Two types of collaborative design sessions


At SEEK we use collaborative design sessions extensively and have found two variations on the theme to work best depending on the desired outcome and constraints under which we are designing; ‘The Design Studio Method’ and ‘Group Whiteboard Sketching’

The key reasons why our collaborative design sessions are so effective are:

  1. We generate better outcomes when coming up with ideas together. People with different backgrounds, functional roles and perspectives tend to approach a problem from different directions. This leads to a more considered design.
  2. Designing together goes a long way towards getting stakeholder buy in – when you have product managers, developers and designers (and others) in the design session, it is hard for anyone to walk away and not feel like they were part of the design process. This makes it easier to get sign-off and agreement on your final designs and aligns everyone’s understanding when the time comes to develop the designs.

Method 1 – ‘The Design Studio Method’

In this method (sometimes referred to as ’6-up’, ‘sketch-up’ or ‘design charrettes’) participants are presented with the problem brief and provided the resources they will need for the session. At SEEK, we use A3 sheets with pre-printed grids, Sharpies and Copic markers, however, there is nothing wrong with using plain paper and any pens on pencils you can get your hands onto.

The format

The process of running the session is quite simple, however, the session facilitator (often the designer who organised the session) has to be diligent in keeping time and making sure that the participants stick to the process below:

  1. Participants sketch their own ideas for five minutes. The time limit is strict and the participants are encouraged to sketch as many ideas as possible, focusing on quantity and idea diversity over sketch quality and fidelity. Each participant works on their own – no discussion is allowed during the five minutes
  2. Once the five minutes is up, each person gets two minutes to show their sketches and explain the rationale behind their ideas
  3. The group then gets three minutes to critique and discuss the designs presented. As each participant is providing their critique, its good to encourage them to tick the aspects of the design they like and cross the ones they do not. This gives the person presenting the design a clear indication as to which aspects of the design they should elaborate on and keep, or drop in the subsequent rounds

The three steps above are repeated until the team feels they have generated enough ideas or until we run out of time. In most cases, once we go through the above steps three times, the ideas within the group start to converge. At this point, the facilitator may choose to instruct each participant to spend the next round(s) refining one design of their choice to a higher level of detail.

At the end of the session, the designer takes the sketches away in order to produce the higher fidelity wireframes.

Now for the really important part: prompt sharing of wireframes and the refined designs resulting from design session – this shows everyone that their input was valuable and encourages future participation.

Pros

  • Generate a large number of ideas in a short period of time
  • Get buy in from stakeholders and team members
  • It’s hands on and fun
  • Great for breaking through the ‘designer’s block’

Cons

  • Some participants find it hard to share their ideas because they are worried that their sketches “aren’t good enough” (note: it is the facilitators responsibility to make it clear that no one is expected to create masterpieces – the focus is on quantity and quality of ideas, rather than the quality of sketches)
  • If you are working within strict constraints (existing systems, project timelines etc), this method can be counter-productive as it tends to generate a lot of divergent ideas

When to use

Any time in the design process, but it is most valuable early on when trying to generate many divergent ideas.

Method 2 – ‘Group Whiteboard Sketch’

This method looks to address the two cons identified for the ‘Design Studio Method’ and is best suited when working on designs which have to fit within an existing website or app. The materials required for this method are a whiteboard and whiteboard markers. The facilitator needs to prepare the room by sketching the skeleton of the existing website or app that the new feature(s) have to fit within.

The format

  1. The participants stand around the whiteboard with the existing website/app layout pre-sketched and take turns sketching their ideas
  2. Each participant has three minutes to sketch one idea and explain it to the rest of the team. Each time a participants turn comes, they can
  3. Rub out part of the existing design and replace it with their ownAdd to the design sketched by the previous participant(s)Pass – forfeit their turn if they don’t have anything to add
  4. The team has two minutes to discuss each idea presented, before it’s the next participant’s turn to sketch their idea. Whenever the design changes, the facilitator (or another nominated participant) takes a photo of the whiteboard to document the evolution of the design

Pros

  • Facilitates working within existing constraints
  • People who are not comfortable sketching don’t have to – they can explain their idea and have another team member sketch it
  • Tends to generate vibrant discussion during the sketching process

Cons

  • Can be more difficult to keep time due to a more open nature of the discussion
  • Tends to generate less innovative ideas due to the presence of an existing website/app framework

When to use

Again, can be used any time in the design process, but this method has more merit when you are working within strict constraints enforced by an existing system.

As with the previous method, it is important to promptly share the outputs of the design session with participants.

Conclusion

Collaborative design sessions are a great tool for generating many potential solutions for a problem quickly, and at the same time getting buy-in from stakeholders outside of the design team. They allow the designer(s) to get invaluable insights from other team members early in the design process and generally contribute to a more considered and holistic final design.


This post was originally posted on the SEEK Product Blog

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