Brainsketching: Collaborative Interaction Design

In the eyes of today’s user experience practitioner, facilitating a simple, straight brainstorming session seems archaic. The metaphor is perhaps too appropriate. Ideas strike the ground like lightning and vanish just as quick, leaving only a faint memory of what was once articulate and clear. As a discipline, we’ve evolved the ideation process quite a bit from simply shouting ideas at a facilitator who is furiously taking notes.

However, it’s becoming difficult to select from the vast number of design methods out there: affinity diagrams, design charettes, participatory design exercises, experience prototyping, bodystorming…

In my own work on design studios, I have discovered that a method called “brainsketching” might be one of the best and most versatile tools we have. It is a collaborative sketching exercise in which a group of people create interface concepts by iteratively building on each other’s work.

You may know about “brainwriting” methods as written forms of brainstorming. These approaches to idea generation avoid chaos by having a group write and share ideas on paper, with the goal of generating large numbers of ideas in a short time. A few years ago, I tried adapting brainwriting into a collaborative sketching exercise for interface concepts. I stumbled upon a great design method for lateral thinking in groups, and found a name for it in a book from the 1980s called Techniques for Structured Problem Solving by Arthur B. VanGundy.

Why Brainsketching is so Useful

In working with teams over several years, I have observed four reasons why brainsketching is so effective and versatile:

  1. Forcing Deferred Judgment. When given only a minute to silently contribute to the idea of another, each person is forced to quickly understand and build on the idea. This method forces everyone to defer judgment and be constructive.
  2. Systematic Layering of Ideas. Imagine that four people participated in a brainsketching workshop. The rapid exercise means that a sketch might have general elements drawn by one person, basic details drawn by another, and finer details drawn by still others. Each sketch layers expectations, assumptions, and current thinking about the design problem in different sequences, systematically cross-pollinating ideas. Even if people bring pre-determined ideas to the table, they may define the general layout of one sketch, but the other three sketches will demand that they think in different ways.
  3. Dissolving Personal Ownership. Having each person use the same colored markers makes it difficult to clearly see each person’s contributions to a sketch. By dissolving the ownership of design concepts, the group can have a less political discussion and critique. This is especially important when people around the table are on different levels of the organizational hierarchy.
  4. Distributing Visible Contributions. Brainsketching forces participants to think and work visually. This helps all project stakeholders (even those with business or technical roles) feel like they had a more tangible and directly visible hand in the final design. When wireframes, mock-ups, and prototypes are created, everyone can recognize design elements and feel more personally engaged in the process.

A Step-By-Step Guide to Brainsketching

To start, sit four to six project stakeholders in a circle each with a black marker, a colored marker (all the same color), and a piece of sketching paper (with a pre-printed template if needed).

Present the design problem and decorate the walls with information about the objectives, constraints, and research. Tell the group what is in scope for the sketching exercise (for example, a specific platform or format).

Follow the instructions below to build sketches collaboratively. To conclude the exercise, lay the sketches out to examine, discuss, and evaluate. You can ask pre-planned questions or have an open-ended discussion. In any case, take notes in a very public way, perhaps on a white board, to ensure you’ve got consensus.

Have some participants switch seats and then repeat the exercise. Tell everyone that they can try something new or build on previous ideas.

In the end, you’ll have an abundance of design concepts and notes describing the group’s consensus about them.

Group brainsketching drawing activity

At 1 second, start a timer. As soon as it begins, tell everyone to start sketching any solutions that come to mind. Use the black marker to sketch, and the colored marker for notes about interaction.

At 60 seconds, instruct the group to immediately pass their sketches to the person on their right. If participants try to keep sketching, give them a second before being more directive.

At 61 seconds, tell everyone to start building on the sketch now in front of them. Instruct them to first take a few seconds to understand what was drawn, and then add constructively to the concept.

At 120 seconds, pass the sketches to the right again. As the sketches get crowded, instruct them to clarify things and add detail.

At 121 seconds, again instruct everyone to constructively add to the new sketch in front of them for the next minute.

At 180 seconds, the pattern should be familiar. Continue until each person has contributed to each sketch.

Illustrations by Emilie Bonnier

Brainsketching in Action

While brainsketching has been instrumental for my work on typical web/mobile UX projects, I have been most surprised by its effectiveness in the face of more complex design challenges.

In one project, the Yu Centrik team worked on the UX of an online statistical database for the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). Instead of guessing the needs of the complex array of stakeholders on the project, I invited strategic decision makers, subject matter experts, and technical personnel from UIS to join our team for a brainsketching exercise. After two sessions we produced an interface that was easy-to-use, strategically appropriate, statistically relevant, and technically feasible. Further, the process unified all stakeholders in a way that clarified the common goal.

In another example, researchers at Simon Fraser University’s iSpace laboratory were working on simulating an embodied experience of flight. After an extensive literature review, the students were demotivated when realizing that similar work had already been done in Europe. I volunteered to conduct a brainsketching workshop. Not only did the workshop re-motivate the team, we ended up with a much more interesting concept for a new form of interacting in a virtual environment. Brainsketching was just as effective for designing an installation as it has been for more typical screen-based interfaces.

The Value of Design Democracy

My experiences with brainsketching are one of many reasons why I believe that democratic approaches to interaction design trump the myth of the lone genius. If you still consider design a solo activity, I urge you to give brainsketching a try and see how systematically extracting the whole team’s ideas influences your practice.

Jay, V. (2014). Brainsketching: Collaborative Interaction Design. User Experience Magazine, 14(1).
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