Sketching in the Kickoff Meeting

I recently had to deal with a frustrating (but relatively common) problem: A client had a pretty clear idea of what they wanted, but that idea wasn’t clearly communicated in the RFP. We went through a few iterations of wireframes, and finally found a design that felt comfortable to everyone. We plan our engagements with just this approach in mind. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if we could have gotten to that point sooner if we’d been able to take the picture the client already had in their head and use it as our starting point.

On occasion we’ll get clients who have already produced some kind of design “sketch” to document the product they want. These sketches have always been a great discussion pieces to kick off the design process. What I was looking for was a way to get that same conversation started with clients who weren’t comfortable with producing mockups in Visio, PowerPoint, or Photoshop.

The answer was decidedly low tech. At our next kickoff meeting, we reviewed the project goals and requirements, then handed everyone a pen and a stack of paper and asked them to draw their dream website as best they could. I thought this might take some cajoling, but everyone jumped right in and started drawing. After about 5-10 minutes, we put the sketches up on the wall and asked everyone to give us a walkthrough of what they’d produced. Over the next 15 minutes we learned an amazing amount of detail about the site we would be re-designing; little details that would have been hard to communicate in an RFP (or tedious to read through). We annotated the sketches with these insights as we went along, and I used them to inform the first set of wireframes we produced for the project. The result was a very happy client, and a lot of time saved.

Do Try This at Home

Interested in trying this yourself?

  1. Discuss Project Goals & Challenges First — This gets the entire team thinking through the problems we’re trying to solve and the goals we’re trying to achieve, and helps focus thinking towards solutions to those problems.
  2. Set Expectations — This exercise is intended to provide inputs into the design process, no to produce final designs. Setting this expectation clearly up front will help when the outcomes don’t match the sketches exactly, and will hopefully avoid locking you into a particular solution too soon.
  3. Have Materials on Hand — You don’t need to be fancy. While I love sketching notepads, plain white paper works just fine. Thicker markers or pens are handy, since they discourage people from dwelling too much on details.
  4. Set Aside Time — It took us about 25 minutes in total to do the exercise for one page in a news site. It was sufficient for this project, but I would probably set aside 30-45 minutes for each page you want to cover. Project complexity will play a big role here.
  5. Review the Results — The sketches themselves are handy, but a lot of the value in this exercise is the insight gained from the conversation around them.
  6. Be Prepared to Help Things Along — I participated in a workshop with Leah Buley and Todd Zaki Warfel where they made a great point; drawing a UI is nothing more than lines, circles, and squares. If you can draw those shapes, you can draw any UI there is. Be prepared to demonstrate this point if you've got reluctant participants.

No Silver Bullet

I’m happy to say that our experiments adding a bit of art studio into our client meetings produced some very nice results. At the same time, I don't expect we'll be putting this into practice with every client. In fact, I suspect there will be clients who will resent the very idea, after all, we're supposed to be the experts and they shouldn't be doing our work for us. While I very much hope those clients will be few and far between, we're still feeling out the circumstances where we can use this method most effectively.


I can’t in any way claim to have invented this idea, I drew my inspiration from a number of past presentations and discussions with Todd Zaki Warfel, Leah Buley, Will Evans, Russ Unger, and others.

Jackson is Viget's user experience director. He works from our Boulder, CO, office, where he helps startups and organizations turn ideas into usable, effective products.

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