Agile Project Management Tips #6: Draw Out Ideas

Reviewing architecture and design documents can be tedious and boring since the process is passive: sitting in meetings trying to evaluate someone else’s design work. Participants easily check out, often keeping their eyes and hands occupied by doodling in their notebooks while the meeting uses their ears and brain.

Drawing, however, is an excellent approach to engage the brain in multiple ways, making a more creative and memorable meeting for everyone. A recent Wall Street Journal article began “Employees at a range of businesses are being encouraged by their companies to doodle their ideas and draw diagrams to explain complicated concepts to colleagues.” Drawing can be used to promote engagement, visual thinking, and enhance note taking.

I used to prepare diagrams or schema using Visio and hand them out in meetings only to realize that people were not fully engaged. I had gone through the journey of creating the visual, but for everyone else it was just a static image. Looking at a picture can be a fleeting event and the less energy one puts into it, the less memorable it will be.

In design meetings now, however, I arrive with an image in my head, and make sure I have a space to draw it out. The process is more engaging and we share the journey as the drawing is created. Describing the design and drawing it out simultaneously combines two methods of learning, sight and sound, helping to reinforce the ideas. The technique has many benefits.
  • Telling stories while drawing helps people who learn using different styles. Drawing is a process and a result, your mind carves out the lines as you examine the subject. 
  • The images will transcend language: drawing out ideas works even when colleagues do not share a common first language or have the same level of technical understanding.
  • Drawing is participatory: The brainstorm is directed and scoped, but democratic. Others may draw on the board or paper as well. It helps foster involvement in the critical thinking process, whereas a completed and polished image may give the impression that it is beyond criticism.
  • Drawing brings out creativity. As the cartoonist Lynda Barry says about her graphic memoir/how-to book What It Is, “drawing or expressing your image is a therapeutic biological change that occurs in your body and makes you say ‘ah!’”
  • Studies have shown that drawing enhances retention. In Moonwalking with Einstein, Jonathan Foer devotes a chapter to discussing mind maps and how they correlate with memory palaces (Foer 2011). A memory palace is a visual mnemonic device used to help organize and recollect bits of information. As the team works with the image, they inadvertently create spatial memory palaces of the system in their minds. Later, when writing code or testing, the image can help clarify details and provide a context within the larger system.
To take it to the next level and get people involved, give them a pen and ask them to include their ideas in the drawing. If people object, saying they cannot draw, suggest instead that they “make marks on paper.” Visual Meetings is an excellent book that provides a variety of ways to make meetings more dynamic and participatory with graphics and drawing.

In addition to using drawing in meetings, drawing helps with other parts of the design process. Kevin Cheng, author of See What I Mean promotes the idea of drawing comics for business reasons. Creating storyboards and scenarios as comics not only engages people in the process, but also saves time and effort. The sequential comic frames are simply another way to represent the steps in the user stories. Drawings can also be used to visualize the user experience, which is the main idea behind his web comic “OK/Cancel.”

Save the drawings at least until the end of the project. Even when working on a whiteboard you can still take a photo of the board and the memory of drawing it will stay with people.

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