If your organization doesn’t “get” the value of design, here’s a great way to change their perception from the inside out.
If you’re tasked with shaping the culture of design within your organization, there are times when you need to force it and there are times when you need to finesse it. Blue Sky Sessions are a way to affect the culture in a subtle way, so much so that most people won’t even realize it’s happening.
In essence, a Blue Sky Session is a guided UX exercise geared specifically for non-designers. Its purpose is to help those working with designers to understand all that goes into every design solution. After a while of running these, you’ll start to hear everyone in the office using a shared design vernacular–which is what you want. Everyone thinking about the product from a design perspective is good thing.
This isn’t totally necessary, but adding a little democracy where you can is always nice. During the week before a session, have the design team add ideas to a running list (we just used a Google Sheet to track them). Encourage them to be big and broad (like, “How can we improve the post-purchase experience?”) so that there will be plenty of room for ideas to grow.
The morning of a session, make a Google poll with the five most interesting ideas and let the team vote. If there’s a tie, you’re the tiebreaker.
Either via email or Slack, send an invite out to the entire product team. I’d recommend against including any VP or C-Level folks yet, until you get your rhythm down. It might sound a little like this:
“Hey Everybody. I wanted to invite you to come hang out with the Design Team at our Blue Sky session today at 3pm. We’ll be concepting some ideas for what the future of [your company] might look like and we think it’ll be really fun for you all to be a part of it. Everyone’s welcome–no drawing skills required. See you there!”
It takes time for people to come around. Our first session was just the design team and one other person. Eventually we were making people sign up in advance because we didn’t have space. Patience is important here.
There are a few things you’ll want to have ready before the actual session starts:
- a room with a whiteboard
- dry erase markers
- a stack of printer paper
- a box of Sharpies
Before anyone arrives, write your question across the top of the whiteboard. For this example, we’ll go with “How can we improve the post-purchase experience?” It’s big and broad and will allow everyone plenty of space to go in their own direction.
Give everybody a few minutes to settle in. Each session you host will have a few new faces, so you’ll want to give a rundown of what’s about to happen each time you start. There are a few key things you’ll want to communicate very clearly:
- May sure everyone understands that there aren’t any wrong answers or judgment.
- All of the topics are completely made up, so there’s no pressure to draw. It’s really all about working together with your partner. This was a big issue for us the first few times we attempted one of these, so do your best to make people feel comfortable that artistic ability has no bearing on the outcome.
- Just as the problems are imaginary, so is the tech. Make sure everybody understands that we don’t need to have the technical capabilities to build something we design.
Hit the Whiteboard (~15 minutes)
the main thing you’re trying to accomplish here is to bring everybody to the same level of understanding in a very short amount of time.
After explaining the basics of what’s going to happen in the session, it’s time to give everyone a kickstart. Since what we’re doing is really an abbreviation of the team’s normal design process, this whiteboard section will stand in for your research and discovery phase.
In reality, the main thing you’re trying to accomplish here is to bring everybody to the same level of understanding in a very short amount of time.
As the facilitator, this part is usually the most difficult because it’s always a little different depending upon the topic. What you’re trying to do here is get some conversation going, or at least help people get ideas flowing. Using the post-purchase example, I might start like this:
“Ok, what do we think happens after someone makes a purchase to go see a show?
- “they receive info emailed to them about the show”
- “they coordinate with whoever they’re going with”
- “they might plan a dinner beforehand”
- “they need to figure out about parking”
You’re starting to give people a foothold on an idea to start exploring. From here, there are probably a few answers worth digging into more.
“What are some other apps that handle coordinating plans with other people well? How do they approach it?”
Once the group seems comfortable with the mess you’ve now made on the whiteboard, quickly pair people up. I like to make this seem really quick and nonchalant, but honestly, putting the right pairs together is really important. You want to pair up designers with non-designers. Designers will generally be the ones who consistently come to these sessions, so they’ll feel the most comfortable here (and act as a sort of surrogate for you during the next step).
In a quick, seemingly off-the-cuff style, put the pairs together: “you and you, you and you, you and you.” I’m generally thinking through the pairings as people are filtering in at the very start of the meeting. If you have an odd number of participants, pair up with one of them yourself. If not, you can float from group to group during the sketching activity.
Sketch (~30 minutes)
Start each pair with Sharpies and a stack of printer paper to work on. Their task is to pick one of the avenues we discussed on the board and design an interface that accomplishes it. The Sharpies should be a good indicator of the level of fidelity we’re looking for, but you may want to reiterate that they don’t need to be beautiful. They just need to get ideas across.
Remember that although the participants think the goal is to solve a specific problem, the real reason for running the session is to help develop an appreciation for the design process across the organization.
I like to specify that designers should not be the one drawing, although they’re encouraged to talk their partner through how they might show something. Remember that although the participants think the goal is to solve a specific problem, the real reason for running the session is to help develop an appreciation for the design process across the organization. If you let a designer draw, you’ll often get a designer who goes heads down, leaving their partner out of the process. We don’t want that.
Presenting Work (~10 minutes)
Bring everybody back together (we’d sometimes have pairs that wanted to wander somewhere private), and have them start showing their solutions. You want them to go pretty quickly–remember that the purpose isn’t really about their solution–it’s about getting them to understand the process. So we’re going to avoid letting people ask them questions or getting to in the weeds. Usually, each group takes about 2-3 minutes to share their concepts.
When everyone finishes presenting, collect their sketches and thank them for their time. Remember that they didn’t have to be there but chose to come. Make a quick ask that if they enjoyed it, encourage others to come to the next one. Word of mouth is key for these sessions to take off.
After everyone leaves, spend a few minutes photographing the drawings and your whiteboard. You can set up a shared folder, like a Google Drive or Dropbox so that all of the work is preserved.
This will serve two purposes: first, you’ll be surprised how often you come back to reference these later during the course of your actual work. We did it on nearly every project we worked on. Second, sharing the link out afterward (to the entire product team, not just the participants) will let some of the more skeptical people see how truly low-stakes things are in a Blue Sky Session.
These sessions aren’t meant to be an exact distillation of the entire design process, but they do achieve their goal of giving others a window into the process and the mindset behind every design solution. It doesn’t happen right away, but over time the perception (and ultimately the importance) of design will begin to improve.
As you get more comfortable running these, you can get more specific with your invites. When you’re ready, inviting C-Level folks can do wonders for how your team is viewed. Just be smart about who you pair them with. 🙂