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"It is hardly possible to overrate the value… of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar." John Stewart Mill, 1848

Nudge recently needed to come up with some concepts for how a new website would function. We had a good idea of the aims and objectives of the project from the client but no-one really knew what the website would look like, how it would work, or even if it was actually a website at all! 

I was recently at Drupalcon in Prague and saw an excellent talk by Christine Perfetti which covered some useful techniques and tips for designing websites. Part of this talk covered running design studios, these are traditionally run in architectural and industrial design firms and help determine the direction of the project by involving the whole team. Christine referenced a pair of articles on UX Magazine but sadly they seem to have disappeared since I last checked so I'll summarise what they said and add my own thoughts in this post. 

The problem the "Design Studio Methodology" sets out to solve is that the early stages of projects are usually poorly planned, badly documented and the strategy is often dictated "top down" from management. This leads to problems down the line because no-one is quite clear why the website works the way that it does and the end result isn't as well thought out as it could have been. Websites are complicated systems and one person is rarely able to completely understand all of the technical, creative and user experience intricacies that need to be understood to make a great website (I felt the quote at the start of this post sums this point up rather well). 

A design studio leads to an experience-led (rather than features-led) solution, generates a lot of ideas quickly, gives everyone in the team a shared ownership of the project vision, allows open and honest feedback of the concepts, and ultimately leads to a better solution. It's about taking many people's ideas and experience to design a high-level solution that is better than any one person could have come up with individually. It's certainly not "design by committee" as the details of the design come much later in the process. 

I adapted the process mentioned in the UX Magazine articles to work for our team (we had around 10 people). The design studio process is iterative and follows the following 5 steps:

  1. Illuminate - the team is given the background to the project; the business context, the market opportunities, the client's aims etc., this helps frame the problem space. This should take 30-45 minutes
  2. Sketch - team members sketch concepts and ideas down on paper, it's important that this is done with paper and pen (rather than using any technology) and the aim is on quantity rather than quality. You need to make sure that people actually sketch quickly and don't start writing things down or taking ages drawing something in intricate detail. 
  3. Present - team members pitch their ideas to the rest of the team, the aim should be on selling the benefits of their idea. We got people to stand up and stick their designs to the wall and talk about them for a few minutes. 
  4. Critique - the rest of the team give their feedback on the idea being pitched, this shouldn't be thought of as something negative but as a way to highlight strong ideas and discard weaker ideas. The results of this criticism are fed into the next iteration and people are encouraged to steal, borrow and adapt each other's ideas. 
  5. Iterate - the process repeats again at step 2 and repeats until you arrive at one or two solid concepts. 

We started off with people working individually for the first iteration (sketching and presenting for only a couple of minutes each); then we put people in pairs for the next iteration; and finally we had teams of three (with 15 minutes for sketching and 10 minutes for presenting by the final iteration). We did 3 iterations in total and the whole process took around 7 hours (we started just after lunch, had a break around 7pm for pizza and we were done around 9pm). We ended up with 2 great concepts that only needed a few hours of work to tidy up the sketches and put them into a presentation before they were ready to show to the client. 

I found this process really enjoyable to be part of and we came up with some fantastic ideas as a result of it. I really did feel like we'd come up with something better than any one individual member of the team could have, even if they were given 2 weeks to do it.

We found that people working individually to start with gave us a huge breadth of ideas as everyone interpreted the project in their own way (but whilst these ideas were creative they usually missed a key part of the problem or had a fundamental flaw). That's where the iterative process worked really well, combining people and ideas together led to more realistic and complete concepts, whilst still keeping the best parts of the original dispirate ideas. The sketching part of the process is really important as it allows people to quickly visualise and evaluate ideas much more easily than you can with words. Make sure you have plenty of pens, paper, sticky notes, highlighters etc. as you're encrouaging people to sketch lots of concepts rather than limiting themselves to one idea or one piece of paper. Finally, it's important to have regular breaks (the process can be quite intensive) and make sure you make it fun (have music on in the background, buy the team pizza, allow people to sketch sat on the floor etc.).

Nudge will definitely be running another design studio for the next big project that comes along!

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