Borrowing Cooper’s Brand Experience Workshop to Supercharge Stakeholder Alignment
As a UI designer, how often have you met with a stakeholder and been told, “I don’t know how to describe exactly what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it?” Of course, we design experiences that meet user needs, but there are often real business constraints that will shape what is ultimately created and iterated on: be it sellability, technical constraints, competitive considerations, etc. For that reason, having stakeholder buy-in is a big part of the process. Getting guidance on what will win that coveted approval, however, can sometimes be like herding cats.
I came across the excellent Brand Experience Workshop when taking professional training from Cooper last year. The workshop was only mentioned in passing, but I was immediately struck by the power of the methodology: to summarize extensively, you line walls with images of different products, services or experiences and have stakeholders place green stickers for things that feel like what your brand should be, and place red stickers for those that feel like what your brand shouldn’t be. By exposing stakeholders to a variety of tangible ideas, they are better able to navigate what will work, and what won’t.
The workshop was designed to help establish the right ideas to go into a brand, something I don’t really work on in my current role — I am much more focused on building digital products. So I got to thinking, could this be adapted to help guide UI design and visual language development for digital products?
We were creating a tool that helped users compare travel prices across additional sites to the one they were currently visiting, and because we were designing something that would live on someone else’s site, there were a ton of constraints. I decided to slot the workshop early in the design process, and use it to kick off ideation once we had all our initial research lined up.
Step 1 was to spend a day scouring the internet for all sorts of other on-page experiences. I pulled widgets, modals, chat windows, notifications, ads, just about every interface element you could imagine from all types of sites and services, from the New York Times to Bumble. Once I had a good 100+ images, I burned through 3 cartridges of toner printing them all out, one per page.
Step 2 was inviting the stakeholders I knew would need to bless any designs in the future to the workshop. We blocked off half a day, which ended up being the right amount of time to get through everything. You could probably complete the exercise in 2 hours if you don’t plan to ideate afterward as a group, more on that later. I tried to include people from various parts of the company: business development, design, product, and leadership.
Step 3 was taping up all the pictures, which took longer than I would have imagined. Get a colleague to help you do this! I decided to tape them to the back of several whiteboards that we would be using at the beginning of the workshop.
Step 4 was to kick off the workshop with the overall goal and desired outcome: to leave with rough sketches of ideas that would solve the user’s needs and that we thought we could sell. We reviewed relevant research, gathered some burning questions and concerns to keep in mind throughout the workshop, and established a parking lot to revisit at the end.
Step 5 was the grand reveal. We turned around the whiteboards to show everyone all the images taped up, as someone handed out red and green dots to each person (we settled on 10 of each, within the recommended range of 5–10 Cooper recommends). No one at this point had been told about this part of the workshop, and the reaction was amazing! An audible “oOooOoo!” rippled through the room, and people’s energy level ratcheted up a notch. People love working with tangible artifacts.
Step 6 involved everyone placing red and green dots for 10–15 minutes. Again, green dots were placed on images that represented the right feel for our new product, and red dots represented the wrong feel. We put on some upbeat background music to keep energy high.
Step 7 was to collect all the papers with multiple red, green, or both color dots on them. We followed Cooper’s advice and reviewed the concepts with many red dots first to get the discussion flowing. People generally find it easier to pinpoint what they don’t like about something. We then moved on to the green dots to discuss what people thought felt right, and why they thought these concepts worked. Finally, we reviewed the contentious concepts, those with both red and green dots. This whole section is absolute gold as a designer — stakeholders are freely discussing directions that will be problematic for your designs, and directions that will work well for your team, and will have a better chance of being adopted. Since they’re discussing other companies’ solutions, the feedback is much less guarded, and there is little fear that they will be responsible for suggesting a solution that won’t work. Since the discussion is pinned to tangible artifacts, there is no pressure to create a solution in the moment, they can advocate without having to come up with suggestions.
Step 8 happens in parallel to step 7, and you’ll need a helper to write on the whiteboard while you facilitate the discussion. You draw a spectrum from green to red, and you stick the pages on the spectrum based on how many green dots and red dots they have. Contentious pages go in the middle. As the team discusses each page, the person manning the whiteboard writes down adjectives they hear for the corresponding part of the spectrum. This will serve as a tool for designers to refer back to after the workshop is over, and doubles as a source of alignment amongst stakeholders.
At this point, you could end the workshop, and use the outputs of step 8 to start your ideation process and eventually get into sketches and wireframes. The energy in the room was still high, and because we had just very plainly laid out what the team felt to be the right direction, we decided to break into groups and sketch ideas. Strike while the iron’s hot, right? In the end, this created even more buy-in from stakeholders since they were part of the initial ideation process as well as the evaluation of the ideas generated. When we did get to higher fidelity concepts, there were few surprises from the people in the room, in fact, they delighted in seeing come of their ideas brought to life!
Overall, translating the Experience Workshop to something other than branding was a great success. I’d recommend considering it as a tool the next time you are approaching a design problem where you anticipate strong opinions from stakeholders. Getting everyone to explore the solution space together, in a tangible and visual way might just be the thing you need to make your design process a little smoother.
Bonus Tip: If you have collaborators joining remotely, make sure to organize the screenshots or image files you collect in step 1, giving everything relevant names. We were able to have remote stakeholders flip through all the files on their computer and Slack the facilitator with their choices for red and green dots, which were applied in real time. As we reviewed each artifact that had collected dots, we’d be sure to reference the file name so the remote folks could pull it up on their screens and give feedback as well.
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