Team reviews notes in a conference room

Discovery Studios

A Discovery Studio is a focused, multi-part requirements gathering session conducted with a diverse group of stakeholders. Participants brainstorm and sketch interface ideas, systematically critique them, narrow them down, and build upon the best ideas. At the end of the session, one final sketch that meets the needs of all parties is ready to be prototyped. This process takes less than two business days.

A group of stakeholders varying in expertise and experience will contribute a greater quantity and higher quality of input. In a still-developing industry of near-synonyms and repurposed terms, sketching rather than writing allows for clearer communication of a design idea. One Discovery Studio session can take the place of ten thousand e-mails, and prevent days or weeks of late-phase rework.

Tonic3's Discovery Studio implementation is built upon Brian Sullivan’s Design Studio Method. Over time the method has evolved, and we encourage you to experiment with the employment of this method as well.


Schedule Time & Gather Materials

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Schedule Time:

  • Time Needed: 6 – 12 Hours
Gather Materials

Gather Materials:

  • A stack of white letter size paper
  • Colored dot stickers
  • Sticky notes
  • Black markers
  • Red or otherwise colored markers
  • A wide vertical surface for displaying sketches (wall, markerboard, etc.)
  • Tape, magnets, or pins for hanging sketches
  • Markerboard or easel pad

Carry Out This Method

Man drawing wireframes in a notebook

Step One

Determine a set of between 5 and 10 sketchers. Include at least one of each of the following:

  • a developer
  • a designer
  • a prospective user
  • a product manager
  • a marketing professional

Step Two

Assign one person the role of facilitator, and one person the role of historian. The historian will need to take photos of all sketches, transcribe participants’ descriptions of their ideas, and document all voting decisions.

  • These roles can be filled by sketchers, but bringing in two additional participants will be easier.

Step Three

Assign your sketchers this homework, due the day of the session: Sketch five unique pie-in-the-sky, “perfect world” solutions to the problem that this app, screen, or interaction is meant to address. Be very clear about the nature of the problem to be solved.

  • Prepare your sketchers for the difficulty of generating more than 3 ideas, and reinforce the necessity of ideas 4 and 5. The group will need those ideas to exit the so-called “Common Response Zone” of conventional design.
  • Have sketchers use black marker for design elements and red (or one other color) marker for interaction callouts and notes.
  • Have sketchers give their sketches a title across the top of the page, and page numbers on the bottom right if needed.
  • Sketchers may be apprehensive about their drawing ability. Remind them that a sketch is merely a collection of lines and shapes that communicate an idea; it is not meant to be a blueprint.

Step Four

Schedule your Discovery Studio for a full work day when all stakeholders are available.

Step Five

When the session begins, break the ice by having everyone to introduce themselves (including your historian and facilitator). Make sure everyone’s title or role is known so their input has the right context.

Step Six

Have your sketchers present their ideas and hang their sketches on the wall. Let other participants may ask questions for clarity, but no critique or judgment is permitted at this time. The facilitator will need to keep the discussion neutral.

Step Seven

Next, give your sketchers between 4 and 12 dot stickers for voting. Half the stickers will be a warm color (like orange, red, or pink) and half will be a cool color (like blue or green). Give participants 5-10 minutes to walk up to the wall of sketches and place a cool-colored dot next to features they like, and a warm colored dot next to features they see issues with.

  1. The more ideas have been presented, the more stickers will be needed. Always provide at least two of each color; voters will often give a plus vote to one of their own ideas.
  2. Have participants put their stickers near the sketch title if they are voting on a sketch’s layout or overall approach.

Step Eight

As a group, discuss the merits of features and layouts with the most positive votes. Group members who voted in favor of these features can volunteer to explain their reasoning.

Step Nine

Next, let the group express their concerns about features and layouts with negative votes. Features that are particularly undesirable or not feasible can be fished out if participants use their particular expertise in the discussion. If the discussion gets heated, the facilitator will need to get the group back on track.

Step Ten

From here, the session goes into phase 2. Have participants spend the next 15 minutes sketching one composite idea each, keeping the votes and discussion in mind.

  • Sketches should follow the same mechanical rules as the initial set: black marker for interface elements, red/colored marker for notes, title on top, page numbers at the bottom right.
  • These sketches will no longer be “perfect world” solutions, but more focused on feasibility based on expert concerns.

Step Eleven

Sketchers will present their composite sketches to the group, again remaining neutral and answering impartial questions for clarity.

Step Twelve

Once all sketches have been presented, go through each sketch asking for two positive and two negative aspects of it.

  • For best results, sandwich the negative points inside the positive ones.

Step Thirteen

Next is the second voting round. This time, give each sketcher only two stickers of each color.

Step Fourteen

Discuss the merits of elements with a lot of positive votes to determine your product’s “must-have” features.

Step Fifteen

Discuss the drawbacks of elements with a lot of negative votes to determine what features should not or can not be included.

Step Sixteen

Have your designer approach the markerboard or easel flip chart to draw one final composite sketch with input from participants. The facilitator will let the designer know what basic layout was most favored, and which features were deemed must-haves by those present. The designer can ask sketchers for clarifications.

Step Seventeen

Once the final sketch is done and approved by participants, the design team has a starting point for initial prototype design.


Try These Tips

  • You may need to hold multiple Discovery Studio sessions for a single product if many complex page templates will be needed.
  • One Discovery Studio may need to be held over two days if there are many sketchers involved.
  • Displaying an image of Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats” can help keep the discussion on track by reminding everyone to use the right thought processes at the appropriate times.
  • If you have a large group and the number of initial sketches is excessive, have your participants group the sketches into clusters of similar approaches or feature sets. Sketchers can then vote on and critique these approaches as a whole rather than each sketch individually.
  • Not all sketchers will be creative professionals accustomed to taking negative feedback. Facilitators need to be empathetic, keeping discussions tactful and knowing when to step in.

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