A simple way to focus enterprise web projects

A 3 minute read written by Dave November 14, 2014

A yellow pencil and a green pencil sharpener

Sketching. It’s a great way of capturing ideas while they're still fragile. Sketching and re-sketching help us draw out and refine ideas as we work together. Sketching in a giant boardroom or on a conference call might seem simplistic, but it's is a great communication tool for enterprise-level web projects.

Sketching brings teams together

We just launched a new project for Mackenzie Financial after several years of hard work. And I have to admit – when I first approached this project, given its size and complexity, I expected a slow-moving and bureaucratic process.

But to my surprise, everyone I worked with loved the process of rapidly iterating ideas by sketching. It isn’t the end of the process – every idea still to be processed and thoroughly explored. But sketching helps your ideas get through the stage where they normally die: when they’re new.

When we first started this project, we had a CMS that ran in Windows on an ASP.Net 4.0 framework, that published out to a WebSphere front end running Grails/Java. For those of you who don't speak nerd, that's like mixing oil and water inside a computer. There's no obvious way to combine those technologies.

So early on in the project, about ten technologists, information architects, and web developers ended up in a room trying to make it work. A few of us were remote, joining through phone and video chat. The concepts we were discussing were quite abstract, so I couldn’t help myself – I started sketching ideas on paper. When I showed the sketches to express an idea that was difficult to describe, everyone got it right away. I sketched out a few more scenarios and the conversation immediately went from vague and wide to clear and focused. Now I know how web designers feel! Okay, not really, but it still was a great outcome. I could take pictures with my phone and email them out to remote team members to bring them into the conversation. Everyone could get caught up and gain insight immediately.

Over the first few months of the project I ended up doing a lot of drawing to express ideas. Then something really interesting happened: the rest of the team started doing the same thing. If I were at a whiteboard or notepad sketching, someone else from the group would come up and add to an idea or start a fresh one.

The benefits of sketching on complex web technology projects

It’s amazing how much you can express with a simple line drawing. It forces clear, focused communication (part of the reason we called our company Yellow Pencil). I was thrilled to see this process be so effective in such a large, complex organization. I'd often spend my entire four-hour plane ride between Toronto and Edmonton sketching in my notebook, taking pictures, and preparing rapid prototype ideas. There are so many benefits:

  • Cheap and easy to produce
  • Enough information to communicate the idea to existing or new team members
  • Easy to mark up on screen or in print for additions and corrections as you collaborate
  • Quick and easy to Iterate
  • Easy to share in-person or over email

This process helped us get through an enormously detailed technical conversation in a day or two using four pencil sketches. Now that we've launched this project the original drawings I made have little value, but the clarity of communication and the technical structures we planned out in those early meetings have formed the foundation of the last two years of development.

This project taught me a few things about sketching with your clients or coworkers on complex web projects:

If you're nervous – don't be

My drawings aren't that good, but they express the idea. Focus on the idea and the communication. Don't apologize for the quality – low fidelity and immediate insight is the point.

Practice in your internal meetings or with clients. You don't always have to show your drawings if it doesn't work out.

Make sure your sketches include:

  • Clear labels: what is that squiggly box? Give it a name.
  • Titles: what does this page represent? Option A?
  • Dates: when did you make this sketch?
  • Contact info: who was in the room? Who made the sketch?

At its core, technology is a tool, just like a pencil. What you do with it is always more important than how fancy your CMS/pencil is. Clear communication, good ideas, and a strong narrative always win.

If you'd like to see some of my sketches, or have us draw up a plan for your next project – get in touch.

Check out Jake Knapp’s tips for getting a team’s ideas down on paper