Picture It!

by Alex Fedorov

How design thinking and visually collaborating helps align teams

Lately, we’ve been noticing an increasing shift in the number of design thinking activities we do with our clients that involve drawing or visually explaining concepts. From the incredible, hand-drawn RSA Animations, to the days of “Web 2.0” whiteboard-intensive meetings made cringeworthy by those infamous UPS commercials – not to mention episodes of “Silicon Valley,” it seems that visual thinking and explaining is starting to get more attention in everyday life.

When we host a design sprint for a client, we see a great deal of this in the “Diverge” and “Converge” phases, and our key observation is that exploring solutions visually is a great way to get people on the same page. Often during these sprint exercises, we’ll have engineers drawing and experimenting with concepts alongside product owners, designers and marketers. Ultimately, it brings teams closer together and helps them share and evolve the vision of their product.

It’s common that people who aren’t used to drawing or producing visuals will shy away during the beginning of these exercises. We hear things like “I can’t even draw a stick figure” all the time, but high fidelity drawing is really not what’s important. What is important is that teams are forced to think differently and solve problems that they’re sometimes too deeply entrenched in to see in a different way.

It’s also possible that for people who don’t consider themselves as “visual,” taking part in these exercises employs some of the benefits from the concept of Beginner’s Mind, where approaching something in a new or open way can be a catalyst for different ways of thinking. Changing your approach and stepping out of your routine can lead to deeper insights that would be harder to achieve with spreadsheets, documentation or verbal discussion. C. Todd Lombardo explains in the video below the advantages to getting everyone involved to draw out their ideas.

Design thinking exercises also require everyone’s participation. This is extremely valuable because often someone will have an approach or a potential solution to a problem who isn’t the most senior person in the room or may not deal with product strategy on a daily basis. In their established organization, they might not feel like they have a voice to contribute. In many cases, these people tend to have very close relationships with the end users of their products, and their ideas are critical.

To reference “Design Sprint” by Richard Banfield, C. Todd Lombardo and Trace Wax, “Don’t think of this as group brainstorming. Rather, it’s about each person working individually to sketch out their ideas without the pressures of groupthink, then sharing them with the rest of the group, using the wisdom of the crowd to vote for the best ideas. The focus of the Diverge phase is to explore the range of possibilities. The exercises are designed to get the ideas out of your head and onto paper or the whiteboard.”

The other interesting aspect of this type of visual communication is that if you can visualize or draw something, others can react to it. What’s produced is a more concrete artifact than an explanation, and everyone can discuss what they like and don’t like about the concept. The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” definitely holds true when exploring user journeys, flows, and user interfaces. This is why our industry has evolved from giving a team of engineers a lengthy requirements document to creating a clickable prototype and iterating based on user feedback. People can instantly connect with something visual and begin to point out the things that make sense or are confusing to them.

With clickable prototypes, it’s also easy to post notes or comments on each screen to further explain different states of the page for the product and development teams to reference. What should this template look like when a new user first reaches it and it’s blank? What about when there’s an error? We find that building prototypes in InVision is an elegant way to supplement a visual prototype with detailed notes.

So where can you start using drawing and visual communication right now?

Here’s a quick outline to experiment with some common processes:

  • Draw a different character for as many personas as you support in your product. Then list the key activities those users care most about accomplishing.
  • Map out a visual user journey for each persona from left to right, starting with how they first discover your product all the way through onboarding and continued use. Consider pitfalls and points of confusion or abandonment.
  • Using the journey map above, draw a quick storyboard showing the screens a user would go through based a typical journey.
  • Take a particular screen that you think might confusing to your users and sketch 3 quick alternatives to the layout. Vote and discuss on which alternative might be worth testing.
  • Draw 3 large boxes adjacent to each other and list the immediate goals for your product, short-term and long-term goals. Consider priorities, as well as what information or resources might be needed to tackle those goals. This is a basic product roadmap in its simplest form.

Naturally, the list above is a very short and condensed series of drawing activities, but if truly considered and discussed in detail could lead to immediate breakthroughs. We recommend going through the full design sprint and product roadmapping processes to achieve the best possible results, but starting to align teams using visual explorations can never happen too soon.

About Alex Fedorov

Alex is a strategic thinker with a gift for information architecture, known for his ability to wireframe complex workflows and multiple states of applications at...