Discovery and Framing: Design Studio

September 20, 2013 Robbie Clutton

Co-authors: Spencer Hurst and Eric Schmalzbauer

‘Design studio’ is a simple exercise that can help derive workflows, surface new ideas, and help create a better understanding of the application and the problem at hand. It all starts with framing the problem the team is trying to solve…

Ofri has a great write up of this technique during the ongoing development of a project and through our shared design community at Pivotal Labs we’ve brought this technique into our ‘discovery and framing’ processes.

This exercise can be done only with designers or with a cross section of representatives from a product team. Having designers as well as business owners, product managers and engineers in the room can help take concepts in new directions and clarify constraints.

We’re certainly not the only people doing this, and Todd Zaki Warfel has a great presentation of his interpretation of this exercise. Warfel also explains how this technique comes from industrial design, so although this may be relatively new to the software industry it’s been around for a while.


We start with a persona. What is the task they are trying to complete? What question are they asking of the application? We encourage the participants to leave any preconceptions of current systems or influences behind and try to focus on the task at hand. We set the timer to six minutes and begin, various colored sharpies and pieces of paper in hand.

At the end of 6 minutes, the alarm sounds and it’s sharpies down. We then go around the room: each person posts their sketch to the cork-board so all can see and presents their idea to the group.

We go straight into another six minute sketch and encourage participants to focus on an interaction that interests them and to borrow concepts that resonate that have already been presented.

After the second iteration of 6 minutes are up, we post and present our ideas to the group once more.

Having designers as well as business owners, product managers and engineers in the room can help take concepts in new directions or clarify constraints.

Instead of going directly into the next iteration, we pause, and take time to identify what everyone in the group likes or dislikes about the sketches so far. We collect those thoughts on a whiteboard, ensuring the team is taking in all available information from previous sketches, the likes and dislikes on the board, and once again paying attention to certain interactions or workflows.

We then begin the final round of sketches.

This helps the team diverge, explore and converge within a short period of time and provide a feel for what an application should be trying to achieve and how.

Lessons Learned

This technique can be particularly successful when designing against a legacy application. When initially discussing workflows and basic wireframes it can be difficult to approach UI problems with a fresh set of eyes. Iterating on the same problem forces the team to think about the underlying issue and branch away from a "cached" vision of the product.

The rapid turnaround in sketch creation and solicitation of feedback helps establish trust in the agile processes, as it gives clear, visual examples of the benefits of quick/iterative changes.

After two hours of the Design Studio, it’s possible to have dozens of "solutions" to various features, many of which are brand new.

However, we also had a sharpie stained desktop :(

About the Author

Robbie Clutton

Robbie Clutton is the Head of Pivotal Labs in EMEA.

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