• Katie Cladis

The Visual Product Manager

I recently took a user experience course, where I learned about the visual alphabet. As a terrible artist, I was intrigued and inspired by the notion that I could sketch useful concepts and communicate effectively with just a few simple characters via the visual alphabet. Just like the written alphabet are the building blocks to form meaning communicated in writing, the visual alphabet are the building blocks to form meaning to be communicated visually.



Dave Gray’s Visual Alphabet


I decided I would test this out by starting to sketchnote different experiences, ideas and interactions, to see if it was useful in my goal to become a more effective communicator and, therefore, Product Manager.


As a Product Manager, communicating is one of the most important skills to have. You’re not coding, you’re not designing, you’re not selling, you’re not marketing (though you may dabble in all of those things time to time). Instead, you are thinking, planning, rethinking, replanning, coordinating, researching, until the valuable path of least resistance emerges. I’ve found that I have the tendency to get in my own head, thinking that everyone has found the same path as me - we’ve all been in the same meetings, we’ve all had the same conversations, so we’re all seeing the same path, right? Or course not. Others have their own goals, priorities, thoughts, and their day to day does not revolve around that one thing you said at that one meeting that, for you, was so clear and so profound, for which you were so proud and just knew that everyone was on the same page after voicing (you were wrong).


Enter sketchnoting.


From Wikipedia, Sketchnoting, or visual notetaking, is the creative and graphic process through which an individual can record their thoughts with the use of illustrations, symbols, structures, and texts.


Once I started implementing the visual alphabet and a few other simple sketchnoting staples (lightbulbs, trophies, banners, etc.), I quickly became obsessed with the process: it is fun, it forces an essentialist mindset about what is most important, and then it helps me remember those things that are most important. And did I mention that it is fun?


But as a Product Manager, I wanted to find ways to incorporate sketchnotes into my day job, to see if it would be helpful in communicating ideas to others. Working on redesigning our company website, I decided to sketch the main themes we were trying to address with the redesign. We identified several jobs to be done by the site, such as converting leads and attracting top talent. But the main goal was making the site more useful in our consultative sales process. Based on our research, we learned that in order for our site to drive more business, and more quickly, the site had to do the following: effectively communicate the services we offer, assert credibility in our industry, declare how we are differentiated from our competition, and prove useful to our audience of prospective clients.


Normally, I would communicate this in a roadmap document of some sort (which I did) in order to communicate milestones, progress and prioritization. However, I wanted to see if communicating via a sketchnote might inspire a bit more interest, engagement and memorability.


So that’s exactly what I did.


Here is the original document:


Here is the sketchnote version:


While I’m not suggesting that a sketchnote can replace a roadmap document, I am suggesting that it can help communicate the big themes or ideas of your roadmap, in order to foster alignment and excitement. This was met with some excitement from my team, so I decided to think about some other use cases where a sketchnote might be interesting. Here is what I came up with.



Goal Setting and Realization

My team met to discuss how we were going to accomplish our 10 year product goals, by brainstorming what we would need to accomplish over the next 3 years to remain on the right track. By summarizing our priorities in a visual way, you have a tool to display in a prominent place (pin to a Slack Channel, hang up on the wall) to continuously ground your team in what you’re trying to accomplish.




Agile Ceremony Agendas


For newer teams, sketchnote agendas can be a useful way to introduce them to agile. For example, this is a way to communicate the inputs and outputs of IMP meetings, without necessarily the same old list of bullet points. You can post on the wall during the meeting, or in remote environments, display on the screen to start the meeting, as a gentle reminder of what you’re trying to accomplish.



Workshops

Workshops can be super productive, or a total flop. Of course a good Product Manager does a lot of planning to ensure a workshop is the former, from talking to stakeholders individually beforehand to get a sense of their goals, to coming up with exercises to drive team alignment, to creating an inclusive environment where everyone feels safe and listened to. No matter your style, a good workshop always has an objective and an agenda. One such meeting I held recently was an ideation meeting called Crazy Eights. Here is a sketchnote agenda to such a meeting, to aid in communicating the objective and meeting activity.



Final Thoughts

Whether or not all of this is helpful to anyone other than me is still TBD, but I have found that communicating visually is a good way to at least clarify my own thinking. And if I’m clearer, my team will naturally be clearer as a result (whether or not they enjoy my sketches).


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