David Snow
Written by David Snow
Published 2016-11-30

Using concept sketches to foster communication

Improve communication and teamwork with this fun, no-pressure exercise

Getting organizations to collaborate on design in a healthy way can be difficult. The user experience (UX) is the only part of any product that everyone will see and interact with, and many will have strong opinions on what it should be. Everyone involved in building the product feels a sense of ownership, so a lot of people will want to have a say.

However, getting the right input from the right people at the right time isn’t always easy. You have to process a lot of input, with a wide range of quality or applicability. This introduces the complexity of having to say ‘no’ to some perfectly good ideas that don’t quite fit, saying ‘yes’ to some compromises that can be difficult to explain, and ‘we’ll see’ to some ideas that sound promising but need to be validated. So, sometimes that step is avoided or given little focus.

What can happen then is each team member has a slightly different vision of what the product could be. When those are different enough, it can manifest as a constant stream of nit-picky critique, major change requests deep into implementation, or even features dropped altogether. However it shows up, it’s completely caused by a failure to communicate.

This is absolutely avoidable, and UX is in the perfect position to create the right communication dynamic from the start. It can be done in an unassuming way, with a simple design exercise – talking all stakeholders through low-fidelity, exploratory design concepts at the very start of a project.

I’ll walk through the exercise, provide examples of typical situations, and how to handle them.

Setting up the concept review

Sketching concepts

Kick off a new project by sketching some design concepts, putting them up on a wall, inviting stakeholders over to chat about them, gathering their feedback, and encouraging them to add their own concepts for consideration.

That may sound too simple, but the key to it lies in how you facilitate. Engage with people in the right way – model productive behavior, listen effectively, invite critique and respect their time – and you will build trust and improve communication.

For concepts, doing this exercise early has many benefits. Great ideas can be incorporated, good ideas that don’t quite fit can be saved for later, and unworkable ideas can be brought to light with plenty of time for you to demonstrate why they weren’t chosen. You will maximize your potential to create the best possible design, with the most buy-in, while minimizing future distractions.

It all starts with the concept sketches

Pick a project that is on your agenda for the future but not scheduled yet, and sketch a broad set of rough concepts. I recommend grabbing one or two other people experienced at brainstorms like these, so your first round will demonstrate overall concept sketching best practices. Include sensible fixes to obvious problems, a few cohesive end-to-end task flows and one or two bigger boundary-pushing ideas.

Draw everything by hand. Using a template resource like Interfacesketch or Sketchsheets can help to provide some structure, but software will make things look too finished. If you leave things a bit ‘rough’ it feels approachable and you will get more feedback on the concepts you’re trying to show. If people start critiquing the words and colors you know the fidelity is too high.

Set the stage for an easy, relaxed discussion

“We’re going to start work on (X) in a month or two, so I wanted to start thinking ahead. Do you have a few minutes to walk through some rough concept sketches?”

Find some wall space that you can use for a while, and make the surrounding area inviting – move tables away, set up some chairs, put out a bowl of bite-sized snacks…be creative! Keep some pencils handy, as well as sticky notes and printouts of your templates. Then, when convenient, start walking people through your sketches in groups of up to three.

Talk to people in every domain – product, front- and back-end development, customer service, senior leadership, quality assurance – anyone that has a stake in the product. Make it clear that everyone is welcome.

Encourage honest, forthright feedback

These are intentionally preliminary. I’m not sure I’d even want to ship some of these, but they’re here to generate discussion and help me understand how to approach the design. Tell me what you personally think, how our customers will react, how realistic they are, how you’d tweak them, how you’d try to solve the same problem in a completely different way, whatever. Don’t hold back.

Something I learned from facilitating qualitative discussions is that most people don’t feel comfortable giving feedback when it’s critical. You have to really push the fact that their honesty is essential, and you’re not just looking for approval.

Make absolutely sure you’re not ‘selling’ these designs. You are not trying to find out how to make these work; if anything, you need to hear why they won’t. It’s good practice to prevent you from getting too attached to ideas, and also lets others know they can point out flaws without you taking it personally.

Model a constructive peer review process

OK, the search bar behaves a little differently between sections. I sketched out a few ways we could make it consistent. These are concepts I’d like to prototype for customer input, so please point out things like awkward wording or usability issues.

As you show each concept, frame up what you are showing them and ask for the kind of feedback you’re hoping to get. A focused, single-feature sketch for a practical solution is a good place to start. After that, show more abstract or complex concepts.

This one is speculative, but I was thinking: what if we took a radically different approach? We might not be able to build this now, but it might be a goal for the long term. I wouldn’t put these in front of customers yet, and I’m interested in your reaction to the overall idea, so please ignore small details for now.

With ‘blue sky’ ideas, acknowledge their speculative nature up-front, and discuss why you want to explore them. If they are averse to that level of abstraction, tell them the point of a wild idea is to inspire people to think of practical alternatives that otherwise might not have occurred to them.

The goal is to engage in the critique session as peers. Equip them with enough context so they know what they’re looking at and why, then engage with them as an equal. Your body language can encourage this; for instance, don’t stand in front and lecture – instead, try sitting with them, facing the sketches together. That’s a subtle way to break down barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Gathering and handling feedback

Handling feedback

You’ve been telling people all along that you want criticism, and now you’re gonna get it. How you react here is critical and will set the tone for the future in a huge way. Here’s a short primer of the typical reactions you can expect, and examples of how to make the most of them.

Respond to positive feedback with further questions 

“I really like it.”
“Really? Why?”
“It really solves a problem our customers have.”
“Oh, cool! What problem? Please give me the specifics.”

When people like something, it can be for a variety of reasons – personal taste, solving a problem they’ve had forever, etc. Your job is to find out why they like it. Encourage them to be specific, and keep digging until you get to the root cause. Once you have that, you can iterate on that problem and discover even better solutions. The second or third pass on ‘successful’ concepts are where you often create the most compelling designs.

Accept criticism with grace and gratitude

“Yeah, that one will never work.”
“Really? Why?”
“MANY reasons, unfortunately.”
“Would you mind going through them one by one? It would help me to know exactly what those reasons are, so I can work with them in mind.”

You’re about to discover what’s been frustrating this person’s ability to innovate. Jackpot! Understanding these issues clearly is vital for any design that goes beyond ‘low hanging fruit’ into the realm of innovation and lasting change. Also, graciously accepting criticism will earn you a remarkable amount of trust. You’re teaching people to be honest with you, and that pays huge dividends when things get difficult.

Encourage them to contribute as much as they wish

“You should talk to Anna about concept number 3, I saw her planning on a similar concept a few weeks ago.”
“Really? Excellent!”
(Write a note to say ‘Consult with Anna’ on a sticky note and stick it directly to that sketch)
“Tell you what, if you notice more stuff like that later on, just go ahead and write a note and stick it to the wall. Put your name on it so I know who to follow up with.”

Giving people permission to add to the wall is another big step. Encourage them to interact with it and this becomes a medium for visual collaboration. You know you’ve succeeded when people you haven’t even walked through start putting up notes. That means word of mouth is taking hold.

 Help them to design better concepts than you

“Hey, we could totally do that idea #3 a lot better.”
“Really? Cool.”
“Yeah, we could cut out three steps.”
“Tell you what, let’s make a note of that, and right after we’re done walking through everything let’s sketch it out.”

Our job as designers isn’t to have the best ideas, it’s to make sure customers get the benefit of the best ideas. If someone can improve on your concept, help them sketch it at the same fidelity as your other concepts, and make them explain it to you until you can explain it to others with the same conviction and thoroughness as your own ideas.

Add it to the wall, and walk through it with your audiences. Grab some people that walked through earlier and get their feedback. Do everything you can to make sure it’s been given the same exposure and weight as the original concepts. And, if it ever makes it into the final product, give credit to the person that had the idea. Do that a few times and you will have allies that will fight for UX at every level of the organization.

Treat a bad idea with the same amount of respect as a great one

“I have an idea, but…you’ll think it’s stupid.”
“Nah, don’t say that. Tell me your idea.”
“Yeah, really.”
“No, it’s dumb.”
“Please, go ahead. I promise I’ll listen. And even if you think it’s stupid, it may be a great idea that just needs to be done in a different way to work in this context, and seeing it will inspire someone else to create it.”

You will have people that really want to contribute, but their personal taste is completely counter to the product, or their idea just doesn’t fit. Use this as an opportunity to demonstrate the way UX makes decisions. Sketch the idea, put it up on the wall, and talk through it as usual. But, when the time comes to narrow down ideas for the next round, and that idea gets eliminated, tell them your rationale. Be technical and precise. Make it so they understand the way we make decisions – based on usability, feasibility, and business sense rather than personal taste or harsh judgment.

Identify challenging situations for later

“Why are we even doing this?”
“What do you mean? Tell me more.”
“We know what we have to do. We just have to do it. My time is better spent elsewhere right now. Can I go?”
“Absolutely! No worries. I still want to make sure I get your input. Can I follow up with you some other time?”

This is (hopefully) rare, but it can happen, so it’s best to be prepared. Someone can be harshly critical, or push their own idea while criticizing the others in an effort to crown a ‘winner’, or is highly resistant to the concept of discussion altogether. Regardless, as off-putting as it can be in the moment, be grateful it’s happening now.

Why? Because you’re learning who this difficult person is weeks before you begin work, instead of right in the middle of a tight deadline! Don’t try to convince them of the value of this exercise now, especially if there are others present – instead, defuse the situation with as much grace as you can, and meet up with them later.

At the later meeting, take time to just listen! Don’t put anything forward unless asked, just ask questions and take notes. If you attempt to use this first meeting to convince them of anything at all, it will give the impression you had your mind made up before you even showed up, and that will only harden their resolve.

Finish the meeting by mirroring back what they told you until they agree that your understanding is accurate. Then, thank them for their time, promise you will follow up on their concerns, and leave. This is the best strategy for several reasons:

  • Sometimes, just the act of listening will defuse the situation entirely. Some people just want to be heard, and that’s enough.
  • Even if listening isn’t enough, it will prepare you to address their issues. You can’t solve a problem that you don’t understand, so get them to tell you everything.
  • You will almost certainly learn something important. The few times I’ve encountered this, that person had some horror story involving UX. Chances are they’re not the only one in the company who had that experience, so now you have an opportunity to defuse their long-held fears by clearly communicating how you will prevent that problem from recurring. For example, at one job, the previous UX contractor refused to consult with the development team, and forced a design through that was unnecessarily fragile and labor-intensive. So, in our kick-off meeting, I made a point to say every phase would include a developer feasibility review, include maintainability as an explicit design criteria, and share UX progress in our daily SCRUM. I saw the tension literally drain from the room.

These situations can be incredibly stressful, but if you handle them well you will be amazed at how the relationship can right itself. A few times, that harsh critic became my strongest ally. They were just disappointed idealists, and when they realized we were both after the same thing – building a great product – their resistance changed to enthusiasm.

The hoped-for communication outcomes

Better communication

So far this exercise has centered around making sketching and discussion sessions productive. But the truth is, the vast majority of concepts you produce here, no matter how interesting, will merely be inspirations for the final product. Successive rounds of iteration, feedback, and experimentation will take the design far away from these early sketches. So, from the design perspective, the sharing exercise might not produce much; you might generate only a few new ideas, and the ones that you get may be unusable.

It doesn’t matter. The most important outcome of this activity is the communication best practices you model. As each person voices a concern or pitches an idea, your response tells them what they can expect in the future. These designs will eventually fade away, but the work culture you create here will persist. You could almost say the real purpose of the exercise is the discussion, and the sketches are almost just a pretext. 

These are the outcomes I would aim for:

  • Show your colleagues you’re open and collaborative. You act in good faith and explain your thinking.
  • Understand your colleagues better. Hopefully you now know who are the drivers and who are the followers; who can handle ambiguity and who needs exact details; who is really invested and who only wants to be kept loosely informed.
  • Lay the foundation for your ‘soft’ network. Now you know who you can consult with on tough problems, learn the company history from and even play devil’s advocate to keep you honest.
  • Connect people with each other. If someone has a question you can’t answer, now you can say ‘I don’t know, but (this person) will’. There’s no better way to break down silos.
  • Discover and defuse problems before they begin. Address them now, when you have the luxury of time to think them through.

All this may seem peripheral to the UX process you were taught in school, but it’s the glue that holds complex projects together. In fact, the few wild successes I’ve been a part of were clearly due to our team communication dynamic, in a way that allowed for extensive, frank, honest discussions about design. The failed projects along the way were almost always due to communication breakdowns and mismatched expectations. Learning how to talk about design can really make all the difference.

In summary

By walking through the process from beginning to end, I hope I’ve shown how the concept review – a relatively simple, straightforward design tool – can be the catalyst for a healthy working relationship with your extended team.

Regardless of how cool the sketches are, the most important outcomes of this sharing exercise are the methods of discussion and critique you demonstrate, the way you handle criticism, and the thoroughness of your follow-through. Treat each component of the exercise as an opportunity to learn and teach, and with a little luck, you’ll have a lasting impact on your company’s communication style that will make your design process a whole lot easier in the future.

Written by David Snow
Published 2016-11-30