Drawing out the context of data: a sketching how to guide

We’ve been working with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) for about a year and were delighted when they asked us to help them define their 5 year strategy for technology and data for the Coastguard directorate.

To do so, we needed to understand the people using the various systems and what challenges they face before considering areas to improve. This exercise along, along with other outputs, will help us see the bigger picture of technology usage within the Coastguard. The culmination of this work will lead to more informed decisions about their technology.

The insights learnt from these sketches are invaluable. We’ll communicate these to decision makers to ensure that everyone is on the same page and emphasises with the target group, understands their needs and issues they are facing.

Why we picked drawing

Imagine that you’re the holder of the IT budget. You want to help everyone, but there’s only so much money. One team is complaining that some of the databases, while functional, are clunky. Do you update them or do you pick something else?

The answer is (as always), it depends. For you to make the right decision you need more information. You need to know the context in which they work and what the implications are of that database not being optimal. And a bit of empathy for the user certainly helps too.

Drawing is a way to help (bad pun alert) draw out that context. While a picture is supposedly worth a 1,000 words, it’s merely a snapshot in time.

A drawing can go further and include:

  • what happens before and after
  • what’s happening in the background
  • what the external pressures are
  • the feelings involved
  • what relationships are factors
  • what’s connected

Drawing can therefore be a useful tool when we want to learn more about data.

10 tips on getting people to draw

Show them yours

Amy's sketch about beacons ownership

I drew this lovely drawing of data… and a sailboat

I had drawn a sketch of the complexities of beacon ownership for another MCA project and showed that as an example of the kind of quality (or lack of) for a benchmark. Concept over quality is what you want here.

Tell them why

We’re asking the specific people in the room because they’re the subject matter experts. Not us. They are the ones who experience their jobs everyday and know the ins and outs, the context, the feelings they have using a system, better than anyone.

We made sure they knew how valuable their insight was to determine the strategy both at the start of the workshop and again in the task intro. People do want to contribute when they see the value and when they feel they are being listened to.

No wrong answer

There’s no right or wrong answer in user research in general. But for the drawing exercise we went beyond that. Participants could draw the good or the bad. We encouraged participants to speak up no matter how small the problem may seem. Some people drew systems that they liked, some focussed on system specifics like beeping alerts or missing data, others focussed on overall joined processes and more conceptual concerns. They all have a place conveying the overall picture of technology within Coastguard.

Give them colour

Drawing of how different outcomes mean different things to people for the Coastguard

Excellent usage of colour, flows, captioning and stick people. A+

We put Sharpies on all of the tables but also packs of markers. Some people thought about their systems with traffic light (red/green) coding and others got really creative with using colour in labelling. Let them. Also accept that one or two people will do their whole drawing in neon green.

Remember the goal isn’t to get them to be creative but rather to use creativity, if they want, to convey the concept in a way that is clear.

It doesn’t have to be “a picture”

Drawing is of a Venn diagram

Drawing of a Venn diagram from some of the participants

Our client was initially worried people wouldn’t want to draw or would be too shy. To mitigate this, I offered other options like a flowchart or a Venn diagram or even some words on the page. Some people drew themselves and then words all around like a persona. We had lots of arrows which was great to show what data was being used, where it is coming from, or going to.

Drawings could take a variety of forms. Be flexible.

Draw together, draw for someone

Not everyone drew something. Some people drew in small groups and had the “best” drawer do it while they contributed ideas. That is fine! One person still wasn’t sure. They were at a table that was being really creative with markers, so I took them to a table doing more data flow type drawings and then to a person doing a persona type one.  They said as someone in IT who handles Coastguard’s requests they were 60% reactive and 40% proactive- so I drew exactly that for them. Make sure you work with the words people.

Use captions

Participants captioning their drawings before lunch

Participants captioning their drawings before lunch

With so many drawings and such a disparate group of subject matter expertise, it was important to make sure that everyone could understand what had been drawn. We asked everyone who hadn’t included a title or a very clear topic to use a blue sticky note to tell us what we were looking at. The nice thing about the sticky note is that it can be removed if needed and the original restored.

Put them up

A selection of drawings on the wall

A selection of drawings on the wall

While some people happily stood up and told us what they drew, with 30+ people and lunch ready, we also opted to put everything up on the wall. Seeing them all together was quite powerful and provided conversation points throughout the day. Because they had been captioned people could have a look at their own pace and get an understanding of other areas.

Don’t throw their work away

Often outputs of workshops are  disposable and exist only to get you to the next activity, but drawings could have some longer term uses. We chose to scan them all in as well as created a spreadsheet with the various themes. The workshop was over a month ago now and we’ve gone back several times for reference.

Sometimes we can get more insight from a single drawing than a detailed page of notes. We’ve also used them to get team members up to speed quickly and to check out understanding of something complex later.

Feed them

A participant and his donut

Donuts and the challenges of managing calendars

I’m a firm believer in workshop snacks, always. But if you’re asking someone to go above and beyond and be vulnerable in front of their colleagues, then you must up the quality of the snacks. This calls for donuts. Remember, happy participants are open and contributing participants.

Learn more

If you want to learn more about storyboarding in  workshops or drawing with stakeholders, there’s plenty of resources available.

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