How to make a Rich Picture and why

You’re tasked with architecting or designing the user experience for a new project.

But what do you do if you don’t have a good set of requirements or acceptance criteria? You can work from raw interview notes, whiteboard sketches and assumptions, and draw a Rich Picture.

Drawing a Rich Picture is a way to find out about any problem situation and express it through cartoon-like diagrams which are a preliminary mental model of the situation. The mnemonic “COW TEA” is used to help people remember the elements of the Rich Picture: customers, actors, transformation, worldview, owner, and environment. The Rich Picture is typically drawn before the analysis phase.

After you’ve drawn your Rich Picture, you can go on to engage in more research and other cognitive calisthenics, in order to create more robust mental models.

Below is an example of a hand-drawn Rich Picture, showing COW TEA elements for the process of making coffee!

Rich Picture - coffee making

The Rich Picture depicts things like:

  • the structure of user interactions
  • the functions of the new feature and how they integrate with existing functions
  • basic elements of the process flow
  • environmental factors, such a legal, ethical or economic considerations
  • “hard” or “soft” information relevant to the project
  • types of requirements that will have to be developed
  • primary tasks involved in understanding each requirement type.

After you’ve drawn a Rich Picture, you will be ready to write a short (10-word) summary: “We are building a system to transform X into Y.”

Peter Checkland introduced the concept of the Rich Picture in 1981 in his book Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, the textbook on his soft systems approach to creating solutions to human problems. Checkland’s examples are all hand-drawn.  But what if you want to revise your drawing? Share it with others? So sometimes I use Visio or Omnigraffle to draw my Rich Picture. Below is an example of a more complex Rich Picture which I drew a few years ago, for a project to integrate a third party event and meeting registration site with a web site used by corporations for managed business travel.

Example Rich Picture


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