Project war rooms: making the design process visible

You’ve seen a war room in the movies – frowning generals sticking coloured pins onto a map. That stuff really happened, and for a good reason: when you’re invading another country, everyone has to know exactly what’s going on. Losing bits of important paper under your desk could cost lives.

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London’s Churchill War Rooms , from where the British cabinet ran its WWII operations.

A Flow project war room.

Software projects are never quite that serious. But there are good reasons why you should have a war room for your project:

  • Project stakeholders can see that something is happening. If it’s visible, people find it easier to pop in and participate.
  • Everyone can see what the others are up to. This is important when you’re running a UX or agile project with multidisciplinary teams.
  • It’s easier to understand concepts when they are tangible. Try to explain fractions to a child: the quickest way is to cut an apple in half, and then in quarters. Tangible. Just like that, personas, scenarios, wireframes and processes should be visible, not abstract.
  • It’s easier to design interaction when you’re moving pieces of paper around. It takes a lot of time to demonstrate interaction using Photoshop or Omnigraffle. It takes seconds to do the same thing with a sketch, a Post-it note and your pointing finger.

What you need to make a project war room

  • A room with loads of wall space. The intention is to stick your work on the walls. A table for meetings is a bonus.
  • If rooms are scarce, a project war wall is the next best option. Choose a wall where you can hold stand-up meetings without disturbing anyone.
  • You need the right kind of wall. It’s annoying to cover a wall in printouts, only to find they’ve all fallen off by the next morning. Check the adhesive strength of your wall before committing! Glass or whiteboard is best, because you can also write on it. Pinboards are a real bonus.
  • Stationery! Essential items are stacks of coloured Post-it notes in various sizes, black permanent marker pens (sharpies), plenty of ink for your printer and lots of Prestik / Blu-tak. Also useful are coloured dot stickers, white paper and coloured crayons for sketching, and highlighter pens. Make sure there’s a flipchart in the room for quick and visible sketching.
  • Digital camera. You’ll want to take old work down and put new stuff up. Don’t just chuck things away. Take pictures first, so that you have a record of what was up there.

How to use your project war room

Stick important stuff on the wall. Make it colourful and interesting. Add photos. Get great big pink stars to draw attention to important things. Stand around. Discuss.

Go for:

  • Personas
  • Scenario diagrams
  • List of things to remember
  • Things you observed in user research
  • Sitemaps, wireframes, process flows
  • Concept diagrams
  • Cartoons
  • Design drivers (design rules and goals for your product)

Impose structure

A war room is a giant communication machine. If you communicate things in random order,  in a jumble, people will not understand you. Create zones and blocks of space. Label them.

Use arrows to show interaction, storyboard progress and direction.

War room etiquette

Don’t get precious about it. It’s meant to be fun and temporary. You are not painting a fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Just stick stuff up. If people don’t like it, that’s fine. The discussion and difference of opinion is productive.

Don’t let it atrophy. If you let your war room die and you don’t bother to keep sticking new stuff up, it’ll turn into an embarrassment. You have to make the effort to communicate to everyone and share ideas. If you don’t believe that, then don’t start a war room.

Don’t take other people’s stuff down without permission. If someone contributes to the war room, they’ve taken a leap and put something of themselves up for all to see. If you take it down without discussing it with them, you’ve rejected their effort, and they will probably not contribute again.

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