3 ways visualization drives collaboration, agility and inclusion

Posted on December 14, 2020.

My friend Jeff Patton recently introduced me to a TED talk that I found to be one of the best descriptions of the power of collaborative visualization. The best part? It’s only 9 minutes long — half the length of  standard TED talk, twice the potency in this case. The talk by Tom Wujec is called, “Got a wicked problem? First tell me how you make toast” and in it Tom goes through an exercise he frequently uses with his clients where he asks them to visualize how they make toast. 

Like most of us you might assume that the output of such an exercise — where participants sketch each step of their toast-making routine — would be quite similar. Everyone makes toast the same way right? Nope. How many ways could there be to make toast, you might ask. Turns out there are many. And herein lies the power of collaborative visualization. All of us make assumptions about how the world works, how our customers behave or how a system should behave based on our experiences, cultural biases and upbringing. We assume everyone does it the same way — especially the simple things.

Watch the full 9 minute talk from Tom Wujec here.

Collaborative visualization quickly extracts different assumptions out of your and your colleagues’ heads. Your perspectives become visible to your colleagues in lightweight, rough visual outlines. And that’s where the magic begins. Immediately people begin to see that their way is not the only way. They begin to ask questions, “Why do you make toast with a frying pan?” The answers make them question whether their way is the best way to solve a problem and open their minds to the possibility that they may not truly be able to predict exactly how their audience will react to their work or how their market makes decisions. 

I took away three significant points from Wujec’s talk that helped solidify for me why this is such a powerful technique and validate the years of promotion of techniques like proto-personas and design studios:

Visualizing a system is the fastest way to build shared understanding 

Paper, pen, sharpies, sticky notes, Mural, Miro, Jamboard, heck, Google Draw or even a Word 365 document where people upload photos of their sketches provide an instant information radiator surface where ideas can be shared with an entire team within minutes. The goal here is not the quality of the sketch but the representation of the idea that allows enough conversation to take place to learn. Timeboxes force participants to put something, anything, down and to share it without spending too much time making it “look good.” 

As participants begin to share their sketches the team starts to paint a 360 degree view of the system they’re working on together. Pieces get filled in. Perspectives enhance the benefits or challenges of particular areas of the user experience. Gaps in understanding how the system works emerge or are filled in. Together, the team starts to build a shared mental model of the product or service they’re working on and to identify where they may need to clarify certain parts of it. 

The easier the sketches are to edit, the greater the learning

It’s one thing to have participants each submit one whole sketch. It’s exponentially more powerful to have them break the sketch down into smaller chunks shared as a workflow (hint: sticky notes or their digital counterparts are your best friends here). As teams begin to collaborate on reconciling their independent mental models, easily movable pieces of each workflow allow for painless editing, recombination or addition of steps. It’s this collaborative recombination process that moves the team forward from the current state of the work to a potential future state by building on each others’ ideas, filling in missing steps and identifying opportunities for improvement. 

Collaborative sketching increases inclusion and diversity of opinion

Not everyone is comfortable standing up in front of their team and offering up their point of view of the work they’re doing together. Some fear they’ll seem stupid to their colleagues. Others may think they’re point of view is “too weird” or they don’t have enough experience or credibility to comment on things. Collaborative visualization helps level the playing field in these cases by allowing everyone to sketch their ideas first. The recombination process inevitably starts to pull ideas from various practitioners on the team increasing the likelihood of a broader representation in the final product. In addition, this process exposes team members to ways of thinking outside of their own experiences and biases. It turns out that there are indeed people in the world who make toast in a frying pan but I certainly would never have known that without some kind of facilitated discussion about making toast. And it’s through diversity and inclusion that our products get better, serve more people equitably and broaden our own perspectives on our work and our world. 

Collaborative visualization brings teams together and helps them build shared understanding. Whether they’re making toast or building an online mortgage application process. Tom Wujec makes a compelling case for it in his short talk but don’t let the talk length fool you. The impact of these benefits is far-reaching and has the potential to not only help you make better products but better teams as well.