now you’re also equipped with an initial list of research topics, “We have 4–5 different ideas here for how to handle user registration, but what are the primary motivators for our audience? That’ll really help us dial in on one of these.” Is the feel the stakeholders have described compatible with their intended audience? “We’ve really pushed for speed and convience in these early sketches, is that the best fit for this investing application?” Is the scope of the MVP reasonable within the forecasted timeframe? “Everyone really loves the idea of having a system map that shows all of the connected devices and their locations within each facility, is this a major product differentiator? Should it be part of phase 1?

Furthermore, this communal act creates an environment where everyone is contributing and advocating for their ideas, borrowing from others, and ultimately voting on concepts that they agree or don’t agree with. This makes it much harder for one voice to be overly critical or disengaged. While these sketchs are done early on, and often lacking a basic research foundation, they help clarify expectations. Sure, all of these ideas might change, but progress is being made, which is a huge asset when trying to keep in alignment of customer’s expectations.

Next Steps

There are a few things you can do to advance your sketching talent from here: offer post-it notes to use as overlays, refine the sketches and use them for paper prototyping with your intended audience.