Hit a Design Roadblock? You Need to Sketch it Out

If you’re a user experience (UX) designer, chances are you’ve been here before: you’re in the beginning stages of a website or app redesign, wildly tracing boxes in the air with your finger as you brainstorm. You’re referencing existing websites and apps, hoping to spark familiarity with a common design pattern. In response, you’re likely met by your team’s wide, confused eyes—despite using well-known existing visual components.

Scenario two: the design project you’re working on requires minimal changes to improve usability, and the development team has a quick turnaround. In this case, you need immediate buy-in based on the existing system to allow the developers maximum time to deliver a unique, uninhibited digital experience.

These are two examples of situations that can benefit from a sketch check-in.

Sketch Check-Ins: What They Are and How They Work

Sketch check-ins can take many forms, but as the name implies, they all involve hand-drawn sketched ideas that you share with your team and/or the customer. Whether you’re sketching out a webpage on paper on your own or working through different app functions as a team on a whiteboard, sketch check-ins are defined more by what you accomplish than by how you accomplish it. These sessions often aim to accomplish one or more of the following:

  • Follow up on and confirm decisions made in previous meetings before proceeding with a full-scale development
  • Explore and communicate your instincts for where to take the work
  • Generate diverse ideas and determine what executing them will require
  • Efficiently validate or veto an approach by examining how each element works all together prior to implementation
  • Fortify existing team engagement and boost group innovation

One of the biggest advantages of sketch check-ins is that anyone on your team can participate, regardless of professional background and design skills. By including the whole team, you create space for teammates to feel comfortable in co-creating the product, even if they’re not designing it. Although you should feel free to structure these sessions in whatever way makes sense for your team, there are two main types of sketch check-ins: active and passive.

Active check-ins: the test kitchen

Think of active check-ins like a test kitchen—the whole crew is gathered to test out solutions based on the customer’s preliminary directions. The goal is to try as many proposed interactions as possible and set your sights on the best solution through trial, error, and refinement. Everyone involved is in the zone, and each idea getting sketched out on the whiteboard seems to ignite even more ideas. Active check-ins save time and provide critical visual feedback on how a solution addresses the task at hand. They are most helpful in the following situations:

  1. You’re working on a long-term project and need regular check-ins. It’s crucial that everyone stays on the same page so no one gets stuck creating in a silo. In this case, the team should schedule a launch check-in and follow up with weekly or biweekly cadences until the project ends.
  2. The project is multifaceted and includes cross-functional team members. As mentioned above, sketch sessions are a great way to allow non-designers to pitch ideas in a collaborative environment.
  3. You’ve hit a roadblock. Even the best-planned projects can take an unexpected turn, and even the best designers can feel stuck on finding the right approach. Active check-ins get designers out of their heads and allow them to work through obstacles with the team.

When you’re preparing for an active check-in, be sure to invite as many teammates on the project as makes sense—the larger the team, the more robust the ideas. If the check-in has done its job, you’ll leave feeling confident in your approach because you’ll have explored every other possibility and emerged with an agreed-upon winner. This will come in handy should your customer ask what other explorations took place—you’ll have a wealth of ideas to share!

Passive check-ins: come hungry

Passive check-ins can take several forms, from solo check-ins with yourself prior to designing at your computer to bringing sketches to a meeting to go over with others. There are three different scenarios in which a passive check-in will make more sense for your team:

  1. You have clear instructions and want to improve upon existing UX. Based on what you’ve heard, you should create many sketches and propose as many journeys as come to mind.
  2. You were unable to obtain users for a usability test. In this scenario, sketch check-ins can reveal unconscious bias in UX decisions. By going through the process on paper, it helps you better understand the pitfalls a user may encounter. It’s human to default to the same solutions, especially under a time crunch. The cognitive switch of a hand sketch can level out ideas and reveal more inspired solutions as opposed to going straight to the computer to make assets.
  3. You received information or feedback when the designer was not present. Sketches are an effective, visual way to relay feedback. It’s also a great way for non-designers to communicate their ideas to the designers.

If you choose to have a passive check-in, use markers of varying thickness and a ruler to ensure straight lines. This helps to communicate visual and content hierarchy, ensuring the sketch has a chance to live beyond the computer. With the looseness of the passive check-in, teams will feel like they can informally critique the work.

Give Sketch Check-Ins a Shot

So if you’re stuck on project or need team buy-in, it may be time to send those calendar invites and ready your sketch pad. Goodies like graph paper, highlighters, post-its, and stickers can help spark collaboration and bring visual clarity to shared ideas, components, and workflows. Suddenly a hand-drawn box with some lines could represent an existing tabular view, or a small arrow could reference navigational icons. Sketch sessions have the ability to uncover monotonous design, bring in diverse ways of thinking, and get the general UX direction closer to a team and client approved “yes!”

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