The Most Powerful Interaction Design Tool

Katie St. FrancisProduct

Design Collaboration Team

Part of a product manager’s job is to study the problems presented to us – to learn about them from every angle – to make informed decisions. We need to understand the history of the problem, identify patterns in the data, empathize with the affected user personas, learn the various use cases, and if/how peers and competitors are tackling the problem. This discovery process is continuous and helps us decide how to proceed. Part of moving forward includes thinking through UX and UI design.

Design is easier when there are pre-established patterns and style guides from which to draw inspiration. However, if the problem is new or complex, then a quality design can be more difficult to accomplish. This is where a design studio – a collaborative Lean UX co-creation process that brings designers and non-designers together – is helpful. To help determine if the problem you’re trying to solve is something that would benefit from a design studio, start by asking yourself these questions:

Is it more complex than a bug or a small improvement? If it’s something difficult to understand, a change that will impact a large number of users, or involves a high amount of risk, then it’s a good candidate for a design studio.

Are there a lot of opinions about the “right” approach? Knowledgeable people have had time to sit with the problem. Talking through their thoughts using the design studio process can lead to bigger and better ideas.

Pulling varying ideas on what is deemed good or right is very important when solving problems. The organizational benefits include getting buy-in across the teams and departments, having a shared sense of understanding and ownership about solving the problem, and managing stakeholder expectations. The product outcome is the best possible solution for your customers through rich, ongoing collaboration. That’s why collaboration is the most powerful interaction design tool in your toolbelt.

How Realtracs Design Studios Work

We used an adapted version of in-person design studios extensively when we were tackling a legacy application rewrite. We also turned to this practice, even virtually via video conference, while solving less expansive problems. The rewrite was on the product roadmap for many years, leading to diverse opinions on the best solutions. We needed to surface those opinions early in the process to help understand existing problems, generate better ideas, and identify potential risks. 

The first step is determining the makeup of a cross-discipline team and informing them about the upcoming process. Our team, which remained consistent through all of our studio sessions, included people from product/design, engineering, data compliance, support, and customer happiness. Note: we limited our team to internal colleagues and brought clients into the mix later. However, including external customers in design studios can be valuable and is highly recommended. 

The team you assemble needs to understand how the process works. Explain up front that it may involve a series of sessions and how a challenging problem rarely gets worked out in a single meeting. Having some consistency in participation minimizes the time needed to go over previous discussions, so get commitment upfront. This type of work is not for everyone.

Schedule the first session with the final list of participants – between five and eight people works best. Start the session by going over the mechanics: explain the process, expected results, and hand out materials (11×17 paper with six equal-size boxes and pencils). Next, define the problem. Once you have agreement on the problem, move to idea generation, presentations, and iterations. The meeting agenda may look something like this:

  • How Design Studios Work (10 minutes)
  • Problem definition & constraints (15-30 minutes)
  • Individual idea generation (10 minutes)
  • Presentation and critique (3 minutes per person)
  • Iterate and refine (5 minutes)
  • Team idea generation (15-30 minutes)

Generating Ideas and Iterating

The idea generation part of the process involves drawing out visuals – basic sketches, workflows, etc. – to solve the problem at hand. For each idea generation phase, the participants get an 11×17 sheet of paper with six boxes outlined. Each box is for a low-fidelity sketch that could help solve the problem. This can be awkward for some people: they worry their chicken scratches don’t look nice or that their input is somehow less valuable because they’re not a designer. Encourage the participants to be free to create without judgment along the way. It’s lines and circles, not an art show!

Again, the goal of these exercises is to drive a conversation and arrive at the best possible (initial) solution for customers. The next step to stimulate that conversation is having each team member quickly present their drawings to receive feedback. Although fast-paced, this round-robin technique often teases out a lot of interesting nuances that would otherwise go unspoken. This provides fodder for the next step: pick one of the ideas which had the best feedback and develop it further.

The result in the final part of the studio session should be a rich discussion which helps your team rally around a general concept that the product manager and/or product designer can take further and prototype with users. However, that’s not the only outcome. You have a cross-discipline team of people that have been heard and have a shared sense of ownership of the work – a huge win.

Not Design by Committee

While the term ‘design by committee’ might make us run for the hills (and rightfully so), all teams can agree that collaboration is essential for design. So, it’s important to note the design studio process is not the same as design by committee. First, design studio participants are there for a collaborative discussion about a specific problem where a committee comes together with competing agendas that lead to conflict and scope creep. The second main difference is there is a single leader of the design studio team. The leader – a product manager or designer – selects the participants, takes all of the inputs to make the best design decisions for the problem at hand, and is responsible for not compromising the product vision.

Recommended Reading

To learn more about Design Studios and other Lean design processes, go check out Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf.