Instead of a Brainstorm, do a 5–10–20 Sketch Studio.

Daniel Stillman
Aug 11, 2017 · 5 min read
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If you google “Brainstorming” you’re going to find about an equal number of articles tearing it down as building it up. And you know what? They’re all right. For every well-thought out and well-executed brainstorm, I think you’ll find a poorly designed, poorly run brainstorm. Instead, run a sketching studio.

You can do this with designers, non-designers, or a mix. If everyone is willing to sketch like a 5-year old, you’re golden.

In this brainstorm, it’s everyone’s job to shout out ideas and one person’s job to write them down. Trust me, this method doesn’t work. Instead, I make it everyone’s job to write their own ideas down.

A huge reason brainstorms fail is what I call First Speaker Syndrome (FSS): Someone in the room blurts out an idea. In the traditional model of brainstorming, people are all blurting out ideas and each person is expected to build on the ideas of others. But what really happens is that the first idea anchors the conversation. Even worse, if the first person to speak is the HiPPO. Groups of people have been known to defer to the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion…and the brainstorm never really evolves from there. If everyone writes their ideas down, the FSS and HiPPO effects are eliminated, or at least, deferred.

One huge benefit of brainstorming can be not just a huge pile of ideas but a group of people who see the problem space in the same way and share a set of solutions to potentially develop together. That’s the kind of groupthink a 5–10–20 sketch studio can bring.

Anytime you think you want to brainstorm, just whip this out instead. Write your brainstorming prompt on the wall and get started!

I use the studio format in my workshops after groups understand the key components of a UX Hypothesis: Who the user is, what sorts of features we’re talking about, what the business goal of the interaction we’re designing is. In the design thinking process, it’s after we have discovered and defined the problem, but not developed any solutions: The midpoint of the double diamond.

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The Double Diamond: It still works!

To get things started, I steal a simple technique from the Google Sprint toolbox: I have them fold a piece of paper in half three times and unfold it, which gives us an 8-up storyboard template. The participants in the sketch studio then have five minutes to sketch out a solution to the challenge. The storyboard can be 8 screens, a story about usage from start to finish…whatever they like. It’s about generating a solution, however they see it. Google calls this Crazy Eights.

You *can* do a 5–10–20 Sketch Studio with any other tool: Persona Sketching, Journey Maps, Interview Guides, Business Model Canvases…it doesn't change the mechanics.

Then I get people to pair up and share their sketches with a partner. I often ask people to take out their phones and time themselves, so each person has 1 minute to share out. With people new to this way of working, I tell them to do the 2 minute shareout *then* tell them to find a synergy of their sketches and make a new one together. Why? I want them to focus on listening!

Giving people a larger piece of paper, scissors and tape at this point can be helpful. I encourage people to literally tear up their storyboards an combine them. At the end of the 10 minutes, there are half as many ideas in the room, but they are twice as clearly thought out. New ideas emerge from this synthesis that are unexpected, and that’s the golden part of this studio: a pair of people with a pair of sketches can have a better conversation than two people with no sketches!

(Read an article about why this is so in this article on Medium. It’s based on an episode of my podcast, the Conversation Factory, where Dave Gray and I cover this idea, among many others.)

In groups of 4–7 sharing ideas around a table can take 5 minutes if you get them to be very conscious about time. Any larger than that, and you’ll want two groups, and a final section for groups to share with each other.

Combining their storyboards, which are richer in thought and detail takes 15 minutes if you make them aware of the halfway point and the five minute mark. And just like the exploring section, you’ll want to give people larger paper, or a section of wall space.

One of the cool things about this structure is that you can put it “above” the group. The Timing and Structure can take place of a facilitator, which can allow you to intro the idea and then jump into sketching along with your team: no need for the independent process facilitator, if your team is willing to play by these simple rules

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Click through to get to my downloads page. Yes, it will ask for your email. No, I won’t spam you!

This only takes 45 minutes, if you include some moving around time and some simple intros of the process. It can take a full hour if you want to pin it all up and track how you got to your one idea and have a deeper critique of all of the ideas. Spending one hour on this studio structure falls under what I’d call “safe to try” ideas. Give it a go and drop a comment on how it went!

Group conversations are often so broken. This is a great way to make them clearer and more productive…Download the 5–10–20 worksheet here, print out a copy and share it with your team!

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Remember: If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen! Also, it’s fun. So, there’s that.

Also note: This is a synthesis of a many ideas, as always, stolen from better people. Two in particular: I first watched Josh Seiden run a version of this studio at a Lean UX workshop I attended in Sydney back in 2015 and it meshed with my own facilitation work, which owes a great deal to Dave Gray for introducing me to the idea of emergent thinking back in 2012 through his seminal book, Gamestorming.

if you’ve made it this far, you’re awesome. And you might consider signing up for my email list:

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