Participating in My First Design Studio Exercise

Last month, a group of Vodorians embarked on our inaugural design studio, blending together members of the experience design (designers, UX, writers) and the front-end engineering teams. During work hours, these teams work together as our designers hand off their designs to the front-end developers, who make those creative visions an online reality. This everyday collaboration made it natural for these teams to be the guinea pigs for the studio methodology.

What’s a Design Studio?

A design studio is an event that helps a team invent and refine solutions to a problem in an isolated environment. No technology is allowed. Like a brainstorm, one goal of the design studio is to generate as many ideas as possible in a fixed time. Like an art critique, solutions are questioned and refined. The day is blocked off by scheduled times to sketch and times to critique, switching between those modes every twenty or forty minutes. In the morning, we generated ideas on our own, followed by an afternoon session of group idea generation and refinement.

The Challenge

During this day-long exercise, we were split up into three groups, mixed between developers and designers. Each team was assigned a persona, “George”, “William” or “Dianna”, who worked different roles in the sales organization of mid-market company. We were asked to develop an interface that would help our personas with their work.

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Meeting Dianna

“Dianna” was my team’s persona. Dianna was fresh from school and was an employee at a mid-size, multi-national company. As a specialist in digital marketing and social media, she ran her company’s social channels, online campaigns, and reported the results of her work to her manager. We were given a list of Dianna’s problems, challenges and wishes for a new product. Then the distillation began.

Getting to Work

Each team’s table had a stack of blank, legal-sized papers, pencils, pens, index cards and post-it notes. The purpose of the exercise was not to make things looked pretty or very detailed, but to make sure that we captured as many ideas as we could.

I stared at my paper and imagined Dianna’s day. It was morning at the office. Dianna was a new employee and wanted to stay organized. With so many messages wanting airtime on the company’s social networks, this could be overwhelming. I imagined that a sales manager wanted Dianna’s help in marketing a new brand of deodorant. The manager wanted to know what could be done for this product’s launch campaign and would check in regularly with Dianna to see what had been completed for the launch. The idea of a “campaign” could be a container in the user interface, I thought. I began to sketch, and before long, the pen was whizzing across the pages.

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Across the table, one of my teammates, our art director Dave Stinnette, surveyed the page through his black-rimmed glasses. “There’s not nearly enough time to design all of these screens!” he commented as he pressed the sharpened pencil into the page, making the dark outline of a box. When his paper was later taped to the whiteboard, it was easy to read from several feet away. Dave played at being flustered in the moment, but you could see he was excited. His ideas were a collection of boxes, scratch marks, and arrows — a wild run of black ink balanced with a sense of order.

During our individual presentations, it was interesting to see the ideas that my teammates brought to the table. They talked about how to track the reach of a Tweet. They talked about keeping private notes, or sharing notes with other people in the company.

Teamwork Time

The design studio is based on individual and team-based solutions. After working on our own ideas, we would share them and have them critiqued by our peers. Then we would work on another iteration of the idea. Stealing ideas from others on your team was welcomed and encouraged.

Eventually, our individual ideas came together during the team exercise, where we were asked to jointly solve Dianna’s problem. We took the best of our individual ideas to create an interface that would allow Dianna to easily track and manage her company’s social channels, while also unearthing other opportunities for the company in the social media sphere.

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The Feedback

At day’s end, our fictionalized “personas” came to see our concepts. I have a fond memory of when one of our developers, Josh Newman, was presenting his team’s work. Josh, with his intelligent gaze, gestured to a section of a legal paper that had a screenshot etched by one of his teammates.

“This is a section for campaigns. Campaigns could be templated, then adapted for clients through an XML language we define,” said Josh, his deep voice booming throughout the conference room. Then he paused for a moment. You could see further details of this yet-unwritten spec moving through Josh’s head so fast that he lost the ability to speak for a moment.

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Moderators made comments, asked questions and challenged us to defend our team’s work. We took all the comments in stride and captured the notes and feedback for the future. The moderators of our design studio informed us that our ideas will be further developed and seen in our product, Pepper.

After the design studio, I can confidently say that the next versions of Pepper will be informed by a team of artists, coders and writers defined not by their specialties, but by their shared empathy for our clients.