White-boarding: Moving from ideas to artifacts

A typical day in Product paradise with Product team and Head of Strategy, Matt Allison

I am often asked, “What is the design process like at TrendKite?” Well, a majority of my time is spent with product teams mining for solutions around a whiteboard. Before a single pixel gets pushed on my screen a conference room is booked and we head up to the whiteboard, markers in hand. It’s my favorite part of being a Designer. It’s where room dynamics shift from verbal communication to real collaboration, from hot air to buildable ideas. It’s where I’m able to solve problems quickly and, with the input of stakeholders, see the beginnings of software. I’ll speak to why whiteboarding is such an important part of the design process. By working visually with product owners and engineers one can overcome language barriers, create shared understanding, and arrive at tangible deliverables faster.

Why whiteboarding matters

A group of scientists in the Netherlands, led by Remko van der Lugt, observed four idea-generation meetings in which participants used one technique that involved writing and another one that involved sketching. They concluded that sketching stimulates group creativity by enabling individuals to reinterpret their own ideas further and to facilitate other people’s access to those ideas once they are brought to the table.

Tools and Tradecraft

There are many digital tools in the market that help remote teams collaborate. Smartboards, and screen sharing software like ConceptBoard, GoToMeeting, InVision, and even Skype do a decent job as vehicles of collaboration with disparate teams. Here, I’m talking analog. Sketching. Specifically, in a co-located space…without laptops.

White-boarding — as I’m referring to it here — is not brainstorming. Brainstorming rules may (or may not) apply in this context. White-boarding typically comes after the conceptual/discovery phase and moves the project towards concrete ideas and tangible deliverables.

Sketching interactions for an upcoming feature

Visual working overcomes language barriers

In a global marketplace with projects spanning across regions and languages it’s crucial to use visuals to communicate ideas especially when words can be misunderstood. Pictures are worth a thousand words regardless of native tongue. Simple geometric shapes were enough to help clarify the interactions for a client whose first language was French.

Sketching shows comprehension

Start sketching what you understand. Sketching on a whiteboard gets to shared understanding of the core ideas. Everyone has ideas in their minds about what a flow should generally do but not everyone has an idea of what each screen should look like. The goal is to get heads nodding in the room as to what should go on each screen.

Messy over polished, speed over accuracy

Don’t be afraid to open your process up to a broader team. You’re not shipping a sketch. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The objective is to move the project from the abstract to the tangible. Thinking out loud and speaking to your sketches, even at a low-fidelity level accomplishes this. The cardinal rule of whiteboarding is having the confidence to fail, so that you can take risks within the process. No hand skills required for distilling ideas.

Enjoy yourself. Play. Draw.

This is how we learn as human beings. Jessica Walsh says in GOOD Magazine, “It allows us to practice skills that we will need in a safe environment where we can fail with few consequences, so we can apply those skills when they are really needed. Bears in the wild who play as cubs have a much higher survival rate than those who don’t.” So grab a marker and step on up. You’ll grow professionally and possibly grow massive claws. And forget the team building exercise, get a few employees around a whiteboard and sketch something face-to-face. Collaborating this way deepens relationships with team members. Have fun and be productive!