Sketching with users

One of the most powerful things I've done in product design is collaborative sketching with users. It gave me some great ideas to take back to the team and helped validate some existing ideas. They're a great companion to design charrettes with internal stakeholders.

How It Happened 

The product in question - a store for purchasing media and a light media management piece - was undergoing a redesign, and a potentially large one, so there were a number of steps I took to get to the heart of the problem: 

  1. Good old fashioned stakeholder interviews;
  2. Hour-long conversations with representative users; 
  3. Persona creation (tasks, beliefs, attitudes) based on those conversations; 
  4. Collab sketching with users; 
  5. Mapping persona tasks to specific steps in the overall journey.

The conversations with users were based on indi young's work. This product was based on watching media (TV shows, movies...) so my questions were focused mostly on the purchasing and watching side. But I needed to first understand how and where and why people watch TV shows and movies, so I started there.


I used our recruiting firm (with a pretty standard screening process) to get people who met the key customer demographics for the products. I recorded all of the Skype calls with Piezo, and then used Mechanical Turk to create transcripts.

The beauty of this is that I then had more  representative people to design for, versus abstract demographics. I don't know about you, but I prefer designing for Bill (who loves movies and enjoys watching them on his comfortable couch over some freshly popped popcorn) over designing for an abstract (a single Hispanic male in the 35-54 age range with no children, 2 cars, and an annual household income of $125,000.)

Now, with those personas in mind I leaned on our recruiting firm to bring people into our office. In the interim I had created some barebones paper prototypes using OmniGraffle, which would represent the highest level flows and some of the finer interactions on screen. I also created the tasks ("Rent a movie." "Tell me who stars in Good Will Hunting .") we would use during our time together.

I don't know. Why don't you draw it?

The fun part was this: once we were in the tasks together this common exchange came up, but this time I added a twist:

User: "Is it supposed to do that?"
Me: "I don't know. What do you think it should do? Here, take this Sharpie and paper and show me ."

Now, you know that some people react with, "I can't draw!" or more precisely, "I claim I don't know how to think visually because I fear that it requires some sort of title with 'design' or 'artist' in it and I don't have that but help me here and please don't judge me okay because it looks like you have those skills!" So it was my responsibility to help those people through the process, guiding them and sketching on another piece of paper right next to them. It wasn't to upstage their ideas, but to help them feel comfortable and willing.

When someone got stuck in a task I let them start the discussion with a sketch but then I'd try to mimic it back, much like I do in a conversation. ("It sounds like you said this ...") This gave the collaborator the power to correct me if I was wrong, which was key - I might have totally been wrong. We also got to build off of ideas this way.

The space we created together also allowed people to provide ideas for product features. It wasn't too focus group-y; it was organic from the sketches created. One person suggested we sell ancillary merchandise related to media... like a T-shirt to go along with a movie. Nice idea, and our product manager ultimately put it on a backlog and considered it. 

The feedback I received from the participants was awesome. One person even said it was fun - mission accomplished!

After those sessions, I reviewed the video recordings and watched for specific trouble spots in the flows and interactions, just like any usability test, and noted them. I also noted the opportunity areas in sketching, and included them in a presentation given to the product and creative teams.

 Drawing with people really is fun 

By providing a safe and comfortable sketching environment as a part of my research, I was able to quickly see some trouble spots in my design and get some great ideas to boot.