The Power of the Charrette

How a Group Sketching Session Will Kickstart Your Design Sprint

By Kiley Meehan, UX Designer at FreshBooks


At the start of my career I was under the impression that to be a good designer, you also had to be a design “star”. Once given a problem, you would sneak away for a few days and emerge with a brilliant, jaw-dropping solution. Accolades and applause would follow.

I tried this. It never quite worked out.

Looking back, this failure had less to do with my design ability, and more to do with gaps in my knowledge. The “unknown unknowns”. In product design especially, there is no shortage of constraints that you need to work within. Some problems can be tough to crack without proper insight into the development, design and communication paradigms. For one person to shepherd a solution, with little more than a brief and time on their side, is an arduous task. I’ve seen designers spend months sweating over a problem in solitude, too entrenched to step back and see the problem from a new perspective.

At FreshBooks, we recognize the dangers of this approach and have made our design process as transparent and collaborative as possible. To do this, we adopted Lean UX, which values quick iteration and open communication. When the design process is demystified, things move faster. Features ship faster. Teams work better together.

With Lean UX, you have a new problem to solve every week. Therefore, it’s important that you get the right minds together to solve it as early as possible. That’s why we’ve dedicated our Mondays to collaborative sketching sessions called charrettes.

At a charrette, we work as a group to define a problem and sketch out as many solutions as we can in an hour. This sets us up for the rest of the week: Tuesday, we refine and review with the team. Wednesday we prototype. Thursday we test. Friday we reflect.

Charrettes have become an essential part of our process. They allow us to generate ideas quickly, from many perspectives, and make a decision all within an hour. It’s become the favourite part of our week. It’s a design jam session.

Here are a few simple steps that you can take every Monday to set yourselves up for success with a charrette:

Pick the right team

The beauty of a charrette is that anybody can join in, whether they’re an intern or an executive. Charrettes benefit from a diversity of experience and knowledge. Great ideas can come from anyone.

So, when it’s time to pick your team, aim for diversity. At FreshBooks, we try our best to find a product manager, a designer, and at least one developer. We may also include someone from marketing or communications. If your design problem involves a niche subject, find someone in your company who’s an expert, and invite them too.

However, don’t go too crazy. We’ve found that fewer than six participants is ideal. Any more than that and moderation becomes difficult.

Find an hour, a good room, and some equipment

Once you’ve gathered a team, book an hour for your charrette. This is the perfect amount of time to keep things focused and on-track, while allowing for exploration.

Next, find something to write with (we use black Sharpies and a few coloured markers), a giant pad of paper, and a room with a table. But not too big a table — the more intimate a charrette the better. So make sure your team sits closely together so that they can hear one another and look eye to eye.

Prepare a “How Might We” statement

Before your charrette begins, you should have a clearly defined problem. This lets you prepare what we call a “How Might We” statement, which poses the goal for the session as a simple question.

For instance, your problem may be that your website visitors are ignoring a sign-up button. You might ask “How can we make visitors click the button?”. Instead, take a step back and ask why you want visitors to click the button. You might then frame the statement as “How might we increase our landing page conversion?”. By staying high level, you allow for greater and more creative explorations.

If you can, prepare your “How Might We” statement in advance, so you get the most out of your hour.


“It’s become the favourite part of our week. It’s a design jam session.”

How have others?

Before charrette, find some examples of how others have approached a similar problem. Look at what your competitors have done, as well as those in unrelated industries. You’re bound to find something. Bring four to five of the best examples to share with your team. If you don’t have a projector, print out a few pages to pass around.

Once you’ve reviewed your “How Might We” statement, take some time to look at these examples as a group, and discuss the various approaches. What works well? What doesn’t? This will help reveal a range of possibilities to inspire and focus the group.

Limit this to about five to ten minutes.

Sketch!

It’s time to bust out the markers. Block off about 10–15 minutes, snag a piece of paper and get sketching. Remind the group that if you can draw a square, a circle and a line, you have all the skill you need to participate.

There are two ways your team can approach sketching — as a group, or individually.

  • As a group: Each participant contributes their ideas to a large pad of paper, and ideas are worked out collaboratively, in real time.
  • Individually: Participants sketch their ideas alone and share with the group afterwards.

The method you take largely depends on your group’s dynamic. In our experience, individual sessions work well to draw ideas from quieter, or more junior, participants.

Regardless of whether you sketch individually or as a group, it’s important that you turn off your inner critic and let your ideas flow. Don’t box yourself in too much. What might seem like a crazy idea could spark a realistic solution. Have fun with it.

Review and vote

After sketching, it’s time to review your work. Let each participant explain their ideas, saving questions for the end. This is a great time to bring up any issues that could haunt you later on — the technical complexity of the project, the creation of new interaction patterns. A charrette is an opportunity to be as candid as possible. It’s hard to be defensive when an idea is five minutes old.

Once you’ve discussed, it’s time to vote. This helps build a quick consensus. Using coloured markers or stickers, each member votes on the three solutions they like best. Votes don’t have to be limited to the full sketches either — they can be made for a specific feature, a line of copy, or a certain style of button. What makes it out of voting is then refined and prototyped for testing that week.

And that’s it. Once you pack up your markers, give the team a round of high-fives. You just had a fantastic charrette, and you’re one giant leap closer to a solution that you can test later in the week.


With just these few simple steps, you’ll soon see how charrettes will kickstart your design process. We now swear by charrettes at FreshBooks, and they’ve made our design team even stronger. They’re not only for the designers, either. Our development teams now run them too. From our experience, once you master the charrette, it’s hard to go back.

If you’re looking for more on how FreshBook incorporates Lean UX, check out our other articles on Medium. For a more in depth look at lean and iterative design, we recommend starting with Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf, Google Ventures Design Sprint and IDEO’s Design Kit.

Happy sketching!

Kiley Meehan is a UX Designer @ FreshBooks

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