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How sketching sessions make your team more collaborative

Sketching sessions can be defined as a get-together where ideas are shared through visual means. They often take place after some research and are done in the form of ‘blue-sky thinking’, allowing a team to tackle the research findings without constraints. They’re great for quickly coming up with ideas that can be refined later.

This doesn't have to be the only time when sketching as a team can be valuable. It can be used frequently to tackle specific customer problems throughout your team’s design process. We've explored this way of thinking within agile team processes for over a year and found an approach we think worth sharing.

How we started

Our team began running regular sketching sessions after our retrospectives showed that work was going into sprints without everyone knowing its importance. Our engineers understood what they needed to achieve, but they weren’t always on board with the solution. Naturally, this led to team morale issues.

So we explored and came up with ways to involve the whole team in deciding how we'd approach upcoming work. One idea was to run weekly team sketching sessions to get everyone more comfortable with the individual stories in our backlog, as well as their solutions, before they go into a sprint.

Figure: scheduling sketching as part our of weekly cycle keeps it part of our routine

Our first session

Our first weekly sketching session didn’t go as planned. Seven people joined, but three preferred to observe because they felt they couldn't draw, and one person was more comfortable writing out their thoughts. This left only three of us to sketch.

I thought everyone would be comfortable with picking up a sharpie and whipping out wireframes each week. Turns out I asked too much of the team.

Improving our approach

In following sessions, instead of giving out blank pieces of paper we provided everyone with simple screen templates as a starting point. We  also offered sketching 'components' for people to use, like buttons, graphs, and text boxes. Everything became more accessible and easier, and the team grew  comfortable visualising their ideas.

Figure: A sample of sketch components used in our sketching sessions.

Our team no longer had to worry about their drawing skills, allowing them to focus on being creative with their solutions. That meant we could keep the sessions under an hour and run them frequently.

Iterating our approach

By making it easier to sketch, we found that people focused on a single idea. Instead of the team learning from each other’s diverse perspectives to come up with something well-rounded, people tended to tweak their own sketches to make them as “refined” as possible. This wasn’t beneficial as we spent little time trying to tackle the user stories from different perspectives.

To address this, we changed the format to encourage everyone to consider other team members' ideas. Initially, the session ran in 20-minute intervals: 10 minutes sketching, and the remaining time presenting and sharing feedback. After each interval, we asked individuals to pick someone else's idea to build on or incorporate into what they were working on.

This change led to ideas being refined individually by several people. As a result, people became more open to each other's ideas, and it meant good ideas naturally started to trickle into everyone's designs.

Figure: combining the best parts of different people’s approaches gives us a stronger end result 

Where we are today

We’ve run our sketching sessions for a year now, and it’s become one of our core team rituals. It has evolved from a simple ideation session into something that allows us to bond as a team and collectively share ideas. It  also creates shared ownership of the solutions we commit to deliver. It has helped the team to appreciate that they can come up with solutions just as well as a designer can.

Figure: Product managers and engineers taking part in a sketching session

Our weekly session continues to evolve. Some changes have turned out to work well, while others not so much.

For example, when working from home became the norm after the pandemic, we first tried to keep sketching with a pen and paper and share things by taking and sending pictures to one another. This quickly became convoluted. It made it harder to keep up with what everyone was doing and reduced collaboration. We moved the sketching session online and used a virtual collaborative whiteboard to allow everyone to easily see and extend each other’s ideas.

Most importantly, the sessions are no longer my responsibility to lead as our team’s designer. Everyone in the team shares ideas on how we can evolve our sessions, and use different techniques to explore problems from new angles. Truly collaborative design. 🙌


Ahmed Mohamed

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