This meeting is a waste of my time. When was the last time you had that thought? Was it because the conversation wasn’t focused, or people couldn’t agree, or maybe they were in violent agreement, but couldn’t see it?

We recently spoke with Jeremy Kriegel, an independent UX consultant, at Agile Day Atlanta, about a sketching technique you can use to get your meetings back on track, get to consensus faster, and deliver better products.

VersionOne: Why is sketching so important to agile teams?

Jeremy: It’s not so much about sketching per se. It’s about moving agile teams forward and getting to decisions faster. Sketching is one great way to do that, because people think in multiple ways. When you’re just talking, it’s just words and concepts, but when you add pictures, the communication becomes a lot clearer.

VersionOne: How do you respond when people say “I can’t draw”?

One of the barriers to doing sketch facilitation is that most people think they can’t draw. They’re thinking about sketching in terms of creating art. There’s a difference between sketching as art, and sketching as communication. When you’re sketching as communication, you only need some rudimentary drawing skills and a few basic techniques in order to communicate an idea and collaborate with people.

VersionOne: Are there any particular sketches or symbols that would be helpful for people to learn? Or do people just need to get over worrying about whether or not their sketches look good?

Jeremy: It’s a little bit of both. In my workshops, I start out by showing a beautiful wireframe that I found online that has crosshatching and perfectly straight lines that looks like someone took a lot of time and effort to create. Most people would agree it’s a beautiful sketch, but it takes a lot of time, and you just don’t have that kind of time in a meeting. Then I show people my version of that same wireframe, which is a really messy, squiggly, drawing, but it has all the right elements. That’s the first time people start to go, “Oh, I could do that.”

Then I start to break it down in terms of showing them a screen, like a regular web page, and say, “Okay now here’s a sketch version of that screen. Look at the elements and just draw a bar for the navigation bar and box with an x in it is an image place holder, etc. When they see it step by step, I think it starts to make sketching more comfortable.


Once I’ve demonstrated a number of techniques on how to represent text, people can start with very basic sketches with a couple of squiggly lines representing a line of text or a paragraph. Then they can move on to more advanced sketches that include details on different content, like a product description or directional text like “sign up for a newsletter” or “buy our product now,” to give people a better idea of what the content is intended to be.

The bottom line is if you can draw a straight line, a circle, a squiggly line, and the alphabet, that’s really all you need in order to do sketching for communication.

The next step is to break down this barrier between what they think they can do, and being able to do it. I start with a fairly simple webpage and give people a minute to sketch that page. Then I show them more complicated page and give them a minute to sketch that page. Then I show them a mobile app, and give them a minute to sketch that. That way they get some practice sketching different types of pages and content, and they have to do it really fast.

The point of sketching quickly is not to prove how fast you can go, but if you’re trying to facilitate a group discussion, the ideas are usually coming fairly rapidly and you have to be able to keep up with the conversation. This also helps you move away from this notion of being perfect. You just don’t have time to be perfect when you’re trying to capture a lot of input quickly.

Now that they’ve copied a few pages of sketches, then I ask them to take a common page type that they’re all familiar with, typically an e-commerce check out page, and sketch that from memory. That way I can ease them into the process from seeing what’s involved and seeing some examples, to sketching a page in front of them, and then creating their own sketches. That starts to get people over this fear of sketching.

In the last exercise, I ask people to pair up. One person plays a product owner and the other person plays the graphic facilitator. The first half of the exercise the product owner says, “We’re going to complete this checkout process. Here’s what I need on my shipping page.” The sketch facilitator visually captures the input in words to make sure they have their shared understanding of what they’re going to design. He captures the words that product owner is saying and writes the words down so the product owner can see and agree to them. Once they’ve done that they’ll move on to sketching with the sketch facilitator driving with input in real time from the other person. Then they’ll switch roles and go through the exercise again.

VersionOne: Have you seen examples when a team is having a difficult time communicating and then they start sketching and everything becomes better?

Jeremy: In my almost 20 years of being in this industry, sketching is one of the most powerful tools to help move teams forward quickly.

Years ago when I was at a big agency we always kicked off projects with these big workshops with stakeholders. We always took notes on the whiteboard, so that all the stakeholders and the team members could see, and agree, on what was being discussed. If people see the input in real time you can avoid issues later. If someone disagrees with something that you’ve written, they’ll say it right away.

Sketching saves a lot of back and forth time. You can discuss conceptually what you’re looking for, and then collaboratively visualize the project.

I’ve really seen the difference when I’ve worked with other teams where either no one was taking notes or someone sent notes in a follow-up email that no one actually looked at it.

VersionOne: Do you have any advice to help people get over their fear of sketching in front of a team?

Jeremy: Many people are nervous about getting up in front of their team, and doing something new. To help them get over this fear, I suggest that they try progressive desensitization. It’s a technique that people might be familiar with if they, or someone they know, is afraid to fly. The airlines have these programs that you can go through to help you get you over that fear.

The first step for someone who is afraid of flying might be to just drive by an airport. They know they’re not going to go in and they might feel a little anxious about it, so they just drive by an airport until that feels comfortable. Then they’ll go into the ticketing area. They know they’re not going any further, and they can just go in until that’s comfortable. They might come in and leave the first couple of times and might not go in any farther. When they’re comfortable in the ticketing area, they might go through security, and go to a gate. They’ll do that over and over again until they’re comfortable. Then they eventually feel comfortable to fly.

I suggest a similar approach with sketching. The first step could be taking notes privately, just so you get a sense that you can keep up with capturing the conversation. Then when you feel like you are getting good enough at that, then get up and take notes on a whiteboard that everyone can see, but maybe you don’t try and facilitate the meeting. Once you feel comfortable with capturing the conversation it will naturally progress to facilitation. People will look to you as the leader, and you’ll be able to take on more of a facilitator role. One of my caveats is you have to be aware of the power of the pen, because it’s very easy to control what gets captured if you’re the one writing it down.

Another way to get there is to fake it. There’s research around the impact that power poses have on your state of mind. Putting yourself in a confident pose will make you feel more confident. I demonstrate this by having people sit with their legs together, their knees together; their arms crossed, and put their head and chin in their chest. I ask them to get really small and whisper to themselves, “I’m a rock star.” People giggle a little bit, because it’s funny, you don’t feel like a rock star when you’re small like that. Then I have them stand up, and put their arms in the air, or stand in a Superman pose, with their hands on their hips, lift their chest up, hold their high, and say, “I’m incompetent.” Of course everyone laughs, because again it doesn’t work. Your mind wants to mimic the position that you put your body into.

Even if you’re a little bit nervous, just walk confidently to the front of the room with your body language saying you’re going to take charge and you’re going to be responsible for the team getting something done today. Then it’ll happen.

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Join the Discussion

    • suresh

      good one!

    • ÿþS

      There is clearly a bunch to know about this. I consider you made some good points in features also.

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