User experience designers like me have to generate concepts, communicate ideas, map processes, or simply problem solve throughout each project we work on. The difficulty is always how to share these ideas with your clients without using up too much time or money, or hiding away and working on a problem to find you’ve missed the core project objectives that your client was expecting.
The best way I’ve found to quickly, easily, and comprehensively communicate with both my team and my client: share sketches throughout the whole project. Not only does this help me articulate how I plan to tackle a problem, but by thinking out loud on paper, it allows everyone—myself, my team, and my client—to see how ideas begin, evolve, and finally crystalize into the solution we’ve all been working toward.
“A problem visualized is a problem halved.”
Sharing sketches both internally and externally enables collaboration and creativity across the whole team, resulting in shared understanding and alignment from start to finish.
To that end, keep reading for my top 7 tips for when to use sketching during a UX project.
1. Sketching meetings, talks, training sessions, and conferences
These are the perfect places to start sketching (and how I personally got into the regular habit of drawing and became comfortable with my level of skill).
Even if you’re not ready to put your doodles in front of anyone else, capturing meetings, training, talks, and conferences are an ideal start. You’re probably already making notes, so starting to add visual elements such as titles, dividers and containers, small images to represent key points, arrows to connect information, and speech bubbles to capture quotes isn’t that much of a stretch. These simple tricks really elevate your content to be more engaging and enjoyable to read.
Not only are these things personal (no one has to see them if you don’t want them to), but sketching workplace events are useful for building up your skill set. If you record your notes visually, you’ll be more likely to go back and reflect upon them.
“Learn to draw 5-10 common things to a standard you’re happy with.”
Why not see if there are topics or images that crop up regularly? Everyone relates lightbulbs to ideas, so if you’re in a lot of brainstorming meetings practice those. It’s also likely that you’ll be working with people, so practice drawing stickpeople and adding more detail—computers, phones, and offices are all things that are likely to come up. The key is to learn to draw 5-10 common things to a standard you’re happy with.
By nailing down a few frequently used subjects you’ll soon build up your own visual vocabulary of items that you can quickly and confidently draw upon. So, when it comes to applying these skills to projects you’re working on you’ll already be confident in what you’re showing to your team and the stakeholders.
Top tip: Once you feel you can open up and feel comfortable sharing (try and do this early to build your confidence), draw up the meeting, take a picture of it, and send it to all the attendees—they’ll be blown away. Not only were you paying the most attention, but you’ve captured all the information in an engaging way that they want to read and share. This also helps keep everyone in attendance quite literally on the same page.
What to watch out for: Make sure you let people know before the meeting starts that you’ll be sketchnoting. I’ve forgotten on many occasions and had clients glaring at me from across the table as they think you’re doodling and failing to pay attention in a meeting that they may have paid a lot of money for. A single sentence at the start can put them at ease (even if they don’t or won’t quite understand what you mean until the end). This lets them know you’re not wasting time and that you’ve actually been deeply engaged the whole time.
2. Sketching to problem solve
This is the really fun part—you’ve had the kickoff meetings, the project is moving forward, and you’re in a room with your team. How are you going to address the problem?
Draw it, of course! A problem visualized is a problem halved.
Grab a sheet of paper or get next to a whiteboard. Draw a big circle and write “the issue you’re trying to fix” clearly—you can also add visual stimuli. This makes it visible for everyone. Now start importing ideas from around the room—or, even better, get each individual to draw/write on a Post-it (one issue per note). Include every issue they can think of that’s connected to the core issue. This promotes an inclusive working environment, as everyone gets to submit ideas.
Laying out and organizing the ideas around your core problem helps group them into common themes. Once you’ve collected and organized the ideas, you’ll be able to make connections between the problems. This helps you see where solutions might be able to have the most impact.
Drawing things out helps everyone in the room to start to visualize how the entire problem is constructed as a whole, while also helping identify how it can be broken down into chunks which can then be tackled in a more logical, manageable, way.
What to watch out for: While this method helps get the brain thinking and ideas out there from the group, you can’t simply leave ideas on the whiteboard and think your problem is solved. Make sure you take time to gather, organize, and finalize your idea sessions into something more concrete and usable. Someone on the team should own this and be responsible for the next steps—you don’t want to lose a fantastic idea when the next meeting starts and someone wipes away all your good work.
3. Communicating ideas
Once you’ve drawn out the problem, sketching is perfect for generating ideas for solutions. It’s quick, easy, and everyone can see what you mean. It’s also visual, so you and your team can quickly identify, discuss, and filter the good and bad ideas out.
Whether it’s a screen or a service design, even simple diagrams will help you get your message across and explained clearly and easily.
One of the best methods to ensure you reach a great idea that everyone agrees on in a group setting is to:
- Split the group into smaller teams—2-4 people per team is ideal
- Get every individual to draw out 4-5 quick ideas that solve the problem
- Each individual presents their ideas and feeds back to others
- Take the best parts from everyone’s first ideas and iterate on your solutions. Incorporate the popular elements that your colleagues came up with, and get rid of the stuff that wasn’t too popular or feasible in hindsight.
- Go through the presentation and feedback session again. This time try to form a group consensus as to what elements should be combined to make the best possible solution your teams can come up with.
- Assign someone within your group to draw up the collaborative effort into a consolidated sketch. This will ensure all the best elements are featured in your final design.
- Bring the group back together and repeat the present/feedback loop. This time, each team presents their final sketch idea.
- As before, each group takes the best parts of the other groups’ ideas and incorporates them into their own amended design
- After this round, come together and combine the best overall ideas into one design
“Sketching is quick, easy, and everyone can see what you mean.”
At the end of the session you’ll have an ideal group consensus on an approach or a design. Ideally, it’s been democratic—everyone had an opportunity to feed into the mockup. The solution produced is reflective of all the best ideas from the whole group. Perfect!
Top tip: Even when working alone, sketching multiple quick ideas helps combine and consolidate your thoughts as you go, meaning you’ll still be able to easily communicate the how, why, and most importantly who your designs will help. Also, being able to swiftly doodle “I’m thinking this” helps overcome language barriers when working with international clients/customers. In my experience this has definitely saved time and unnecessary frustration for both parties.
4. Developing quick concepts
Another useful application for sketching in UX is drawing out the overall vision and concept for a project on a single page. This is especially helpful when preparing pitches, or early in initial engagements with clients, as it summarises your slides, early ideas, and overall experience in one simple image that creates a vision for the projects future development.
Capturing a selection of your ideas visually early on, in one core image, can really help get clients onboard with you and your team. Visualizing your ideas also has the additional benefit of making them easily shareable, whether that’s internally in your war room, or for clients to distribute with their stakeholders and wider team. Importantly, this adds value to your client’s experience—they won’t expect it and as a result it will differentiate your projects from other agencies from day one.
This is one of my favorite parts of my sketching process—it’s an opportunity to explore the arc of what is possible and unrestrained, before the nuts and bolts of project constraints appear. The fact that it’s visual and hand-drawn adds a human connection—it creates a contrast with slickly designed business slides and shows we’re just real people trying to fix real people’s problems.
Related: Design lessons from Dave Grohl
Including a sketch that’s so raw and unfinished will seem unusual to start with. Equally, you might be nervous about inserting a hand drawn image into a deck. You may ask yourself will it be right for the client? Will this kind of clarity benefit the project? But don’t worry too much. I’ve had positive feedback from these vision/concept pieces, so give it a try—it could really help your pitch or early conversations stand out from the crowd.
What to watch out for: Above, I say not to worry about introducing sketches and rough concepts into a deck, but this does come with a caveat: it won’t work for all clients. Some will be expecting glossy pictures of hands holding phones and tablets with a polished idea on them so they can conceive what the idea will look like in real life. As always, it’s important to gauge and understand your clients. So I advise floating these kinds of ideas early to see how comfortable the client is with them. Sketching can still aid your thinking, but it might just be that what you’ve created isn’t suitable to present to your final audience.
5. Sketching the sentiment
Over the course of the research being captured and the insights being qualified, I like to start building up what I call sketching the sentiment—this is the earliest stage of my “real” design process. I draw screens, but instead of worrying where the navigation bar might go or how that menu might work, this stage is all about capturing the “It should do something like this” aspect of the design.
Know you need a screen that asks for info? Draw some form fields and a question mark… There’s going to be some data visualization? Draw a pie chart and a bar… There’ll be badges, awards, or some form of recognition? Sketch a stickperson cheering to themself on a podium, or a trophy, or anything that represents victory to you.
I’d advise drawing one computer/tablet/phone and photocopying a bunch of them so you can draw one idea per “screen.” Then sketch out all the aspects you want your product or app to include—sketch the sentiment of each stage in the process.
You should avoid considering the details of each screen at this stage—this allows you to keep making progress, while exploring and reorganizing how the process or journey should flow with ease. By moving these sketches around you can quickly highlight where things need to join, split, diverge, or combine without getting bogged down in specific aspects that (at this stage) will only hold you up.
Once you have the sentiments of each stage of the journey/process/app sketched out, use these as anchors or containers for the more specific steps or screens that build up and combine to complete each aspect of the overarching sentiment.
Outlining these key points first allows you to easily visualize, understand, and explain at a high level how the process as a whole fits together. This provides you with the ability to explore and iterate solutions at a deeper level without disrupting the overall flow of the project.
6. Creating user journey/process comic strips and storyboards
Programs like PowerPoint and Illustrator allow you to create clean and easy-to-understand layouts for journey process maps. What they miss, however, is the human element, which makes it difficult to capture the emotions of what your users will be experiencing at each stage. Here’s where comic strips and storyboards come in—they’re ideal for capturing both what the user is doing and feeling at each interaction or touchpoint.
Comic strips are perfect for contrasting the existing journey to what an ideal journey might look like. Again, these can start lo-fi, with stickpeople acting out the user journey that they’ll move all the way through—from the initial to the ideal experience.
Mapping out comics can really help you capture a complex process in a simple, insightful, and engaging way. Combining the narrative elements and visuals of comic strips helps you clearly show to clients and stakeholders how the process works while highlighting how it can be improved from a human-centered perspective.
Top tip: Take some time to learn simple expressions representing happiness, confusion, anger, frustration, and relief—these will go a long way to bringing your journeys to life.
What to watch out for: Sometimes the idea of a comic is going to seem pretty out there to a client. When you mention a comic strip there’s a chance that the uninitiated might conjure up unsavory images of nerds in basements engrossed in Gotham.
Again, setting the scene with your client is important. Introduce small 2-3 panel comics showing individual interactions along the journey rather than a fully-formed graphic novel.
Also, creating comics requires some work and thought to ensure you’re capturing the parts of the journey you need to. Avoid launching straight into drawing it because you’ll end up failing to capture the right things. Plan it out, write a script, understand what’s going to be on each panel and why. If you nail this down before you start drawing, the comic will make more sense and will have a greater impact with your client.
7. Prototyping screens and information architecture
Finally, remember to sketch your core designs. Once you’ve captured the conversations, solved the problems, sketched the sentiments, captured your user comics, and come up with some concepts, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of designs.
One advantage of generating lots of these types of sketches is that you can get to user testing earlier. Allowing you to quickly iterate based on feedback and then ensure you’re setting yourself up to refine the best ideas into high-fidelity design elements. This stage is where all of the others come together.
Top tip: Draw out “jigsaw pieces” of the elements you know will need to make up the final designs. You can then freely move these design features around. Why not even try and change the priority of features to form the best possible journey?
Get it right, refine it into true wireframes, and then pass it all to your visual designers so they can really bring the composite elements to life.
Finally—and most importantly—share you work!
— Chris Spalton (@ChrisSpalton) September 13, 2017
Throughout the whole process, get in the habit of sharing your sketches. That means:
- Don’t just stuff your sketches in a drawer to be forgotten about
- Don’t wait until the end of the project to suddenly conjure up a pixel-perfect design for your client—think iterative development (sketching comes into its own here)
- Share sketches with your team and client throughout the whole project lifecycle
- Consider sharing sketches with your peers and wider social media network
What I cannot stress enough is that the single biggest benefit of sketching is showing your thinking—ugliness and all—spanning the entire arc of a project. Show people you’ve gone through a process to solve their problem, display the evolution of ideas, and explain how you got to where you did and why.
These benefits aren’t just limited to UX or design; no matter where you work we’re all in the business of solving problems. Simply put, having the ability to take people on this journey via sketchnoting can have huge benefits for everyone involved. Who knows? You might not even have to write a debrief deck, because they’ll already know everything… that sounds like sketching success to me!
It’s worth mentioning:
Chances are that a few times while reading this article, you’ve thought, “That won’t work for me”—and you’re probably right. If you need to draw up a detailed list of requirements to pass to a development team, there’s no way sketching is the right thing to do at that stage.
Likewise, if you’ve got an important final project debrief to deliver to senior stakeholders, you can’t just walk in with a handful of doodles and expect them to take you seriously. I’m not saying you should necessarily replace any part of your workflow with sketching. My point is that you should explore areas where you could combine and introduce sketches to enhance your workflow and tell a better story.
Clients can be a funny bunch—it’s best not to surprise them with this stuff out of the blue. Either make it clear upfront you’ll be doing it, or introduce sketching in a drip-fed manner to help onboard them with the process. Don’t lead them to expect a big reveal and turn up solely with some drawings if you haven’t led them to expect that as a deliverable.
Take little parts from each of my tips above and start introducing them slowly. See where sketching helps you think differently, or collaborate in a different way. If you’re uncomfortable putting them in front of clients straight away, then you can use them personally or with your internal teams first. Gradually you’ll find your own niche where you can operate, and then you can work to widen this just as I have.
Remember: There are no hard and fast rules, so do what works best for you.