Design Thinking Meetup: Sparkle-ize It (or, what to do when you get a napkin)


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Every designer has had the experience at one point or another of having someone (usually a Product Manager, sometimes an Engineer) draw a screen for them, and ask them to take it and make it look good. Tools like Balsamiq and Axure are only making this more common. Writers, Product Managers and Engineers -- pretty much everyone with a boss or a coworker has experienced someone coming to them and assuming they were the end of the important process and just needed a little polish.

This happens for one (or many) of several reasons:
- They don't have time to think about or discuss alternatives
- They think it's the best solution
- They don't know how to connect the picture that's in their head with the goals they have in mind (or if they connect).
- They think you have little to offer besides making tarting up their idea ("Make it sparkly")

Too often, Designers assume point #4, get insulted, but sparkle-ize it anyway. It's demoralizing and often results in sub-par products (they are at least not as good as they could be). This happens in other contexts too: Researchers tell Product Managers how they should change their products. Designers tell Engineers how they should implement what's designed. Most of us are guilty of assuming #4 at some point, whatever our roll is.

This talk is about how to "reverse out" design thinking. How to look at a napkin drawing and work with the person who drew it to understand what their goals were when they made it, and to propose alternative solutions.

Conversely, if you think in solutions and can't help handing scribbles on napkins to your colleagues, it's about how to back out your own thought process and get more and better contributions from your colleagues.

Either way, it's about better solutions.

(Related blog post at

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  • So here’s my plan.How many of you know this show called “Smash”? It’s about a Broadway musical in rehearsal and then going up on Broadway.I loved this show because I have background in theater, and it was accurate enough (not that I’ve ever been on Broadway, but true enough to my experience) that I loved it. Alas, it’s canceled now, but I wanted to share this scene with you.They’re in rehearsal for the show, and in the scene I’m about to show you,the director has just left the show, and they’ve decided to make the show’s composer into the director. So this guy is an inexperienced director, working with this leading lady.
  • Anyone here do any acting or directing? What did he just do?Yes, this is what’s know as a “line reading”. Theater is an old profession, with well-established etiquette, and this breaks a well known rule.The director is essentially saying…This happens to designers too. It looks like this…
  • At one point in every designer’s career, a colleague, boss or client drops by with napkin sketch in hand and asks, “Can you just take this drawing and make it pretty?”(Ok, it doesn’t have to be a napkin)This feels like the moral equivalent of a line reading.
  • This is frustrating for the same reason it is to actors – we have something to contribute, but we don’t have an opportunity.These requests make us bristle, sigh, throw up our hands and even sometimes quit. Why?Because designing is much more than gussying up someone else’s sketch. For us, ‘design’ is not a noun, it’s a verb. It’s a process that includes everything from defining user needs and concepting to prototyping and testing—a process which is now called “Design Thinking.”
  • You guys are all familiar with this model, from Stanford’s – For the purposes of this talk, pretty much any design thinking model works.The important part is that empathize is the first step,that there is ideating,and iterating.
  • This “design thinking”, is what we do when we design a product.
  • And this napkin sketch seems to be saying to us, “Forget it, your contribution is not needed here, just make it pretty.Designers are not the only professionals who run into this assumption that their work is an end-of-process activity, a simple task that can be knocked out quickly.
  • Nothing makes a communications professional crazier than a request for a “press release” about something that isn’t news. Writing and distributing a release can’t turn a new package design into important industry news.
  • And you’d be hard pressed to find a product manager who hasn’t wrangled with a sales and marketing over adding a new feature the CEO dreamed up in the shower (we call this ECD). I have a friend who’s a Product Manager that has a researcher that comes to her with recommendations from every studynot findings, but recommendations, “Here’s what you should do.”That’s a napkin too.
  • Many CEOs or COOs have a background in engineering, not business, and not only have ideas about how long something should take, but how it should be implemented.
  • It really can happen to anyone. In fact, just last week I was chatting with an aesthetician who was telling me her only pet peeve (this is one of my favorite questions to ask people in professions I’m unfamiliar with) was when a client came in for a facial and knew everything about their skin and what needed done, just telling her what to do. She’d been given a napkin.
  • What all of these people have in commonis that they have some process they go throughwhich is key to how they contribute the best they have to offerand it can get stomped on with a literal or figurative napkin.And then what happens? You get asked to…
  • And it goes by different names:Jazz it up a bit
  • Make it look good
  • “Add some lipstick
  • Just be creative with it
  • Make it sexyvariationMake it pop
  • We need more eye candy
  • Relevant to non-designersFill in the details
  • Do your (wiggle fingers like magic)…Or, as I like to call it…
  • Who’s had this happen?who’s given someone a napkin before?
  • We’ve encountered our share of clients who want us to implement their UX design specifications. Sometimes we wonder if they want us to help them or their users. Of course, we believe we’re in the business of helping their users and sometimes that delta between user needs and client wants creates tension. Here’s an example of just such a situation. 
  • Tool accessibilityWireframing tools like Balsamiq and Axure are used sometimes by clients to ‘show’ us what they want. They are the digital equivalent of napkin sketches. Here’s an example of one.The yellow notes provided very specific instructions on how the user is interacting with the page.
  • This was very early in the process, and it was really specific.We were concerned that we didn’t understand the goals,and that there were some conflicting issues within this page and with the larger system it lived in.Instead we start by trying to get into their heads. This can be a hard process because some clients don’t have practiceexpressing their process. So with this particular client we decided to literally walk them through a decision tree and then provide two potential views of how those decisions would manifest in a UX design. 
  • Our client’s sketches didn’t make sense to from a user flow and logic point of view. So we backed up, found the issues and put together a set of questions to see if we could unpack the problem with the client.This was with the stated purpose of understanding the requirements.From a design process point of view, these questions are working on two levels. The obvious level is the ‘selection’ of the actual UX design. The less obvious, more subtle purpose is to uncover the client’s point of view. Do they see these questions as choices? Do they understand how these decisions effect overall UX flow and, ultimately, users? These questions address the role of design in the client’s own process and work culture.
  • Unfortunately, as you can see from the illustration, the client didn’t respond as we might have hoped. This image could be titled “All is Lost.” Particularly revealing is the comment “I’m not sure by answering these questions it gets us an answer.”
  • The remaining comments, in this particular case, were yet more drawings—this time done by hand—of how the application should function.The drawings werehelpful, if we could use them as a means to get to deeper underlying decisionsor to ideate from.But as a literal final implementation, they were…not.
  • This didn’t go as well as we’d hoped.And we’d like encounters like this to go better in the future.So what do we do differently?Is there a systematic approach to improving how we respond to napkins?
  • …so when this napkin seems to be squashing our ambition to design a great product, instead of being frustrated, it was time for us to level up –
  • …to apply design thinking to this new problem,which was a different order problem.
  • Richard Buchanan calls this third- and fourth-order design thinking.Buchanan is a professor of design, at CMU for a long time and now at Case Western.He’s well-known for extending the application of design into new areas of theory and practice.How many people know Richard Buchanan?We can think of the first and second orders as designing things.and then third and fourth orders we can call strategic and cultural for this talk – systems.This idea first showed up in 1992 in an article in Design Issues from MIT press – an article that astonishingly included no drawingsThis picture is from Toby Golsby-Smith’s 1996 article in the same journal.
  • So what I mean by leveling-upis applying design thinking to the system, the relationship, and the processan order above the immediate challenge.
  • So first, when you get that napkin, part of the reason it’s frustrating is that it’s essentially the first prototype.You didn’t get to do your upstream process, whether it’s the design process here or something else.So I propose, take a page from your own process, and talk with the person who just handed you that napkin.Try to understand the requestor’s motivations and goals. In other words, find your empathy. What’s going on for them? Why did they do this?
  • Here are possible reasons for ‘sparkelize’ requests:it’s already in a contract or something
  • Your colleague/boss/client has no time to think about or discuss alternatives. They’re looking for an implementation now.
  • The requestor believes the best solution is on the napkin. They’ve done the heavy lifting and no more questions about strategy and goals are needed. All they need a ‘design.’
  • Your requestor believes design’s purpose is to their work look pretty and classy.
  • Your colleague/boss/client is having trouble articulating their goalwith words and thinks a picture would make it all clearWe often assume the fourth one the requestor’s point of view. Remember it may not be, and learning more about motivations can help you decide what tactics to use so you can do a better job.
  • These reasons can be taken advantage of…
  • …so once you’ve empathized…
  • you can work backwards through our process, ideating, defining and sometimes even get to empathizing…
  • It’s sort of moving forwards to move backwards ….and then we can catch up with your process, whatever it is.
  • Many of these techniques are relevant even when what’s in the box here isn’t “design”.
  • 7 techniques for ideating from a napkin prototypeCollected and invented
  • Tell me three important things about this. Let's do a version that optimizes for each of those three things and see what we find.Get CuriousInstead of rolling your eyes, get curious. Ask as the who, what, why and how questions to find out where they are in the design thinking process. Here are some questions to keep on hand for your discovery process. --What are the three most important things that you are trying to accomplish with this napkin sketch? (Ideating)--What three words would you use to describe what is happening here? (Ideating)--If you had to pick one word/idea to focus on which would it be? (Selection)--Do you think we can come up with three ways to show that one idea? (Prototyping) Ideally, answers to these questions will open your discussion and uncover where your napkin sketcher is in the design thinking process. Does your colleague think they are prototyping but you see need to go back for user research and more creative thinking about solutions? Or do they think they’re done but you see a need for concept testing and perhaps even another entire iteration?
  • List the objects. Draw in their relationships. Label the relationships. Revise.
  • List the objects. Draw in their relationships. Label the relationships. Revise.
  •  Play It BackRepeat back to them what they’ve described they need to be sure you understandto drive more conversationand to give you an opportunity to ask questions. “I heard you say….”Sometimes hearing the same words out of another mouth else will prompt new thoughts and considerations from the requestor.
  • Why-How Laddering from Stanford‘why’ yields more abstract statements and meaningful but not as directly actionable‘how’ yields specific statements, less meaningful, more directly actionableClimb up (‘why?’) and down (how?) in branches to flesh out a set of needs for your user. There will also be multiple answers to your ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ – branch out and write those down.
  • A napkins is basically a “how”So we’ll start there – what are the details in their napkin that are important?
  • Then for each one of these, move up – why does the user need to compare?
  • We can go a step further – we, and she, wants her to be happy with the car buying process.Now we can move down to look at alternative “how’s” – how else could she be happy with the process?
  • Maybe the site acts as a partner…How else could the user feel confident with their choice?
  • Maybe there are car reviews…
  • Maybe we partner with dealers that provide a warrantee.So you see we can use this to drive more ideas and a deeper understanding of goalsOut of the specific details of the napkin.This also helps make your process transparent!Ideally, could drive back to empathizing, surfacing holes and questions.
  • Heuristic ideation technique (HIT) was developed by Edward Tauber, described recently in Gamestorming.I’m describing a variationBuild a matrix of two categories of attributes. (Components, Characteristics, Challenges, Characters?) Fill in the cells. (
  • Characters across the top – personasComponents down the left – features
  • Developed by Alexander Osterwalder (
  • This is tricky, kind of turning the tables on thembecause you’re using their tool!Relevant if the draw-er is an executive or product owner.
  • When you try any of these techniques, remember that it may feel to them at first like you’re making their jobs harder.Do everything you can to find common points of reference or, again, empathize with them. Creating an “us versus them” situation only makes the situation worse. Remember: They Are Not Designers One point for designers (or other creative professionals) to remember is that your requestor did not go to design school. They are not as able to separate themselves from their work and their skins are not as thick. Designers are used to criticism. It’s what they want. Not so much with the rest of the world, so tread lightly when pointing out problems with the napkin.Give feedback respectfully… 
  • Give feedback respectfully… 
  • think about this… from this matrix there’s a manager and a designer, but we could call it instead “draw-er” and “draw-ee”.There are goals, and means to achieve those goals, illustrated in rows in each of these matrices.A draw-er with goals describing means to the draw-ee is controlling. This is a napkin drawing.These other styles of managing, working together on the “means” or implementation,sharing goals but leaving the means to the other person,or actually collaborating on goalscould be called higher-order coworking.So introspect: Are you Collaborating? Can you collaborate?And in addition to being introspective…
  • be inquisitive about other’s roles, what they like about it, how they got theretake them to lunchask them their pet peevesor the thing they like most about their jobwhat their background is…
  • when someone does push back, try to remember that it’s not about you personallyit’s about a better solutionin some cases it might not even be about your proposed solutionit could be about someone trying to build a relationship with youor finding a way to contribute to the success of the company
  • Sometimes, you really will need to draw on napkins.The best example of this is when you feel that the person you’re talking withjust isn’t understanding you.In that case, by all means, grab a napkin.Just don’t marry it.
  • This might happen again.When it does, it’s time for another iteration. Try another solution –try the same solution and see if the impact is varied. The point is keep trying. Finding a working solution to cultural challenges takes time. It’s the long game you need to keep in mind. Your higher purpose is change agent.
  • Questions?Napkins stories?
  • Design Thinking Meetup: Sparkle-ize It (or, what to do when you get a napkin)

    1. 1. Design Thinking Meetup Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    2. 2. What I’m doing 1. What is “getting a napkin”? 2. How does it relate to design thinking? 3. How does it relate to roles besides design? 4. What is “sparkle-izing”? 5. Example of getting a napkin 6. So what do we do? 7. Consider your options 8. Once you know, 7 tactics for ideating. 9. NB 10. What if you draw on napkins? 11. Conclusion, questions, war stories…. Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    3. 3. Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    4. 4. Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    5. 5. Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    6. 6. “Design Thinking” Empathize Ideate Define Prototype Test Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    7. 7. = Design Empathize Ideate Define Prototype Test Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    8. 8. = Design Empathize Ideate Define Prototype Test Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    9. 9. = Design = Communications Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    10. 10. = Design = Communications = Product Management Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    11. 11. = Design = Communications = Product Management = Development Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    12. 12. = Design = Communications = Product Management = Development = Aestheticians Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    13. 13. = Design = Communications = Product Management = Development = Aestheticians Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    14. 14. “Jazz it up a bit.”
    15. 15. “Make it look good.”
    16. 16. “Add some lipstick.”
    17. 17. “Just be creative with it.”
    18. 18. “Make it sexy.”
    19. 19. “We need more eye candy.”
    20. 20. “Fill in the details.”
    21. 21. “Do your...”
    22. 22. * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
    23. 23. Example Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    24. 24. Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    25. 25. Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    26. 26. “We hope by answering these questions we can get to the heart of the requirements that you expressed in your document.” Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    27. 27. Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    28. 28. Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    29. 29. Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    30. 30. So, what to do? Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    31. 31. Consider 4th Order Design Empathize immediate challenge (product) Ideate Define Prototype Test Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    32. 32. Consider 4th Order Design Empathize Ideate system / relationship Define Prototype Test Empathize immediate challenge (product) Ideate Define Prototype Test Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    33. 33. Consider 4th Order Design © Photo by Johnny Holland, sketchnote by Jake Causby Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    34. 34. Consider 4th Order Design Empathize Ideate system / relationship Define Prototype Test Empathize immediate challenge (product) Ideate Define Prototype Test Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    35. 35. Consider 4th Order Design Empathize Empathize Ideate Define Prototype Test Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    36. 36. Empathize • it’s not optional Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    37. 37. Empathize • it’s not optional • out of time Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    38. 38. Empathize • it’s not optional • out of time • this is best Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    39. 39. Empathize • • • • it’s not optional out of time this is best this is all your job entails Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    40. 40. Empathize • • • • • it’s not optional out of time this is best this is all your job entails it’s hard! Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    41. 41. Reasons of Opportunity • • • • • it’s not optional out of time this is best this is all your job entails it’s hard! Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    42. 42. Consider 4th Order Design Empathize Empathize Ideate Define Prototype Test Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    43. 43. Consider 4th Order Design Empathize Empathize Ideate Define Prototype Test Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    44. 44. Consider 4th Order Design ezihtapmE etaedI epytotorP enifeD tseT Empathize Ideate Define Prototype Test Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    45. 45. Consider 4th Order Design ezihtapmE etaedI epytotorP enifeD tseT = Design = Communications = Product Management = Development = Aestheticians Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    46. 46. 7 Techniques Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    47. 47. Technique 1: 3 Things • ask: • most important thing this does • things you wish this did better • words you’d use to describe this • make three new versions Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    48. 48. Technique 2: Concept Map Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    49. 49. Technique 2: Concept Map Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    50. 50. Technique 3: Competitive Analysis Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    51. 51. Technique 4: Re-Trace Their Steps Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    52. 52. why how Technique 5: Why-How Ladder ? ? ? Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    53. 53. Technique 5: Why-How Ladder Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    54. 54. Technique 5: Why-How Ladder Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    55. 55. Technique 5: Why-How Ladder Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    56. 56. Technique 5: Why-How Ladder Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    57. 57. Technique 5: Why-How Ladder Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    58. 58. Technique 5: Why-How Ladder Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    59. 59. Technique 6: Heuristic Ideation • variation using 4C’s: • components • characteristics • challenges • characters Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    60. 60. Technique 6: Heuristic Ideation Brad drive to dealer dealergenerated content? Mike Molly Kristen show reviews / ratings of dealers, any dealer perks (gas cards, coffee, etc.) show reviews / ratings of dealers schedule test drive price focus let select comparison criteria let select comparison criteria let select details of interest, make content easy to find and parse let select details of interest compare cars (more page views) collaborative comparison selection read more details magazine-style larger type! format, integrated content Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    61. 61. Technique 7: Business Model Canvas Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    62. 62. Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    63. 63. NB Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    64. 64. Nota Bene • Not me vs. you • No thick skins Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    65. 65. Nota Bene • Give good feedback: • Try, “I like…” / “I wish…” / “What if…” (IL/IW/WI) • State the specific observation and explain the impact. • Be direct, respectful, and sincere (don’t say, “You need to…”.) • If you have something nice to say, please say it. • Pause and wait for reactions. Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    66. 66. What if you draw napkins? • consider: • be introspective Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    67. 67. Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    68. 68. What if you draw napkins? • consider: • be introspective • be inquisitive Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    69. 69. What if you draw napkins? • consider: • be introspective • be inquisitive • don’t take it personally Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    70. 70. What if you draw napkins? • consider: • be introspective • be inquisitive • don’t take it personally • when is it ok? Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    71. 71. The Long Game Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    72. 72. Giants • Richard Buchanan • Toby Golsby-Smith • Gamestorming, by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, James Macanufo • Design Thinking, edited by Thomas Lockwood • Hugh Dubberly, Dubberly Design Office • • Edward Tauber, Heuristic Ideation Technique • Alexander Osterwalder, Business Model Canvas Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    73. 73. Future Giants • • • • Emily Brower Auchard Ryan Reposar, Dubberly Design Office Chris Hoover, Openet DesignMap: Nathan Kendrick, Greg Baker, Chuck Moore, Jason Fraser, Ryan Cornwell, Kana Knaak, Mike Aurelio, Priyanka Patel, Tin Phatanapirom, Rona Asuncion, Ben Tremper, Rachel Hallock, Rob Gardziel, Nick Smith, Eddie Sheih, Matt Leigh, James Rafferty, Tiffany Chen, Josh Rautenberg, Patrick Leahy Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF
    74. 74. Good Luck! Audrey Crane @audcrane @designmap #DesignThinkingSF Sparkle-ize It! @DesignMap #DesignThinkingSF