Visual ideation sessions support team collaboration

It was in the beginning of november last year when I was asked to lead three dream team design sessions for a large Dutch company. The problem we had to deal with was an information architectural problem on their website.

and the other way around…

It was in the beginning of november last year when I was asked to lead three dream team design sessions for a large Dutch company. The problem we had to deal with was an information architectural problem on their website.

During the weeks before my design sessions they had four other dream team sessions. Target groups, company targets and user tasks had been defined already.

Our aim for the first design session was to generate ideas on how to lead visitors to their desired chunk of information.

Who attended?

Other people attending the dream team sessions were Mark (communication expert), Ronald, Jill, Monica (content writers), Brian, James (web designers) Rose and John (website users) and our very own Wout (UI Designer).

Errhm, Henk, there’s something else…

A few days before the meeting Mark called me to talk over the last details before the sessions. He also mentioned the rather negative spiral in which some of the team members had gotten during the last couple of months. Doing a redesign every year doesn’t work well on everybody’s temper.

That’s swell, now we not only needed to solve an interaction design problem but also had to deal with motivational issues.

We are smarter than me

Before these kind of sessions I make sure there are enough pencils and sketching paper for the whole team to let everybody draw up their ideas once something pops in their mind.

I’m not yet sure which amount of session members is most effective, but for now I’d say 5-9 persons gives best results. The reason why I like to do these sketching sessions with so many people is that I believe the influence on one another is so positive that it definitely affects the outcome of our session.

My colleague Stefan received a mail from Hans Appel the other day who stated: ‘We are smarter than me’. Although he mentioned them in a totally different context I think these words, especially during this occasion are worth a fortune.

During the beginning of a session there’s always a few people jumping up and sketching everything that pops up in their minds. Recently I’ve read Dan Roam’s book ‘The back of the Napkin’ who divides ideation teams into three groups (black pens, yellow pens and red pens). People jumping up and confiscating the pen are ‘black pens’. Let’s say Ronald and James are black pens, definitely…

While Ronald and James were painting our whiteboard I watched Jill, Rose and John scribbling on their own sketching paper. Other’s were discussing Ronald’s sketches and started drawing improvements on his ideas.

After 2 hours of sketching I found the team had been working together really well and the output was great. We had generated an enormous amount of great ideas in a really short period of time.

The day after our session Mark called me to say how amazed he was about the output and the way people went along.

The more the merrier?

The more team members we have working on the ideas and sketches, the more issues get mentioned. This is something we rarely find during other methods. We can say it’s one of the best tools to promote team collaboration.

Sketching creates friendships

Well, friendships… There’s something about co-creating that stimulates teamwork. Most probably the effectiveness of a sketching session makes that people really work well together. It’s not that we have to get really into detail, and not really anything is wrong. It creates a relaxed but still productive atmosphere.

Jared Spool says in one of his recent articles on his UIE website: “A development vice president once told me he was astonished at how quickly we got his developers to “play nicely” with each other once they started building and testing paper prototypes. He said he’d been trying unsuccessfully for months to get them to work together.”.

The re-interpretive cycle of our thinking process works like this. We look, we see, we imagine and we show.

I believe that by showing our ideas, we support a re-interpretation of each other’s ideas. Something we could never achieve this effectively by only using words.


van der Lugt, R. 2002. Functions of sketching in design idea generation meetings. In Proc. C&C ’02, ACM Press, 72­79.
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