Diagrams for business thinking

I remarked the other day to one of our design directors how often it seems my “throwaway” diagrams of an overall workflow (objects / people / actions / outcomes) spark some very critical (yet unaired) business discussions: what are we really making, which market does this serve, what’s the monetizing scheme, and overall profit model? Indeed, I find that’s one of the very valuable, even influential, aspects of being a UI designer for a product team…not just creating spiffy comps and cool prototypes with nicely annotated specs, but raising those basic questions with simple diagrams.

It’s the subtle insinuation of deep purposeful forethought to help make powerful stakeholders sit up for a moment and reflect upon the true collective aims of this project…an effort absorbing such sizable time and expense. And they don’t have to be slick gorgeously rendered diagrams either…just basic pen/whiteboard style or “back of the napkin” sketches, abstractly representing relationships of parts and wholes, action pathways, preceding and dependent elements, causality and outcomes. Loose gestural diagramming is often best, with the crudeness implying the ideas are still formative stages of early iteration and suitable for adjustment.

Such quick rough diagrams have a certain rawness and energy that perhaps gets business execs & stakeholders thinking at a level more primal than slick Powerpoint decks and Illustrator posters. But for whatever reason, these diagrams can serve as valuable doorways to critical conversations about what’s the core business problem we’re trying to tackle, not just the UI we’re trying to ship. And, perhaps more importantly, it will get those execs, even the CEO, to diagram out their thinking of what matters most to this project, and to the company mission. That’s how design can really help the business, beyond a cool deliverable, towards elegant simplified thinking.

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