Jessica Ivins

What I Learned from Teaching UX, Part 2

Posted March 17th, 2013

I recently taught an Intro to UX class for Girl Develop It Philadelphia. Part 1 of this post covers the lecture portion of the class. The second half of the class was devoted to an interactive brainstorming session using the affinity diagramming technique.

At Happy Cog, we did lots of interactive workshops and brainstorming sessions, both internally and with our clients. These activities were pioneered by my former boss, Kevin Hoffman, who speaks and writes about designing better meetings. I use these activities and others at AWeber, and I find them to be incredibly enjoyable and productive. So I decided to run a brainstorming exercise with the class that's always a hit: Affinity diagramming with sticky notes.

Goal of the Exercise

The goal of this exercise is to crowdsource ideas, gather those ideas, look for strong themes among the ideas, and use the ideas to spark even better ideas. It's a fast-paced and engaging exercise that everyone loves. And it's productive, too! In this specific instance, we brainstormed ideas for user needs in lieu of user research.

Our Imaginary Client: Barnes & Noble

I told the class they were all on a design team tasked with creating a mobile strategy for the retailer Barnes & Noble. Our "client" gave us the following goals for the project:

I told them that our client gave us a rough idea of who the audience was, and and that it was enough to create provisional personas. More on those later.

Sorry, No Budget for User Research

I told them we had no budget for user research. Why? Because it happens all the time in real life, even with seasoned UX-ers. A lack of user research budget is just one instance in which this exercise comes in handy.

Start With 5 Off the Cuff Ideas

I told the class to write down 5 ideas for improving the mobile strategy. This was without any guidance or instruction. The goal was to compare our initial ideas with the ideas we'd later develop as a group.

Provisional Personas

I created 3 provisional personas based on the audience information our client provided. I was inspired by my former colleague Kevin Sharon's Cognition post on creating a story arc when brainstorming with clients, rather than brainstorming from a list of requirements. So I created 3 personas:

Ben, Law Student

It's Monday and Ben's heading to Barnes & Noble for a day of studying in the cafe. Sometimes he goes to coffee shops instead. He buys coffee but usually brings lunch to save money. He uses his iPad for studying and leisure reading.

Kim, Physical Therapist and Mother of 2

It's Sunday evening and Kim's running late to her 2 year-old nephew's birthday party. She's not sure how late the store is open, but knows what book she wants to buy for her nephew on the way. She hopes they have it and that the store is open.

Kathleen, Accountant and History Buff

Kathleen loves history and historical fiction. She likes attending book clubs when she can make the time. She got a B&N gift card for Christmas, but she's not sure how to spend it since she mostly uses her Kindle these days.

Let the Ideas Flow!

Students Generating Ideas on Sticky Notes

Students began by working alone and generating ideas on sticky notes.

I had the students brainstorm tasks that each persona would want to do before, during, and after visiting the store. I told them that the tasks should be technology agnostic and specific. Even though we were tasked with brainstorming ideas for a mobile strategy, I didn't want their ideas to be hindered by brainstorming for mobile only.

They wrote each task on a sticky note, and each persona was assigned a different color. The tricky part was, I told the students that each persona had to be doing different tasks than the previous persona.

Group Work

I put the students into groups and gave them the following instructions.

Arranging Sticky Notes on the Wall

Working in groups, students organized sticky notes on the wall into clusters that "seemed to go together."

This was the affinity diagramming portion of the exercise. Affinity diagramming is essentially just organizing ideas or data. Sticky notes are a great way to do this!


Before we began the discussion, I asked the students, by a show of hands, how many of them found that the ideas generated from the group exercise were better and more varied than the 5 ideas they originally jotted down on their own. All hands enthusiastically went up.

We all gathered around and asked each group to talk about the stickes with the most dots and stars. From that point, I asked how a mobile strategy could support these important tasks. The ideas that flowed from this discussion were pretty damned cool (if I do say so myself).

Arranging Sticky Notes on the Wall

We discussed the varied and surprising ideas generated in this group exercise.

Some Ideas Generated for a New Mobile Strategy

There were many more ideas in addition to this. It was a fantastic discussion.

How Could Students Use This Exercise at Work?

Most importantly, I wanted students to walk away from this exercise with an idea of how exactly to run it at their work place. I asked them how they might do this. Among the ideas shared were:

What I'd Do Differently

If I were teaching this class again, I'd do a few things differently:

A Huge Success

Not surprisingly, the workshop portion of the class was a huge success. Well-facilitated and productive exercises are always appreciated by everyone. Speaking of which, there's a book called Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo that I highly recommend. While this specific activity is not detailed in the book, affinity diagramming is mentioned, as well as tons of other activities.

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