Design Studio Workshops: The benefits of Co-creation

The "Scarcity" card from Stephen Andersons Mental Notes DeckAfter pitching a new concept to our CEO & CPO for a new way of doing House Party events, I was charged with validating it before moving forward. In the pitch, there was a clear strategic recommendation to play upon the game mechanics inherent in our business model—namely the principle of scarcity—by asking our members applying to host a party to perform certain actions that involve their social graph in order to compete for the scare resource that is central to the experience, the Party Pack.

The two main questions that came up after the pitch were:

  • will our people actually want to play the game?
  • how can we maintain a healthy tension between scarcity and mass rejection?

Rather than slink off to a corner to fight the hard fight in a vacuum, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to pull a cross-disciplinary team into a collaborative space to co-create solutions. A design studio framework was the obvious method, so I started planning for it.

Leah Buley from Adaptive Path gave a great webinar about facilitating Design Workshops, but it had been over a year since that so I wanted to refresh my memory as well as research how others are doing it. I found a great post from Jason Furnell's blog The Architecture of Everything in which he thoroughly shares the planning and facilitation of a design studio with photos and video. Big thanks to Jason for sharing his experience and insights. I highly recommend a read of his post if you are planning to run a workshop in your organization.

Here's a snapshot of the agenda for the one day, double session design studio. I would have preferred to do three days of two 2 hour sessions, but schedules did not allow, and the focus of the effort was on a portion of the House Party experience so one day was just fine. Click on the agenda to download the source file to create your own agenda.

Agenda for the Design Studio Sessions

 At the start of the morning session, I took a few minutes

to discuss the goals that would frame the effort. We kept referring back to them throughout the day to ensure we remained focused on the problem at hand.

Next, the group was divided into two teams of five, each sitting at their own table with all of the materials needed for the day's activities. Thanks to the incredible research conducted by Whitney Hess at the beginning of our redesign project, we had a set of solid personas to refer to. Each team was assigned a persona through whose perspective they would complete the activities. It was great to hear the teams discussing the personas and beginning to think as they might think as each team explored the start point of the journey map. What might Cynthia or Marcus be doing before they even hit the web site? What would compel them to visit houseparty.com and choose an party they'd like to host. Again, major kudos to Jason Furnell for sharing his team's customer journey mapping experience.

The sessions were just the right duration so the participants were engaged and excited throughout the day. I can imagine that if the afternoon session were an hour longer that we would have reached the point of diminishing returns. So keep that in mind when planning for your own design studios. Two to three hours per session is the sweet spot to aim for. It's also considerate to your fellow team mates and the other things they have going on. Building in a mid-day break, and ending the afternoon session before the end of the work day will allow them to check email, make phone calls and tend to their actual work. The last thing you want is for your coworkers to be frustrated, and they'll be more present during the sessions if they know they'll have time for the other stuff.

One of the teams in the middle of the customer journey mapping activity during the morning session.

One team working together to build a customer journey map.

The final customer journey map for Cynthia (our primary persona)

We use the six-up templates from Leah Buley's Adaptive Path workshop.

As I secretly expected, the afternoon session was the more challenging of the two. Drawing is not something that is natural for everyone, which is sometimes hard to imagine for us visually oriented people. For many of the participants, they had never been asked to draw in front of other people before—add to that the request to sketch out their visions for a user interface and the level of anxiety in the room increased dramatically. So my team mates and I (UX team, that is) did our best to make the others feel comfortable. There was much less drawing and a lot more discussion that took place, but in the end, each team had a bunch of sketches pasted up on the walls with an incredible variety and depth of ideas. That was one of the key goals for the session: co-creating a solution. It's tempting to run off to your computer, plug in your headphones, fire up Omnigraffle or Axure and get right to making things, but it's important to fight that urge, to get your peers and team mates from other departments together for some old-fashioned, analog collaboration. It builds relationships, creates shared understanding of the project, and it generates a wide variety of ideas that a lone designer would never have come up with on their own.

Takeaways for the next Design Studio sessions

This experience showed that:

  • if you're asking people to sketch, it helps to provide more direction and specific assignments
  • a structured day is highly recommended. There is comfort in having structure. (think about design grids. The most creative designs often come from working within the grid!)
  • establishing goals up front ensures that the activities generate solutions to the problems you have, as opposed to generating entirely new problems (we were covered here!)
  • give people time left in their day to touch-base with their "actual" work you're pulling them away from
  • you can have fun and be productive at the same time (win/win)

I'm very excited to build design studios into the rhythm of our product design/development cycle for 2011. It's all about generating solutions, checking and validating assumptions and getting there together as a team.

No man is an island. Even the best designer in the world. So get a team of smart folks together, cover the walls with post-it notes and sketches.

Please feel free to share your design studio experiences.


Web Designers vs. Web Developers

Really funny infographic from Shane Snow over at Wix.

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Story Mapping

All this time, I thought it was just me. I lost count of how many stakeholder meetings I've conducted, whether to a client or to an internal team, during which we would all walk through a massive spreadsheet of user stories and features. There would always be this unexpressed worry that nobody was brave enough to express that goes something like this "How do we know we've captured everything?" When presented with an exhaustive list of things to build, it appears as if it's all been accounted for, but there are a few perceptual and cognitive factors working against this process.

First, a cognitive issue, spreadsheets filled with row after row of great ideas end up overwhelming the reader with too much data. Even if features & stories are categorized well, the reader most often can not see all categories and all items at a glance, and there is a known law called Miller's Law, or Seven Plus or minus two at work here. People can think of (keep in RAM) as few as five objects at once and as many as nine things. So it's no wonder that after running down the list of features, eyes start darting around the room checking to see if others are feeling the same way. Not being able to see the big picture in situations like this makes people nervous. Period.

In the middle of a recent redesign, our team experienced something like this. After a month of incredible user research, the creation of personas, scenarios and a features list, there was this nagging feeling that something was missing. It became difficult to talk about the redesign with anyone outside of the core UX team. So I took to the interwebs for a blast of research.

I stumbled upon the work of Jeff Patton on the Agile Product Design site and struck gold. This quote summarizes his thinking.

"We spend lots of time working with our customers. We work hard to understand their goals, their users, and the major parts of the system we could build. Then we finally get down to the details - the pieces of functionality we'd like to build. In my head a see a tree where the trunk is built from the goals or desired benefits that drive the system; big branches are users; the small branches and twigs are the capabilities they need; then finally the leaves are the user stories small enough to place into development iterations."

"After all that work, after establishing all that shared understanding I feel like we pull all the leaves off the tree and load them into a leaf bag - then cut down the tree."

"That's what a flat backlog is to me. A bag of context-free mulch."

I need that context in order for me to really tell a story about the system.

: Jeff Patton

When I read that quote, I felt as if someone had read my mind. So I immediately claimed a wall in our office, in the kitchen area with the highest traffic, and the largest open wall space. I wanted this to happen in "public" so that during the process my teammates across all disciplines would be drawn into conversation and help to uncover any gaps.


[ to be continued ]


Button as Progress Bar

I haven't seen this done anywhere on the web. There may be a good reason for that, and by all means chime in. But until then, let's explore the possibility. Let's work with the task of uploading a photo as our use case. I would first browse for a photo on my local drive, then I'd click or touch the Upload button. Normally, I would see a new element appear indicating the progress of my upload, the upload button still visible but greyed out indicating it is not active. What I am proposing is that instead we tap into existing elements in the layout to serve the same needs. Let the button become the progress bar!

What do you think?


20 Minute iPhone Optimization: Noomii.com

I'm going to start a new practice of picking websites that don't yet have a mobile-ready version of their site or app, and take twenty minutes to mock-up what their home page might be like in order for it to be successful on small-screened devices like the iPhone and Android.

 An aquaintence is the CEO of Noomii, so after attempting to visit the site on my iPhone I was inspired to re-imagine Noomii's iPhone-specific design. (I've also sent them a JPEG to check out!)

The basic gist of Noomii (New Me) is that it's a service that not only matches life coaches with coachees (not a word, is it?), but also offers really simple and useful tools to manage the entire coaching experience. A really great idea.

So, here's a screenshot of their desktop website.

And here's the 20 minute iPhone Optimized version. You can see that due to the limited real estate, it forces one to simplify, to boil it down to the bare essentials. Special thanks to Teehan + Lax for their incredible iPhone 4.0 Photoshop template. Don't have it yet? Go and get it.

Not bad, eh? Let me know what you think!