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Design's Crystal Ball: So-What Sketches

Audrey Crane Audrey Crane 3 min read

Wouldn't it be nice if we could predict the future impact of design work? After all, if the work we do doesn't have an impact, why do we bother? To answer this seemingly obvious (albeit complex) question, DesignMap has developed a practice we call “so-what" sketches. Learn how so-what sketches can act as a crystal ball to empower product and design teams to more accurately predict the outcomes of our work.

A few years ago, Jason, a (very senior and widely respected) Design Director confessed to me that he wasn’t a fan of personas. Not only wasn’t a fan of them, but he downright disliked doing them and thought they were a waste of time. 


I mean, I love personas. I love doing the research, I love our methodology for developing them with our clients, I love the clarity and direction they give our products. But his take was this: they didn’t make any difference in the ultimate design of the product. 

Of course, we all know this just can’t be true, right? Alan Cooper, the great forerunner in our field and inventor of Design Personas freed us from the world of software designed by engineers for engineers (but used by people like you and me). Kim Goodwin, the VP of Design at Cooper for 11 years says, “A persona is a user archetype you can use to help guide decisions about product features, navigation, interactions and even visual design.” 

We’re all familiar with criticism of personas by now. A Google search of “personas are dead, long live personas” yields about 200 results. Nevertheless, Jason’s criticism stuck with me for it’s simplicity: if personas don’t have an impact, why do we bother? And if they should have an impact, how do we know that they actually do? 

And with that, “so-what" sketches were born here at DesignMap. 

Following each persona development exercise, we began setting aside time for "so-what" sketches. We divided the persona team, which always includes researchers, designers, product managers, and engineers, into groups based on the primary, secondary, and perhaps even negative personas. Next, we selected a screen, often the dashboard or home screen, and sketched a version optimized for that specific persona.

In one word, these so-what sketches are awesome.

What they essentially do is bring the moment of impact closer, from a feature, workflow, or screen that we might develop in a few weeks or months to literally the next day. We do this type of thing in life all the time! It's kind of like how chef Samin Nosrat suggests seasoning just a spoonful of a dish to test different ingredients — what might a dash of vinegar do or a pinch of salt? By experimenting with just a small sampling of the greater whole, you can see how things balance out before changing the whole pot.

In design, "so what" does several things for us:

  • reminds us that personas must be immediately useful, preventing us from getting bogged down in irrelevant demographic details (like the number of pets or eye color) which can be at best, distracting and at worst, harmful
  • ensures that personas include meaningful, goal-directed information 
  • help the team see how personas could make a difference in decision making (which is especially helpful if our clients are going to be leveraging the designs and not us)
  • acts as a bridge between the insights that the personas represent and the impact they should have on the product

In short, it’s a neat, tangible way of predicting the future of your work — where it’s headed and how it will be helpful (or not).

Since we first developed this technique for personas, we’ve broadened the application to all kinds of activities. “So what?” has become useful shorthand for a series of questions:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What impact do we expect from this effort?
  • What lightweight activity can we include to bring the impact as close as possible to what we're doing?
  • If we can't answer these questions, should we be doing this at all?
Three examples of quick sketches of very different screens for different personas

These questions can be applied not only to personas but to any effort we undertake. It is a sign of both rigor and maturity that sometimes we can say “no” to some of these questions. It demonstrates our ability to stop and pivot to something more meaningful if we're uncertain about why we're pursuing a certain activity or how it will impact our work. (You can see this show up in our flexible design framework, too.)

Table showing examples of “so-what” activities, including: Primary activity: Persona development / Secondary activity: Sketches of a key screen oriented towards each persona to show how the product 
would be different depending on which persona is primary; Primary activity: Stakeholder interviews, landscape reviews or user research
that synthesize into insights / Secondary activity: Sketches or prototypes of a workflow or two to show how the an insight would show up in the UX and impact the users; Primary activity: Ontology or system model of 
a product or platform / Secondary activity: Sketches of how the product might change
to reflect the new model
Examples of “so-what” activities

The concept of so-what sketches is especially powerful when design teams are engaged in heavily strategic work — our favorite kind of work! So-what sketches help us keep our eye on where we’re headed with it. My friend Nate Zager says at AT&T they use the question, “To what end?” More elegant, but very much the same idea. I’d love to hear from others if they have similar tools.

If you are interested in talking more about how you might apply this concept, or how we might help you with some strategic work, please reach out! I’d love to chat.