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Part 2 – Kick Ass Kickoff Meetings

by Kevin M. Hoffman
on January 26, 2011

Reprinted with the permission of A List Apart and the author. Originally published August, 2010.

Read part 1 of the article


The design studio is a traditional approach to ideation in
industrial design and architecture. It involves iterating repeatedly
through four phases towards a design goal: Sketching, evaluation,
modeling, and testing. In his book Prototyping, Todd Zaki Warfel
adapts this methodology to website and application design by
modifying a few phases in the process, ending up with sketching,
critique, prototyping, and testing. For a kickoff meeting, the
prototyping and testing phases may be entirely too ambitious; time
is limited and it’s probably too early for any usability testing.
For those reasons, my team has modified this approach by eliminating
the second two phases, and creating an exercise that cycles between
ideation/sketching and critique. Depending on the size of the group,
it can be done in as little as a few hours. It can be executed with
groups sized 10 to 60, and it always gets great discussion going,
surfacing key challenges from every perspective. All it takes is a
few pencils, some pre-printed grids, a good facilitator, and a basic
meeting interaction pattern.

A design studio kickoff activity works like this:

  1. Find a space that can accommodate half the number of attendees
    having a one-on-one conversation simultaneously. For groups of 10, a
    traditional meeting room is fine, but for larger groups you may need
    more space. Plan on at least 90 minutes—more for larger groups.
  2. Give everyone a pencil and a sketchboard with eight pre-printed
    small grids (provided by Mr. Zaki Warfel).
  3. Instruct everyone that, to begin with, they will be sketching ideas
    on their own. Some will complain about their drawing ability.
    Suggest that they describe their ideas in text. If that doesn’t
    work, tell them to suck it up. No one ever died from sketching.
  4. Frame a specific design problem. You can take a general approach,
    such as “design the home page,” but in practice I’ve found this
    works better with some constraints. It helps start the neurons
    firing if you set boundaries: For example, you might say, “design a
    sub page that focuses on the key product line we offer, but also
    provides three examples of how our audiences already use it.” Or
    even as specific as “build a category listing page that encourages
    people to apply their own tags, but still provides more traditional
    navigation paths to information, and somehow gets them to create a
    user account.” Remember, this is early in the work, so even if the
    constraints aren’t 100% accurate to the real world, you are only
    exploring and learning.
  5. Provide a time limit, and a minimum number of concepts to create:
    Six to eight concepts in 10 minutes is what we do. The time limit
    forces participants to focus on quantity and iterate quickly, rather
    than sketching out the Mona Lisa.
  6. Play some music to kill that awkward silence! I recommend the theme
    from a classic game show, or the battle music from the original
    series Star Trek episode Amok Time.
  7. Form groups of two, and (this next part is important) have them pair
    up with someone who they’ve never worked with before. If you are an
    agency working with a client, pair up agency employee to client
    representative. If you are working on an internal team, then go
    cross department.
  8. Instruct all the two person teams to take turns presenting and
    critiquing their ideas. Again, keep a strict time limit. Have the
    first person present for three minutes, then other person critique
    for two, and vice versa. While they are presenting/critiquing, give
    each person a single grid sketchboard.
  9. Instruct all the groups they have 10 minutes to sketch a single
    concept based on the best of all of their ideas.
  10. Repeat steps six through 11, increasing the size of each group by a
    factor of two each time. Two people become four people, four become
    eight, etc. You may need to increase the amount of time people have
    to sketch based on the size of the groups.
  11. When you’ve got it down to two or three large groups, have the
    groups present to each other. At larger kickoffs, provide them with
    larger sheets of paper, sharpies, or even sticky notes to help them
    be more creative during that final concepting phase. Make sure you
    have the ability to project the final sketches for discussion and
    critique, such as a document projector (if you’re fancy, Nancy) or a
    digital camera and the right cable to get its contents onto a
    laptop/projector (if you’re like the rest of us).

There are many benefits to incorporating a design studio activity
into a kickoff meeting. You are kicking off the project by beginning
to tackle many of the problems at hand. You are getting to know your
client or coworkers better, building your understanding of their
communication styles, personal priorities, and work dynamic. You
might even come across a usable idea, and you’ve done it in a
collaborative context rather than an adversarial one.

This may seem like design by committee, but your expertise has been
part of the process, and whether or not the ideas you generate are
finished-product quality or completely useless, you’ve engendered
shared ownership of the intended end result. This collaborative
experience lays the foundation for a professional bond that will
sustain the group through the many challenges that lay ahead.


no reason to limit your kickoff meeting to a single activity. In
fact, you can combine multiple activities at a kickoff, with each
activity appropriately tailored to a specific problem, and with the
appropriate attendees (which prevents a vice president from having
to learn about complex server architecture goals in gory detail).

Here’s just a few examples of other activities you can use:

  • Got competing business priorities? Assess them collaboratively with
    your leadership using a priority and feasibility plot or even a card
  • Too many people focused on “the shade of blue” and using comic sans?
    Develop your client’s understanding of good art direction by scoring
    a series of gut reactions to other websites (or even other visuals).
  • Are your vice presidents asking “why aren’t we on the Twitter and
    the Facebook?” Educate stakeholders about holistic social media
    strategy with the Social Mania card game.
  • Are there too many cooks in the kitchen? Try having a conversation
    in a fishbowl.

I’ve assembled a repository of some the activities we’ve tried at, and I want to keep adding to that list. Let
me know what variations and new activities you come up with, and how
they create value for your project down the line!

But what about me? I’m virtual!

Perhaps you only work remotely with clients, because you either
can’t afford the travel or don’t feel the need to meet with them
face-to-face. Keep in mind that the spirit of these approaches is
about building relationships early in a process, and in-person human
interaction is a tried and true method for doing that. That said, as
long as you are following the guiding principles I’ve outlined
below, you should find some ideas and approaches using other means
(Skype, Campfire, or sharing ideas via a magical application) that
will inspire your process for getting a project off on the right

Those guiding principles

  • Do as much research as you can before your kickoff meeting, and
    design your meeting agenda to strategically address the ideas and
    challenges you learn from that research. For more insight into
    stakeholder interviews and requirements gathering, check out
    Exploring Requirements: Quality Before Design by Gause and Weinberg,
    and Putting Context into Context, by Jared Spool.
  • Open up your kickoff process to as many people as possible. It’s
    better to include too many people up front than find out you
    overlooked a valuable player late in the game.
  • If you are going to have multiple activities at a kickoff
    meeting, or even multiple meetings, it’s important to have a good
    facilitator that remains a constant, and understands how it all fits
  • Build activities around collaboration and “no risk” exploration.
    This is the time to explore the full potential for what is possible.
    Even if you venture out of the previously discussed scope, you are
    still fermenting ideas that could build a road map for additional
    work in the future.
  • Introduce fun, creativity, and energy into to your process!
    Don’t be afraid to force people outside of their comfort zone.
    Attendees will be thrilled to break from a more traditional meeting
    agenda, anyway.

Now kick that ball across the field,
sending your project flying into conceptual glory and web design

Or, just have a much more engaging, relevant, and productive

Share your comments

What do you do to jump-start the kickoff meetings and prevent them from
being a ho-hum meetings? Share your thoughts with us on the the UIE Brain Sparks blog.