Design Thinking Process

Handsome War Rooms

Handsome War Rooms

“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”

The opportunity to help our clients design solutions to their business problems carries a big responsibility that we take seriously: to make sure we clearly understand what we need to do for our client work to be successful.

For each client, we create a war room – so named because they resemble the “big boards” of maps, buzzing lights, and troop movements shown in old war movies like Dr. Strangelove, or War Games.  In these rooms you will see walls covered with sticky notes, photos, wireframes and user interface designs. We externalize quotes and photos taken during our research and pin up design ideas. In essence data, insights and ideas associated with the project are made physically available to see, touch, organize and start synthesizing our ideas.

Setting up and maintaining project War Rooms are integral to our design approach. These rooms act as evolving mosaics documenting our exploration and knowledge creation. They tell the story of a design engagement and provide a central gathering place for our product design teams. They contain quotes and pictures from research with users, and back-of-the napkin sketches of design ideas. As Jon Kolko puts it, they allow us to “externalize and make sense of data through a process of spatialization (see citation)”. In these spaces, we discover insights and generate solutions to problems.

Jonathan Lewis, our User Experience Director, explains:

Humans have been hardwired to take in massive amounts of sensory information from physical space, and brains will naturally chunk information, find patterns, and make meaning on a subconscious level of the space around us. War rooms make us better able to find and make novel connections, which is very important for designers. Sometimes you need a much bigger canvas than a computer screen to lay concepts out and really see things.

There is also something to be said for the environment that these war rooms foster. They become a space of ideas, fueled with symbols, photos and quotes. Being surrounded by artifacts and inspirations transmits a spark of energy into Handsome’s creative process.

Handsome first adopted war rooms after Jonathan learned about them at the Austin Center for Design, a local design school which places a lot of emphasis on the importance of externalization in the synthesis and design processes. Anna Krachey, our Experience Designer, elaborates:

Externalization in the war room gives us the ability to walk in a room and literally be steeped in all that we’ve found.  It allows us to have a 360-degree view of the moving parts of what we’re looking to make sense of.  It strips away distractions and be immerses the team in all that we’ve seen and learned.  It’s an exceptional space to quickly pull all team members into sense-making and really get everyone on the same page.

To get started, our team extracts powerful quotes from user interview transcripts and prints key user quotes on Avery labels, which we then post to big foam boards. Then, sticky notes are used to identify patterns and insights. Then we add everything from smaller sticky notes, photographs, items shared with us during user interviews, and other connections, breakdowns, or novel findings.

These boards can fill up fast, and it can be intimidating. The key is to embrace the chaos, and to not be afraid of the initial “mess” that comes from transferring everything from your brain onto a wall. For Jonathan, these initial steps “can be a grind, but when things finally start becoming clear, it’s one of those very rewarding moments of being a designer.”

One of these rewarding moments came when our team was conducting research regarding hospital patient readmission. We learned that one of the reasons patients were readmitted was due to inconsistencies along the continuum of follow up care patients receive. Patients are sometimes told one treatment regimen by the hospital and given a different treatment by their rehab center or primary care physician. However, many patients are not inclined to notice or question differences in treatments.

Through user interviews, our team learned that many patients feel marginalized and have distrust for doctors, explaining that the doctors “look past you.” With that quote posted in our war room alongside photographs and other findings, our team was able to make the abductive leap that these patients do not feel empowered to speak up and challenge the doctors, contributing to these readmissions. With this connection, our team created  a solution that would empower patients to speak up when they think something is off.

To build your own war room, we recommend the following supplies:

  • Black, 3/16” thick foam cork boards (in Austin, we use Miller Blueprint Company, a local print shop in town)
  • Printer access
  • Dry erase boards & markers
  • Avery labels
  • Colored sticky notes
  • Small sticky note tabs
  • Sharpies
  • Highlighters
  • Speakers for music
  • Giant tub of peanut butter (synthesis uses a lot of protein – you need your brain food!)

If you decide to create your own war room, we would love to hear what revelations come out of it. Or, let us know how you might organize your research differently. Our war room creation has evolved since its inception, and we always welcome new ideas to continue improving it. Be sure to reach us on twitter, too: @Handsomemade.

Citations: Kolko, Jon. “Abductive thinking and sensemaking: The drivers of design synthesis.” Design Issues 26.1 (2010): 15-28.

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