When product teams have a specific design problem to solve, they typically conduct brainstorming sessions. Brainstorming is a group activity that allows teams to discuss the problem, come up with a variety of ideas on how to solve it, and decide which ones they want to explore in-depth. You can unlock even more of a team’s creative potential with a technique that combines brainstorming and sketching called sketchstorming.
In this article, we will review the concept of sketchstorming, understand why it’s valuable for product designers, and how they can make the most of it.
What Is Sketchstorming?
Although there are many ways to share thoughts among a team, expressing ideas and potential solutions in the form of visuals works exceptionally well. Humans are visual creatures, and it’s much easier to convey information in a visual format because the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text. Teams should absolutely take advantage of this facet of human nature by including visual communication in their planning.
Although there are plenty of ways to create visuals, sketching is the most affordable method for most people. You don’t need to master special tools to start sketching; all you need is a pen and paper. Everyone, regardless of refined artistic ability, can create some manner of rough sketches that share their ideas with other people. The low barrier of entry to sketching as a method of creating visuals makes it ideal for use in ideation sessions.
Sketchstorming is a new take on brainstorming that uses sketching as a way to generate ideas. When team members practice sketchstorming, each team member sketches solutions to the problem at hand and shares it with other team members. The team then selects the best idea together. Sketchstorming not only allows a product team to build a better understanding of the problem space, but it also helps them to quickly uncover many potential solutions before diving deep into details. Sketchstorming is especially useful in the early stages of the product design process when product teams need to explore the problem space, discuss various ideas, and select the design direction.
How Does Sketchstorming Work?
Sketchstorming is a straightforward group exercise. Helpfully, it doesn’t require extensive preparation or special skills. Here is an overview of the process:
- The session participants meet together offline (i.e., at a venue like a conference room) or online (using tools like Zoom or Google Hangouts).
- They hear the problem that they need to solve. Typically, the problem is provided in the form of “How might we...?” question. For example, if a team has a problem with a high bounce rate on their landing page, the problem might be stated as “How might we redesign the top area of the page to make it more engaging?”
- Each session participant sketches their ideas on how to solve the problem. Participants should sketch ideas individually. Depending on the nature of the task, the sketches can contain a visualization of product pages or individual design decisions, such as design of a specific UI element like UI form.
- Participants share their ideas with others by sticking their sketches on the wall. For online sketchstorming sessions, participants can use an online whiteboard like Miro.
- After everyone finishes sketching, team members review the sketches together and vote for the best ideas. These ideas will later be built and tested.
What You Need to Run a Sketchstorming Event
You need four things to get started:
- A group of three to five session participants. It’s better to invite people from diverse disciplines rather than only design and development. By doing that, you will likely see a unique perspective on the problem space.
- (Only for offline sessions) A venue that allows participants to sketch comfortably. Ideally, this should be a well-lit room with tables and chairs for comfortable work.
- Enough time. The session typically takes about 30 to 40 minutes.
- (Only for offline sessions) Supplies. Ensure that you have enough supplies to run the session.
The last point requires additional clarification. Here are supplies that you need to offer:
- Markers. It’s better to use markers than pencils because they help session participants to create thick lines so the sketches will be distinguishable from a distance. Always check the markers before the session to ensure that they are not dried out.
- Paper. Ensure that you have a lot of paper for sketching. The A4 format works well.
- Wall space. Session participants will stick sketches on the wall.
- Adhesive label. Use Blu-Tack or something similar for sticking the sketches up on the wall.
- Colored Post-its. Team members will use Post-its to vote for ideas. These also allow session participants to leave a comment like explaining the rationale behind their decisions. Each team member will have a pack of Post-its with a particular color.
7 Tips for More Effective Sketchstorming
Now that we’ve covered the basics, here are a few practical recommendations that will help you to make the most of sketchstorming.
Invite a facilitator to run the session.
Although teams can sketchstorm either with or without a facilitator, unmoderated sessions typically end up in a situation when one or two people in a group become its dominant voice. Experienced facilitators prevent such situations by making sure that every team member has an opportunity to speak up and that every voice is heard. Plus, the facilitator tracks the time and ensures that the session ends on schedule.
Clearly state a goal of the session and ensure that everyone understands it.
Each session should have a particular goal, which is to solve a specific problem. Ensure that the problem is clear to everyone, meaning that everyone understands the importance of finding a solution, and that it’s not too broad. Broad problems should be divided into a few separate, smaller problems. When teams work on too broad a problem, they risk creating sketches that target different parts of the larger issue instead of focusing on the same problem. Let’s look at an example:
- Broad problem: “How might we improve the design of our landing page?”
- Focused problem: “How might we redesign the top area of our landing page to make it more engaging (i.e., more visitors will click on the primary call to action button)?”
Create a problem statement and share it with session participants before getting started. As a best practice, you should send it along with an agenda in your invitation to the event. Of course, you can’t guarantee that everyone will read the agenda and come prepared, so remind the participants about the problem during the session by printing out a statement and putting it on the wall.
Remind session participants not to spend time on making sketches pretty.
Sketchstorming is not about developing beautiful drawings; it's about finding the right solution for the problem at hand as fast as possible. That’s why simple sketches are the best. Session participants should create simple and rough sketches with just enough detail to convey meaning.
Give participants some time to think about a problem and potential solutions.
Don’t force session participants to start sketching right after they hear about a problem. Instead, offer them some time to think about a problem and a potential solution to it first. Plan for at least 10 minutes for that part of the event.
Don’t be critical of the ideas.
Session participants should not be afraid to share any ideas, including those that may seem wacky. Remember that there are no bad ideas in brainstorming. The ideas that we think are bad can often spark a very good discussion and lead to new insights.
Practice the Crazy Eights method. Crazy Eights is a Google Ventures Design sprint technique that allows a product team to visualize a lot of ideas in a short period. The procedure requires each team member to sketch eight ideas in five minutes. Read Jake Knapp’s article to learn more about this technique.
Schedule enough time for group discussion.
The goal of sketchstoriming is not to find a perfect idea, but to discuss the problem and possible solutions. That’s why at the end of the session, when the team will decide which idea (or ideas) they want to explore in-depth, it’s essential to spend some time discussing the concepts together. Typically, you need to schedule 10 to 20 minutes for a group discussion.
Run a follow up round of sketchstorming.
At the end of the sketchstorming session, the team will likely have a bunch of ideas that they want to explore in greater depth. You should run an additional round of sketchstroming and build on the ideas. During the extra round, which is typically scheduled in a few days after the first round, session participants will likely use ideas that they selected on the first round as a foundation.
Sketchstorming is an excellent ideation tool that can help you better understand a problem space and generate a lot of ideas on how to solve it. To make the most of this tool, combine it with other powerful methods such as predictive personae. Doing so will help you not only create a solution to a problem, but also ensure that the solution will work for your users.
Nick Babich is a UX architect and writer who’s passionate about user experience. He has more than 15 years of experience in the field of product design. He took an active role as a UX practitioner in developing dozens of mobile apps and websites. Nick is also passionate about psychology and cinema.