3 Design Exercises to Drive Your Software Discovery Process

An Article By Ayana Campbell Smith // 2.18.2020

When it comes to new custom software projects, the value of a thorough discovery phase cannot be overstated. Most often, this involves a meeting of the minds in which interested parties converge to hash out all of the important details about the project. These discussions are vital to ensure all involved are properly primed and ready for work to begin. Key topics might include:

  • The Product: Is this a new venture or an update to an existing product? What has been the product journey up to this point?
  • The Users: Who are your core users? What are their pain/pleasure points? Are there new users you’re hoping to attract with this effort?
  • Features: Which features are most important? Which ones need improvement? Can you add new features during this phase and in what order should their implementation be prioritized?

Preparing a detailed list of questions to drive meaningful discussions around these topics goes a long way during this phase. However, when working to determine the full scope of the task at hand, sometimes words alone just don’t cut it. Add to this the significance of ensuring all voices have ample opportunity to have their opinions, objections, and unique point of view heard. When addressing concerns such as these, you’ll find that some areas benefit much more from a hands-on approach. To this end, interweaving more hands-on UI/UX design exercises within the software discovery process offers numerous benefits.

Design exercises offer a more engaging experience

Discovery discussions tend to revolve around topics that are more abstract in nature. Despite being necessary for the success of a project, conversations around the project process, development concerns, and information architecture are unlikely to inspire or captivate attention for long.

Incorporating design exercises offers a more engaging experience by getting everyone involved and using their creative brainpower. These hands-on activities offer visual connection points and break up the monotony that may result from extended discussion periods. Strategically placing these activities within the meeting schedule ensures participants remain engaged from beginning to end.

Design exercises reinforce the importance of collaboration

It’s easy to credit design and development teams with a successful outcome once a project is complete. However, projects most often succeed because of effective collaboration among all team members involved.

Whether it’s articulating goals and objectives, prioritizing features, or clarifying the design direction, none of this can be done without all parties playing a hands-on role. Design exercises reinforce this notion. Empathy and trust are built by working together toward a common goal. This goes a long way in building successful outcomes.

As you can see, there are many benefits to employing these design exercises. The following are great options to try during your next discovery meeting.

Exercise 1: Post-It Note Dot Voting

Without first pinpointing concrete goals, it is impossible to determine whether an effort has been successful after work is complete. Neglecting this step would be like trying to score a basket without having a clue where the net is. The shot might be pretty but it means nothing if you miss your target. 

The Post-It Note Dot Voting exercise is a great method for coming to an agreement about what the high-level objectives of your project should be. 

Post-It Note Dot Voting

How It Works

Prior to the discovery meeting, determine six to ten high-level goals based on initial conversations about the project. These goals should be measurable yet abstract in nature. For example, “increase free trial sign-ups” works better than “increase free trial sign-ups by 50%.”  Once settled upon, the goals are then written on individual post-it notes.

During the exercise, tape the post-it notes to a wall. Give all meeting attendees an equal number of dot stickers, using different colors to differentiate between the team members. Participants vote for the project goals they think are most important by placing stickers on the corresponding post-it notes. After voting concludes, open the floor for discussion around the results.

The Benefits of This Exercise

Dot voting helps with zeroing in on the most important project goals. Allotting each attendee a limited number of stickers forces prioritization while the use of different colors quickly highlights those areas where consensus is or is not made. Each participant is given an equal say in the process and with this knowledge, team members can discuss how to move closer to agreement.

Through every project phase, the rewards of having well-defined project objectives are seen. Starting with discovery, you’re better able to prioritize the work to be done and how resources and time should be allotted. During implementation, they serve as a guiding light, as every decision made should serve the purpose of moving you closer to the goals that have been set. And at the conclusion of the project, they provide a reference point for assessing whether or not the effort has been successful and what the next steps should be.

Exercise 2: 20-Second Gut Check

There is much to be gained by discovering likes and dislikes when it comes to visuals. The 20-Second Gut Check is an excellent way of uncovering and testing these design biases. Through this exercise, you create a safe space for discussion around the creative aspects of your project and the path toward a more solidified design approach is cleared long before any actual design work begins.

How It Works

For this exercise, present meeting attendees with a slideshow containing an assortment of design styles from a variety of mediums. These examples might include web and UI design, mobile apps, editorial design, and illustration. 

20-Second Gut Check Slides

Set the slideshow on a timer, with each slide automatically advancing after 20 seconds. During these intervals, each participant must rate each slide on a provided scoresheet using a scale ranging from 1 to 5. A score of 1 indicates that the design style presented feels wrong for the project while a score of 5 indicates that the design style feels right.

The goal of this exercise and reason for the 20-second time limit is to get the knee-jerk reaction to the examples being presented. The limited time period removes the potential for overthinking and selecting ratings based on what one thinks the right answer should be. Instead, participants are forced to trust their gut.

At the conclusion of the slideshow, gather the ratings sheets and tally the scores. Use these scores to unveil which design styles ranked highest and lowest and discuss the reasoning behind each score.

Overall, conducting the actual exercise takes less than 6 minutes, yet the insights gained are extremely valuable.

The Benefits of This Exercise

This exercise provides a baseline for all discussions related to the visual aspects of the project. The truth is that many people don’t know what they like (or don’t like) until it’s placed right in front of them and they’re forced to give a thumbs up or down. And since design is such a subjective field, differences of opinions are likely to abound. You may find that members of the same team have completely different opinions when it comes to the design of a product.

Take time to talk through each example, discussing why some were rated higher than others, the reasoning behind a low score, and other questions or concerns that may arise from this exercise. These discussions will lay the groundwork for all subsequent design efforts and bring clarity to the overall design direction. Having this informed starting point leads to a productive design phase and feedback cycle.

Exercise 3: UX Sketching

UX sketching is a great way to foster conversation around features and their relative priorities. As an added benefit, participants are also given a small glimpse into the decision-making involved in building well-designed products and common constraints faced during the process.

How It Works

Split meeting attendees into pairs and provide each with a worksheet containing a simple box representing a mobile device screen.

With 10 minutes on the clock and a predetermined list of features in hand, each pair must work together to sketch wireframes representing the content of a key page (the homepage is always a good option). At the conclusion of the exercise, each pair presents their wireframe sketch and discusses their reasoning for how the content has been prioritized.

The Benefits of This Exercise

The purpose of this exercise isn’t to finalize the details related to the page and its content. Instead, the goal is to come to an agreement about the key features and how they should be prioritized in relation to each other. A mobile screen offers the perfect canvas for doing so. When faced with the constraints that come with limited screen real-estate, tough decisions have to be made. Sure, the logo can be made bigger but at what cost? One feature may seem important in isolation but how does it stack up relative to the six other features in question?

The consensus reached through this exercise and subsequent discussions can then be used to prioritize the work going forward. Maybe there are lower priority features that can be saved for a later phase? Perhaps a previously overlooked feature is actually more important than first thought?

This exercise also works to educate all involved about the level of design thinking that goes into designing a product. There is far more to be considered than just appealing typefaces and harmonious color palettes. By partaking in this exercise, it becomes more apparent how much strategy and restraint also play vital roles in the process. 

Through the use of design UI/UX exercises, you create an engaging software discovery process while promoting collaboration among everyone involved. Whether voting, sketching, or discovering the best design direction together, these activities work to ensure every role plays an equal part in the success of the project.