Tent Talks Featuring Shannon Leahy: Creating Badass UX Deliverables with Common Tools

Tent Talks Featuring Shannon Leahy: Creating Badass UX Deliverables with Common Tools
Shannon Leahy
Senior Content Design Manager
Shannon has worked at the intersection of words, strategy, design, and people for almost 15 years. Currently, she is a senior content design manager at Adobe.

On Tuesday, September 26th at 5:00pm Central, Shannon Leahy joined us for a live Q&A session: “Creating Badass UX Deliverables with Common Tools.”

Session Notes

Here are the main points from the Tent Talks session with Shannon Leahy titled, “Creating Badass UX Deliverables with Common Tools:”

Shannon Leahy explores the importance and versatility of using common office tools for UX deliverables. She shares her experience as a self-taught designer, the benefits of democratizing design processes, and tips for effective team collaboration.  She also offers a candid perspective on the ever-evolving world of UX and design. She addresses the hesitancy some professionals feel about stepping away from brand names or expensive tools, and also speaks to emerging designers and educators about fostering a resourceful and adaptable mindset.

The Genesis of Necessity

  • Shannon emphasizes that her journey began from a need to adapt due to budget constraints.
  • Working at smaller companies initially, she couldn’t afford “fancy design tools,” so she relied on accessible office software.

Democratizing Design

  • Using common office software makes design more approachable for non-design team members.
  • These tools are familiar to people across various departments, reducing intimidation and making it easier for them to participate in the design process.

Innovative Use of Simple Tools

  • Examples include using word docs and spreadsheets for user journey maps, ideation sessions, and even complex service blueprints.
  • By harnessing the basic functionalities of these tools creatively, Shannon has been able to produce valuable UX artifacts.

Boring Design is Good Design

  • The focus should be on creating artifacts that are well-organized and help move the project forward.
  • Pretty designs are fine, but the path to getting there may involve “ugly but effective” steps.

Collaboration and Communication

  • Shannon stresses that the tool is secondary; what matters is good communication and relationship-building within the team.
  • Tips for effective collaboration:
    • Clear expectations and boundaries.
    • Setting the stage by explaining where you are in the process.
    • Making sure everyone has access and knows where to find shared documents.

Legal Inclusion

  • Including departments like Legal early in the process can be enriching and prevent roadblocks down the line.
  • Setting the context of the design phase helps in managing expectations and allows for more constructive collaboration.Balance and Context in Tool Selection
  • Shannon advocates for a balanced approach when choosing design tools.
  • Importance of context: Tools can be powerful but need to fit the task at hand.

Balancing Between Different Design Tools

  • Shannon emphasizes the importance of balance in choosing design tools.
  • Sometimes less glamorous tools like wireframes or word processing documents are just as effective as high-fidelity design tools.
  • When a project got stuck at the high-fidelity design stage, Shannon broke the deadlock by stepping back to create basic wireframes that facilitated discussions.

Open-Mindedness & Experimentation

  • Keeping an open mind is essential for growth and innovation.
  • She advocates for using existing resources in new and unexpected ways.
  • Different tools can complement each other; they are not necessarily in competition.

Advice for Early-Career Designers

  • Shannon encourages those who are new to their careers to “make stuff up.”
  • There is room for all kinds of approaches and it’s not about one “right” way.
  • She stresses the importance of sharing your unique methods and experiences; someone out there will find it valuable.

Adapting Design Frameworks & Processes

  • Design is not static; it evolves based on context and needs.
  • Shannon believes that one should declare their design process and then adapt it as they gain more experience.
  • She emphasizes focusing on core behaviors like creative thinking, problem-solving, and research, rather than sticking to a particular method.

Encouragement for Design Educators and Leaders

  • Educators should expose students to a variety of tools and tactics.
  • The end goal of design is to achieve something, be it a conversation, an agreement, or a solution.
  • Provide designers with the flexibility to mix and match their approaches.

The Importance of Sharing Ideas

  • Even if you think you have a “weird” idea or approach, share it.
  • You never know how your contributions could spark interest or become beneficial to someone else.
  • Shannon shares an anecdote about how sharing her favorite design tools led to engaging conversations and new opportunities.


  • Don’t overlook the power of accessible and common office tools for UX deliverables.
  • Always prioritize clear communication and inclusivity in the design process.
  • Be open to “boring design” if it effectively serves the purpose.Context matters in design, both for tool selection and approach.
  • Flexibility and an open mind can be your greatest assets in UX design.
  • There’s value in sharing your unique approaches and methods with the community, as it fosters innovation and collaborative growth.
  • Embrace the variety of design tools and methods available.
  • If you’re new or transitioning into the field, dive in, experiment, and make your mark.
  • Don’t hesitate to share your unique perspective; someone out there will find it valuable.

Memorable Quotes:

  • “It was all about what can I do to meet a need now in the moment.”
  • “It made them feel like they had a seat at a table that they did not usually understand.”
  • “We will eventually get to the beautiful, polished, high fidelity stuff, but on the path to that, oh yeah, I will bust out an ugly thing if it helps us make a decision.”
  • “It’s less about the tool and it’s about relationships, and it’s about communication.”
  • “It’s about balance because yeah, there’s a time and place to use a prototyping tool.”
  • “How I ended up getting us unstuck was I made a really crappy wireframe of a couple key screens where we got stuck.”
  • “These things are not in competition with each other. Again, they’re complementary to each other.”
  • “It’s to achieve something. There’s a conversation you need to have. There’s agreement you need to reach with somebody.”

Session Transcript

[00:00:35] What inspired you to focus on creating UX deliverables with common tools, and why do you believe this approach is essential for designers today?

[00:00:45] Shannon Leahy: There’s three things that come to mind. First, pure necessity. I don’t have any formal training in design or UX. I am one of the very loud and proud self taught folks.

[00:00:59] For some of the companies that I worked at, really small, I’m talking for people like web agency and small consultancies. We literally didn’t have access to, air quote, fancy design tools because that wasn’t in our budget. So sometimes we just had to work with what we had. Other times, the access was a matter of my role or my level of proficiency.

[00:01:23] I eventually had other jobs where I did have access to fancy industry-standard tools, and sometimes I knew how to use them or you knew how to use them well enough, but if I needed to move a little bit faster, I was like, you know what? Let me see what I can do with this template over here in this PowerPoint presentation or over in Google slides or insert office software here.

[00:01:45] It was all about what can I do to meet a need now in the moment? The other thing that came to mind to me too was, over my career and as someone who counts themself as a career transitioner and hearing all about the seat at the table, the seat at the table, it goes the other way, too. And a lot of times working with partners in product, tech, legal, marketing, they can sometimes get intimidated by, we’re going to fire up this Miro board, or we’re going to go into Mural or here, everyone, let’s drop you into this really cool prototype.

[00:02:24] So I found that using everyday office software, that invited them into our design process. It made them feel like they had a seat at a table that they did not usually understand and they felt intimidated by. It was cool to also use these tools as a way to help combat their imposter syndrome in a way.

[00:02:47] My first job out of college was a four person webshop, like I mentioned. We were all learning as we were going along. So we oftentimes also brought out sheets of paper. Let’s just sit next to each other and doodle stuff. Oh, this is called sketching and wire framing. Oh, okay, cool. We did what we needed to do. And then later we were able to match that to, oh, here’s the vocabulary that I now see it here and read other people using.

[00:03:18] Chicago Camps: Can you provide examples of how common office suite tools can be leveraged to create engaging and professional UX artifacts.

[00:03:26] Shannon Leahy: So a couple of different ways I’ve done this before and it’s really run the gamut I’ve used, for example, like word processing docs, spreadsheets, and even like just shapes and arrows and in deck software to create user journey maps. There was a really great talk at this conference called Perspectives last year in 2022, where a content designer also just talked about, again, I used some shapes in a word processing doc and I mapped out a user journey to help gain alignment and better understanding between my designer and me and other folks we were working with.

[00:04:05] That was a really cool example for them to share. I’ve also used spreadsheets and different tabs in spreadsheets to set up ideation sessions. Just merge a bunch of squares together to make different, basically stand ins for sticking notes. And I’ve also used spreadsheets to do what I call, it’s like a mashup between the service blueprint.

[00:04:28] So when you see across multiple points in time, potentially multiple channels, and you also account for, Hey, here might be a place where someone is directly interacting with a person or a digital interface, but here’s also the tools, processes, systems, people behind the scenes that are all interconnected into this as well.

[00:04:49] I meshed that together with like a communications mapping artifact to basically help a team go, okay, across this like six month relationship, nine months relationship with somebody, not only are we accounting for what we might need to talk about or share with them at different points in this kind of long term conversation with them but also tying that back to in our case, we needed to account for different tech stacks or different systems of record. And bringing that all into one view, but it was all in just a big ass spreadsheet as I liked to refer to it. And it’s extra funny too, if there are any content folks listening we live and die by our spreadsheets, right?

[00:05:33] So it’s always really funny to me too, to be like hey, in roles, both as a content designer and a UX manager and everywhere in between that I’ve been on my journey. Yeah. Using office software, I’ve gotten pretty creative with it to say the least. I’m the first to admit, and I love it. I was just talking to somebody on LinkedIn and we were talking about how we like to do air quote boring design but it was coming back to this core idea of oh, some of my artifacts they are not going to be sexy and glamorous but they’re well organized and they help people either understand an idea or figure out, oh, actually we weren’t all in agreement about this thing. There’s another question we need to answer first before we move on.

[00:06:21] And to me, that’s really what’s so powerful about it at the end of the day. We will eventually get to the beautiful, polished, high fidelity stuff, but on the path to that, oh yeah, I will bust out an ugly thing if it helps us make a decision or move forward in a process.

[00:06:40] Chicago Camps: How do you collaborate with other team members when working with common tools? And what strategies do you employ to keep everyone on the same page?

[00:06:48] Shannon Leahy: At the end of the day, it’s less about the tool and it’s about relationships, and it’s about communication. My short one-liner answer to myself in the notes was, it’s the same as the fancy one.

[00:07:02] And what I mean by that, by saying that collaborating with folks, whether you’re using just your built in office collaboration tools, or you’re in something a little bit fancier, you need to do just core things as part of being a good team member. For example, if you’re heading into a collaboration session, you need to make sure that everybody has shared access, everybody’s got edit access if they need it, ahead of time.

[00:07:30] They know where to find the file. Everybody already has access to that software. It’s about explaining and setting boundaries and guardrails around it. Here’s where we are in the process. So what we’re looking at today, this is how unfinished or finished it might look to you.

[00:07:50] Another really important thing I’ve found is being really clear about expectation setting and especially helping people understand what comes next. And framing that up as here’s the kind of feedback that we’re looking for right now. Here’s the kind of feedback on the same like on the flip side, this is the feedback we need, this is the feedback we don’t need right now. If we start finding that you’ve got some feedback already that’s in an area we’re gonna address in the next check in or in the next step, here, let’s make a note of that so that You feel heard. We don’t lose sight of or forget or lose these questions in the shuffle, but let’s stay focused to here and now and where we are in the process.

[00:08:35] I also find that having that dedicated and separated time and space for here’s where we’re working together in this file, or we’re all collaborating on this artifact, but then making sure you also build in and bake time for.

[00:08:52] Here’s where I am going to have some maybe alone, just solo time, or maybe it’s just me and another person. But we’re going through and we’re doing refinement in a separate place. So again, we can preserve and say here is the raw input, here’s everybody’s ideas. And then we can follow up to talk about, here’s how we shaped this. Here’s how we made sense out of this. One of the stories that I like to tell folks is how a team that I used to work on, we got legal really comfortable and maybe almost excited about being in collaboration sessions. And there was such a night and day difference between the first time that I sat was in this cross functional collaboration session.

[00:09:41] And one of the ones that I led up a couple of years later at that same team and company because legal was just like, you all are like this phase in the process. What are we doing? Oh my gosh, people are suggesting all these ideas that might not be feasible. I have lots of feedback about that from a legal perspective.

[00:10:00] And when we took that step back and both introduced to them and talked to them about, here’s where we are in the process. It’s okay, we’re going to say some stuff that we might not be able to do in the end, but that’s going to trigger new ideas. It’s empowering for them too, because now they don’t have to be the villain in the story and shut down all your cool ideas.

[00:10:23] They get to be up front with you and like you said, talk through, okay, here’s something we need to account for. No, really that one thing over there. Yeah, we really, we just, we legit can’t do that, but here’s another way that we can accomplish this and honor the spirit of what you were trying to do. And then here’s the way to do it that’s legally compliant. And also, I hear you saying this is how we’ll also make this clearer, more humane, more transparent for the person who’s at the other end of this interaction with us.

[00:10:56] That’s going to get everyone really excited and we’ll eventually, two sessions from now, or we’re going to come through your office hours in a week to talk about some of the potential gotchas or things we need to look out for. They responded so well to, Oh, no one ever explained it to me that way.

[00:11:13] And then two, as we would brainstorm and do stuff together we’d type stuff up and in a word processing doc everyone would print off their ideas and we tape them up on the wall together, that lower fidelity also helped them understand, oh yeah, this is still a rough draft. And it also helped them feel like, oh yeah, cool, I didn’t have to draw this beautiful sketch to communicate my ideas and my concerns and my feedback. And be on equal footing with everybody.

[00:11:39] Chicago Camps: What advice would you give to designers or UX professionals who are hesitant to not always step away from the brand name or fancier, more expensive tools that they have available to them?

[00:11:52] Shannon Leahy: It’s our favorite answer to every question, right? It depends. It depends on the context. The first thing I had in my notes too, was it’s about balance because yeah, there’s a time and place to use a prototyping tool. Sure. Fine. Great. Not debating that. But I think that the advice I would give folks who are already in the industry is, again, if you’re finding that you’re swirling on something…

[00:12:20] There was another project where, yeah, we had already gone all the way to high fidelity designs. I was brought in toward the end. I thought we were close to finish. We weren’t.

[00:12:29] How I ended up getting us unstuck was I made a really crappy wireframe of a couple key screens where we got stuck and I printed them off and we sat in a conference room and we marked them up and we talked through and we eventually figured out, oh, actually, this is what we wanted to say. Now we’re ready to go talk to legal move through the rest of the process.

[00:12:50] I think it’s just about embracing and pivoting where you need to really so I think just keeping an open mind to, and experimenting with, the stuff you already have and seeing how that can be used in new and unexpected ways. Or how do you mash up doing a technique in a word processing doc?

[00:13:11] How do you fold that into and make that part of your process and use that to complement or guide you to, okay, if I start lower fidelity in the word processing doc, that helps me organize my thoughts, that makes it easier for me to start mapping out and doing screens. Okay, cool. These things are not in competition with each other. Again, they’re complementary to each other.

[00:13:33] The other side of that and the other folks that I want to talk to are the folks who might be newer in their career. They might be transitioning in from another field. Or maybe you have a healthy dose of imposter syndrome like the rest of us. And to that I say, please, get in there and make stuff up.

[00:13:51] You hear that all the time. You read it, somebody on LinkedIn said they just make it up. RIP Twitter. Oh, yeah, we’re just making it all up. No, really, we, we really are. And I, there’s a lot of space. There’s so much space for all these different approaches. And it’s not about my way is THE way with a capital T, right?

[00:14:14] It Hey, Russ tried this. That looks interesting. What if I take that and remix it based on how I know my company likes to work? Right? So I think that I’d like to see and hear more people talk about this stuff and like, just really embrace it doesn’t have to always be super sexy to be effective.

[00:14:36] That would be so cool. That would be so cool to see more people’s kind of, here’s the weird way I think I do it. Because, I guarantee with a pretty high success rate, I’m pretty confident there’s gonna be someone, somewhere out there who says, whoa, that’s really cool, I’d like to give that a try.

[00:14:54] That feels like a comfortable thing that I could try next in, in where I am in my career right now and how I want to grow.

[00:15:02] Chicago Camps: How can educators and design leaders encourage a more resourceful and adaptable mindset to using these types of tools to emerging designers?

[00:15:12] Shannon Leahy: I think it’s part of that is similar to what we’ve already been talking about is just recognizing that there’s so many different ways to do design.

[00:15:23] Sure, give somebody a framework to start with and also plant the seeds with them that, hey, when you get into real world context or even between different departments in the same company or as you go between different companies, as you explore different opportunities in your career, everything is always going to turn up a little bit differently.

[00:15:48] I had a really cool conversation with Jess Vice. Last week, and we were talking about this very thing, Jess said, yeah, like just declare your design process, right? Five steps, four steps, whatever it is. And then as you gain more and more experience, you start to learn how to adapt, oh gosh, like research for this client or research for this timeline.

[00:16:13] I’m going to have to do it really creatively in this way or that way, or like whatever the case may be. So I think similarly, like less, oh, UX design from the good old days and this is how it used to be. Let’s embrace that things are changing and there are these really new and different perspectives that are emerging.

[00:16:35] And frankly, these perspectives have been here all along, too. And let’s just embrace that. I think right at the top of the call, when we first kicked things off, I talked about let’s recognize the core behaviors that we want people to come back to. The creative thinking, the critical thinking, problem solving, doing your research, and then let’s expose people to different tactics and different methods you can use to accomplish those things.

[00:17:08] Because again, at the end of the day, the design tool, the artifact, the deliverable, whatever it is you’re coming back to. It’s to achieve something. There’s a conversation you need to have. There’s agreement you need to reach with somebody. So why not give people lots of different ways so that they can start to mix and match and say, oh, hey, for this here, I’m going to do A and B, but now I’m going to do B and C, and now I’m going to mash up A, B, and C.

[00:17:38] I just think that there’s just so many different ways to do things and just… Let’s lean into that. Let’s lean into that. Real quick, the other thing I wanted to throw out for folks as a way of reassurance, and it connects back to talking about, let’s get out there more with our weird ideas. I don’t have a big Twitter following.

[00:17:59] I think I tweeted out a snarky, oh, my favorite design tool. I think design Twitter, I think we were all up in arms about best design tool of the week once again.

[00:18:10] Chicago Camps: And then I slid into your DMs.

[00:18:12] Shannon Leahy: Yeah, I literally just went on there, and again, I don’t have a big following. I like there’s five people I regularly talk to with any kind of frequency.

[00:18:23] And I talked about, gosh, you know what my favorite design tools, spreadsheet and Google, or word docs. Take your pick. And then Russ said, “Hey, tell me more about that.” So again, you never know where and how you might pique someone’s interest or teach them a new thing or just get them excited about a way of working.

[00:18:48] There’s so many cool ways, Chicago Camps is one of them, other local meetups, like, there’s so many different ways and places to channel your energy and, and share that stuff. I would be remiss if I didn’t say, please put yourself and your ideas out there, at the very least, that Russ or I would come and talk to you about them.

[00:19:07] That’s two people. That’s already two people. More than maybe, you might be going, Oh gosh, I thought nobody wanted to hear about this. Two people. There’s two people who want to hear from you.


Event Details
Creating Badass UX Deliverables with Common Tools
September 26, 2023
5:00 pm
September 26, 2023
6:00 pm
Tent Talks Featuring Shannon Leahy: Creating Badass UX Deliverables with Common Tools On Tuesday, September 26th at 5:00pm Central, Shannon Leahy. joins us for a live Q&A session: “Creating Badass UX Deliverables with Common Tools.” Shannon Leahy Shannon has worked...
May 2024