Open Studio: Design Thinking at PatronManager

Today’s blog post is written by Emma Smith, Creative Technologist, PatronManager.

This is the first in a series of three posts about the product design process here at PatronManager. We hope this gives you some insight into our process for designing new features as well as some ideas about creative thinking and collaboration.

My role as Creative Technologist here at PatronManager is to help find ways to more fully weave design into our product development practice. This could be anything from revamping existing features to prototyping new ones. As part of this effort, I recently started hosting a series of internal design workshops called “Open Studio.” These workshops are meant to be a gathering akin to the Design Thinking sessions held by Stanford’s dSchool, or (a really short version of) Google’s Design Sprint.

Open Studio works like this: anyone from within PatronManager is allowed (and encouraged) to attend! The calendar invitation that I send out company-wide literally says: “Hey, I’ll be designing something. Come join me!” In the sessions I’ve held so far we’ve had representatives from all over the company across multiple departments and experience levels; from senior managers to marketers to developers to customer support to sales, you name it.

We all gather in a room, close our laptops, tuck away our phones, and put a “problem” we need to solve in the center of the room. Last week, for example, the question I posed for the group was: How can we let patrons pick their own seats when they buy a subscription? And how can we do it in a way that accommodates all the various notions of “subscription” that an arts organization may have? How can we make this patron experience really fantastic?

I brought with me an idea of how this might work. I laid out my design sketches on the table, several screens side by side, to share with the group. I thought it was a pretty solid design. In my mind, it worked perfectly. Then one of our Account Executives said, “You know, in real life, our clients often do X with subscriptions. What happens then?” “Oh no!” I thought. “I have no idea!” It was suddenly clear that my design as it stood would have painted a ticket-buyer into a corner.

It was super valuable to discover this issue so early in the process. During the remainder of that session, we worked together to sketch out a new solution, and now, going back to the Product team, I have a design in hand that is so much more viable than anything I could have dreamed up on my own. And it cost nothing more than ten minutes of time and a few sheets of paper.

About that paper… We’re a modern software company on the #1 CRM platform in the world. Surely we should be using some sort of fancy prototyping tool, right? Yes, there is a myriad of great design programs, and we make use of many of them, but in Open Studio paper beats them all. Here’s why:

Open Studio is all about collaboration. If we used wireframing software in this process, whenever anyone wanted to make a change they’d have to ask the designer to do it. This puts the designer hat back on the designer, which is exactly the sort of rigid “stay in your lane” thinking Open Studio is meant to disrupt. Everyone knows how to use a pencil. In Open Studio, everyone is equally qualified to make a new design.

Paper has another advantage. There’s something about the physicality of working with real materials together in real life that makes it easier to relate to one another. When everyone is looking up at a screen on a wall, we miss subtle nonverbal cues. When you show someone a design, they exhibit all kinds of reactions they may never have put into words. They might furrow their brow in confusion or light up with surprise. These reactions are hard to quantify, but in the early stages of a design, they serve as incredibly valuable information. It’s the type of thing you only get when you’re sitting around a table together.

I’ve been holding Open Studio for about two months now and I have emerged from each session with a stack of fresh ideas and promising solutions. I also have a stack of notes on dead ends, which is just as valuable because we now know we shouldn’t spend time trying to turn them into software.

There’s been plenty written on the virtues of a design-driven, user-centered process. But it’s one thing to read about how they do it at Google or Stanford. It’s another thing to discover how these ideas work within our particular company, for our particular problems. Here are my biggest takeaways so far:

  • Open Studio is drawing in people who are not traditionally involved in product development. Which is wonderful!
  • I now have increased confidence that when we turn designs into software, we’re solving the right problems. It feels great to understand what we’re getting into before we commit.
  • “Building” on paper is way cheaper. Ideas can be prototyped and tested with very little investment. Winnowing out the non-starters early in the process, before any serious resources have been dumped into a project, saves untold dollars and heartache.
  • It’s an incredibly efficient use of time. I learn more in that hour than in days of ordinary design process.

But maybe best of all is that it’s fun! Fun is its own reward, of course, but it also has a real benefit to the business. When people are having fun together, they communicate more, they communicate better, and they build trust. This creates healthy relationships, healthy teams, and an environment where it’s a joy to show up each and every day to make it a little easier to make art happen. Stay tuned for my next post in this series with more behind-the-scenes tales and insight from the world of design here at PatronManager!

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