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Whiteboards, Visions And Banned Words

This article is about design consultancy. It’s about wrangling that client who uses empty sentences like, “We want a snappy, simple experience,” or, “It should be on brand and should really pop.” It’s about commanding the room and setting a vision before moving on to wireframes and pixels.

Whiteboards, Visions And Banned Words1
Any whiteboard is a weapon if you hold it right.

While I’ll talk in terms of consultation, these ideas can be applied to the design phase of any new project.  How To Help A Real-Life Knight Achieve His Goals.

Banned Words Link

I start every consultation with this list on the whiteboard:

  • Clean
  • Simple
  • Fast
  • Snappy
  • Some
  • Most
  • Nice

These words are banned. If anyone in the room says any of these words, it means we’ve lost our focus or forgotten that we’re in the room to solve problems. We stop, reframe the conversation, then move on.

Here are three steps I take to ensure that the words above are never uttered in the first place.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

1. Set A Vision Link

The design process can get derailed right at the start by focusing on questions like, “What’s the best thing about our product?” or, “What differentiates our service from the competition?”

Why This Is a Bad Idea Link

  • Real users have families, jobs and tax bills and are quite possibly drunk6 when they first experience your brand. Put bluntly, people don’t care about your product — yet.
  • Real people experience your idea on their terms, not yours.
  • Dumb mass marketing doesn’t work anymore; we’ve raised a generation of marketing-proofed humans. (Thanks, Coke.)

Instead, let your audience define the project by explaining their needs to a friend, remembering that your brand is not what you say it is. Your brand is what people tell their friends it is.

“As a ____, I need to ____, so that I can ____.”

Let’s assume we’re selling ACME Dragon-Slayer Swords. Our audience might say:

“As a white knight, I need to slay the dragon, so that I can save the princess.”

The knight7
Your brand is not what you say it is, but what your audience says it is.

This is useful because it describes our audience’s impetus and why it’s important to them. However, our user is not yet textured, nor specific enough. We can do better.

2. Narrow It Down Link

Let’s start with some experiential texture:

“As an inexperienced knight, I need to slay my first dragon so that I can prove my worth to the father of the princess.”

Better. We’ve textured our knight, with corresponding depth to his reasoning. Experiment with different textures — such as technical nouns, age, income and geography.

It’s easy to get lost in our idea and forget how it applies to the larger stage, so let’s delve further in time, before and after our idea:

“As an inexperienced knight on my first quest, I need to impress the king, so that I might marry his daughter and live happily ever after.”

In doing this, we’re taking our user from his real-world impetus, through our brand and back into real life again. We’ve realized that the dragon-slaying itself wouldn’t actually help a real knight achieve their goals. Might we consider selling ACME Dragon-Slayer Swords by how impressive they are to kings?

Describe the brand from multiple viewpoints. For example, our princess may find dragon-slaying presumptuous. If we discover that she’s a more interesting audience, then put her center stage instead.

The princess holding a sword8
Dragon-slaying princesses are DIY champions.

3. Stick To Your Vision Link

Once a scope is defined, remaining within its constraints is important. Thinking back to our banned words, let’s look at the scope-destroyers:

  • Some
  • Most
  • Nice

The sentence, “It would be nice if some users could X” is almost as dangerous as, “Most of the time our users will Y.” This kind of thinking frays the edges of a good idea until it’s unrecognizable.

That way madness lies. Remove all but undebatable assumptions:

  • Narrow down “some users” until you can say “every user.”
  • If the client says “most times,” remove fuzzy options until they can say “all of the time.”
  • Don’t waste time on “it would be nice” issues if you can fix a “we absolutely must” problem.

For example, earlier we defined our knight as inexperienced.

If anyone starts talking about experienced knights, we’d ask them to rephrase in terms of our defined audience. If we get sidetracked by knights who don’t want to impress kings, we’d jot that down on a “nice to have” list and forget about it entirely.

In The Real World Link

Here are some practical examples from real-world projects that I’ve led:

  • Clarity.io9
    “As a young adult, I want to donate to charity with my Facebook account so that I can share my charitable identity with friends.”
  • The Fitzroy Academy of Getting Shit Done10
    “I’ve lost faith in university education. I want an intense, condensed way to skill up and be industry-ready so that I can get out into the workforce soon.”
  • OurSay11
    “Australian citizens need direct access to people in power so that they can have an impact on their political system.”
  • The Promo Bay
    “The Pirate Bay needs a way to centralize and sift through artists so that it can decide who to promote on the home page of The Pirate Bay.”

While we’re thinking “real world,” let’s look at the consultation session itself.

Sleight of Hand Link

When performing, stage magicians use props and well-practiced patter to better engage the audience. As a consultant, the magic lies in your command of design, while some nuanced expression can transform a banal experience into an engaging one.

A magician with a bunny coming out of a tablet12
One tablet makes you bigger, one tablet makes you smaller.

Practically Speaking Link

  • Keep the vision written at the top of the whiteboard at all times. If anyone gets sidetracked, point at it meaningfully until they quiet down.
  • If you feel you personally don’t have the authority to command the room, explain the consultative process up front. People sometimes prefer to trust a well-explained process, especially if they’re older or smarter than you.
  • If a client uses terms like “drop-down” or “radio button,” ask them to rephrase without using those words. It’s also a good excuse to assert that the consultation is not about pixels and wireframes.
  • Build a personal library of real-world metaphors that explain UX situations. For example, a website that logs you back in without asking is a lot like an automatic door. An HTML prototype is like a car without the engine. Physical examples ground people in reality.
  • Your whiteboard marker is a conductor’s baton. This lizard-brain reaction13 harkens back to teachers in grade school. Note on the board something that a person says that you agree with, and people will suddenly speak on your terms just so you write down what they say.
  • Once a vision is established, ask every person in the room whether they agree with it. Put a big tick next to it for each person, in turn. It’s now set in stone, and you can use it as the “bad guy” to settle disputes later.
  • Pacing is one of the most important parts of consultation. Set time limits, and don’t be afraid to say, “OK, back to the process.” Consider having a clock in the room.
  • Use a banned word, then catch yourself and apologize profusely. It proves you are beholden to the same rules as the client.

A whiteboard, complete14
Always remember to keep your audience’s impetus in mind.

Further Reading And Experience Link

I’ve straddled the shoulders of two giants in writing this.

Reading Link

Experience Link

You needn’t score a top-dollar client to learn how to deliver solid consultation services. We use these same techniques at work for all of our internal projects.

Try starting your next design sans-Photoshop. Instead, run a two-hour consultation with a coworker. Try again later with a really annoying person who hates your designs. Mixed experiences will help you find your own method in the madness.

Charm is a learned skill.

In Conclusion, re. Applicability Link

This style of consultation isn’t so great for fixing large broken systems. It’s better for new projects, with a small audience. It also works for small, distinct portions of a larger problem.

Extending the vision should happen after launch and testing, once you’ve won everyone’s heart.


“As the design lead of a new project, I need some consultative tricks to keep my clients in line and to craft a concise vision.”

(al) (ea)

Footnotes Link

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Will started his first web company in high school. Now he consults, writes university courses and speaks internationally, at events like TEDx, Random Hacks of Kindness and Startup Weekend. He’s a Director at Squareweave and founder of various startups. Tweet @willdayble for high fives.

  1. 1

    Daniel Schwarz

    May 7, 2013 3:12 am

    This is quite a funny topic, the things that clients come out with! There are two things that clients need to see before hiring a designer or developer, one of them is, the other is this article!

  2. 2

    Those Banned Words are absolutely true, they should be banned form a designing and developing room forever.

    • 3

      Along with “edgy”, “dark” and “jagged”… Also “pop”.

  3. 4

    Victor Willemse

    May 7, 2013 4:07 am

    This was actually a fun as well as a insightful read thanks, will jot it down and try it out!

  4. 5

    Kenneth Elliott

    May 7, 2013 5:49 am

    Cliché words and phrases are the worst, but (as you mentioned) it is our responsibility to command the consultation and encourage brainstorming when it comes to creative design. Being the experts, we have to help them (and us) define what the words “pop” and “clean” really mean.

  5. 6

    Michael Meininger

    May 7, 2013 6:26 am

    I am just amazed that people actually say “snappy.”

  6. 7

    Garrett Boatman

    May 7, 2013 3:44 pm

    I read ‘dumb mass marketing’ as ‘dumb-ass marketing’. Both fit.

    Great article!

  7. 8

    Ken Johnson

    May 7, 2013 11:57 am

    This is a very insightful article that I’m in the process of passing around my office. Some truly practical tips here, with just the right amount of fluff.

  8. 9

    Aaah! I used 4 of the 7 banned words in a recent redesign, and I now see exactly why we went around in circles for a good 2 weeks.

    This applies to so many projects outside of design, too: I’m working on a huge content project, and I need my own whiteboard of banned words.

    Vision-building never ends when you’re working on a long-term project of your own: mine is constantly changing — for the better, of course.

    • 10

      Will Dayble

      May 7, 2013 4:13 pm

      I agree 100% – all project need a solid guiding vision. Language *is* design, it’s almost like doing Lean development for language. As much as I don’t like Coke, their ‘Linked and Liquid’ stuff is strangely buzzword-free, worth checking out. :)

  9. 11

    Taylor Shechet

    May 7, 2013 4:35 pm

    Great article Will!

  10. 12

    Brilliant article, especially Banned words and phrase to define audience.

  11. 13

    Shouldn’t we use in those cases the first-person point of view? If we want to really understand what people want to do on our site we should start thinking like them, ain’t it right? That is, in the real world cases maybe it would be better to say: “As an Australian citizen I need direct access to people in power so that I can have an impact on their political system.”

    What do you think? Do even such small differences matter?

    • 14

      Will Dayble

      May 10, 2013 7:16 pm

      Nicely picked! The OurSay example wasn’t pitched in the first person as the scope of the project and the audience was quite large. Shifting the political system of an entire country isn’t an easy thing. :)

      From that primary statement, we honed down separately to specific user types – citizens, media and decision makers. E.g. “As a citizen who hasn’t used the platform, I need evidence that OurSay actually changes politics, so I feel my engagement is valued.”

      For the Media user, engagement was around lengthening the media cycle, whilst decision makers were having more direct access to their constituents.

  12. 15

    Joe Villanueva

    May 8, 2013 4:42 pm

    Banned words is a great idea. It sounds like you have clients come into the room with the words already written on the board, as opposed to writing the words on the board after they arrive. Can you elaborate on how you explain to clients why the banned words are already up on the whiteboard / why you begin writing them up on the board?

    • 16

      Will Dayble

      May 10, 2013 7:10 pm

      Really good question.

      Like most consultation ‘tools’, it’s best used only when applicable. I often end up writing the list up on the board – whilst explaining the key concepts – if I discover there’s someone in the room prone to using those sorts of words.

      It’s also dependant on personality, i.e. engineers and coders are good at avoiding sweeping statements, whilst designers, sales and other holistic thinkers are prone to their overuse. If I know I want to use the ‘banned words’ tool without offending anybody, I’ll write them up on the board before anyone enters the room.

      The ‘beholden to the same rules’ trick can apply here. I might ‘accidentally’ say a banned word, catch myself and then write them up, with explanation. That makes it my fault and leaves the power with the client.

  13. 17

    Leigh Jeffery

    May 9, 2013 8:13 am

    Love, love, love this post! Fantastically written. My fav part…”Keep the vision written at the top of the whiteboard at all times. If anyone gets sidetracked, point at it meaningfully until they quiet down.” HA! I am so trying this!
    Thanks for the great tips!

    • 18

      Will Dayble

      May 10, 2013 7:01 pm

      Thanks Leigh. You’d be surprised how well it works – the trick is to do it without coming off as an arrogant butt head. :D

    • 19

      Kirsten Nelson

      May 13, 2013 11:21 am

      WOW! I laughed out loud a the thought of waiting and pointing at the whiteboard when we hit a rabbit hole. :) LOVE!

  14. 21

    Schalk Swart

    May 10, 2013 12:33 pm

    Good article! I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but there’s a list header for Promo Bay but the description refers to The Pirate Bay which I’m pretty sure suggests an entirely different approach to ‘discovering artists’.

    The format of your vision statement (As a , I want to , to accomplish ) is of a typical user story format and the INVEST mnemonic is used to grade the quality of such a story (see:

    Overall, thanks for the good read. +1 for the banned keywords :)

    • 22

      Will Dayble

      May 13, 2013 4:00 pm

      Nicely picked Schalk – the Promo Bay is used *by* the team at The Pirate Bay, which is why it’s a bit confusing. :)

  15. 23

    Don’t skip the ‘User is Drunk’ vid – it is the best thing ever.

  16. 24

    You mention describing the brand from multiple viewpoints.

    Do you find that a large website can have multiple statements, from different persona, or do they all roll-up into one main mission statement?


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