#15 – Critical thinking in web and interface design, part 2

#15 – Critical thinking in web and interface design, part 2

By Scott Berkun, May 2001

This essay is part two of a three part series on critical thinking in design. part one covered planning, and part three project management.

Good ideas are hard to find. Project schedules, plans and budgets are important, but without quality ideas, great design is impossible. Finding people that can create and cultivate good ideas is always difficult, and often beyond our control. However, everyone can develop their own creative thinking skills, and can provide an environment that supports creativity. The best teams know how to balance quality engineering practices with a creative and supportive work environment. This essay on idea generation describes how this can be done, and offers advice on defining and managing the creative process.

Moving from planning to ideas

Idea generation starts with the problem list from the planning phase (see part 1 of this series). This is the anchor for creative thinking because it provides clear targets for designers and engineers to shoot for. The best marksmen in the world will not do very well without a clearly labeled bull’s-eye to shoot at. To make your targets clear, print out the list of user problems you’re trying to solve. Post it in the hallway for the entire team to see. Scotch tape a copy next to your monitor. Make it so everyone that is expected to contribute will have intimate knowledge of the project goals, from your executives to your entire engineering team. Never hide your goals. You want as much support for them as you can get throughout your organization. Strive to make the design or user experience goals align well with the overall business and project goals (or vice versa). Everyone from business managers to engineers to executives should be moving in the same direction.

The paradox of structuring creativity: defining the process

Creativity is elusive. It’s hard for people to be creative because they are told to. The more pressure you put on people to be creative, the less creative they become (for the experimentally inclined, try yelling ìbe creative ñ NOW!î at your team and see how creative they get). Some people are naturally creative when under pressure, while others work best through introspection, and time left alone in their office. As a project manager or designer, you have to find the right way to build in support for creativity. That starts with understanding the people on your team, or if you’re working alone, understanding yourself. When are they most creative? What inspires their best work? What kind of environment do they work best in? (it is not necessarily the one they like the most).

People pursuing creative endeavors need psychological space. You have to have trust in your team and let them define much of how they will work. Build in as much flexibility as possible into your idea generation process. Create rules only when necessary, and start with as few rules as possible. Be responsive to what’s working, and make adjustments as you go. Avoid rigor and hierarchy. Flexibility allows minds to open, and open minds are fertile for creative thoughts.

Storming the brain

Brainstorming meetings are a common exercise for generating ideas, but few know how to organize and run them well. Often personalities don’t mix in the right way for these kinds of meetings to be effective. Some people are just not open enough in group settings to listen to new ideas, or to share their potentially embarrassing ideas with others. These sessions tend to work best when there is an experienced leader or organizer, who knows how to facilitate a session. Someone has to be responsible for keeping the meeting focused, but open enough that many ideas are presented and discussed.

Brainstorming is most effective with small groups. This improves the comfort level of participants, since with fewer people in the room, there is much less personal risk. People are more comfortable making jokes or taking chances, and the interaction becomes more intimate. Thinking can progress at a faster rate because people know each other better, and can communicate more effectively.

An ideal size is 3-5 people. Do whatever you have to do to get the size down. To help manage the politics of leaving people out, consider holding debriefing meetings once every few days or weeks. Allow anyone that’s interested to attend and see pictures of the current ideas and give feedback. In many cases maintaining a simple website with sketches and notes from the meetings, works just as well, and requires less work.

Another advantage to small brainstorming meetings is the potential for delegating activities. You can divide up certain tasks to be done outside of the brainstorming meetings, such as making sketches of the best ideas (designer), exploring technical constraints (engineer), or resolving business and organizational issues (project manager). Brainstorming every other day or twice a week is often an effective way to balance group work with individual work. At the beginning of every brainstorming meeting, have everyone show what they’ve been up to, and at the end of every meeting make sure everyone has something to investigate for the next meeting.

Generating ideas

“I don’t know when genius will happen, but I’m always in front of a canvas when it does” – Picasso

One definition for creativity is the diligent exploration of interesting alternatives. By investing energy into trying out different possible approaches, you improve your understanding of the problem, and get closer to a reasonable solution. People that are considered creative are almost always the ones who can consider the widest range of different ideas, and who have the courage to try many of them out. Like Picasso with painting, you never know when you’ll have your moments of brilliance, but the more time you spend working with designs and creating alternatives, the better the odds that it will come through in your work.

The ability to generate alternatives comes from intuition, but is amplified by experience. The more website navigation models you have studied, the wider the range of ideas you can pull from when designing a specific navigation system from scratch. The more usability studies you’ve watched, the better your sense for matching different kinds of designs with different kinds of users. Like any craft, you learn by doing, observing the results, and trying again. With a design of any complexity, there are so many subtleties that have to be considered that you can not easily predict the value of an approach until you try it out. This is why sketches and rough mock-ups are essential to any form of design. Combined with usability engineering techniques, a designer can get information on the value of an approach with a fairly small time investment.

A simple way to explore design alternatives is to look at other software products or websites. Take a metaphor or model from another system, and try to apply to your own specific problem. What would happen if you used the tab metaphor from Amazon.com? In the context of your project, and your goals, what would improve and what would decline? Refer back to your list of problems to be solved, and see how you’re doing. Can you borrow something from the tab metaphor? Or do you find that the tab metaphor prohibits an attribute that you need? Either way, you’ve gained insight into what your design needs to do, and you’ll be more prepared in your next exploration.

The best designers do rough explorations of many different designs. As long as aesthetics can be deferred (which is not always possible), black and white bitmaps, with outlines for different sections, can go a long way in expressing the basic ideas. Among small project teams, informal sketch work is perfectly acceptable: invest only the time needed to convey the idea. Once an idea seems to have merit, more investment in fidelity is necessary. But before you worry about the visual details, consider who will be looking at it.

Managing the process

The greatest asset during idea generation, besides the ideas themselves, is time. Since production code is not being written, the only thing you have the potential to waste is your schedule. The time in a project for idea generation should be scheduled and tracked. A rule of thumb is to divide the time planned for idea generation into thirds: 1/3 for open idea generation, 1/3rd for narrowing down to 3 to 5 approaches, and 1/3rd for drilling down into the one or two best approaches.

So if you have 3 weeks for this phase, each third would be a week long. The range of ideas explored should feel like a funnel, starting off wide, and narrowing as you go along. By the 2/3rds mark, you should have sketches or prototypes of at least 3 to 5 different designs. The rest of the time should be dedicated to exploring the best approaches in the usability lab, getting feedback from key people in your organization, and preparing to make a recommendation and presentation if necessary.

The first assumption people make is that ideas that are thrown away represent a waste of time. This is not true. It’s only a waste of time if it represents a failure of communication (e.g. ìJoe didn’t know that we cut the search feature so he spent a week prototyping something we can’t use.î). Do everything you can to avoid these situations where design effort is invested in something that is not feasible given the project constraints. The easiest way to avoid these kinds of failure is aggressive communication. Use email or brainstorming meetings as a way to keep everyone aware of what everyone else is doing, and what the project status is. Perhaps the schedule has slipped by a week, or a feature has been cut. If so, everyone needs to know and adjust their thinking accordingly. If you have a project leader, it should be his or her responsibility to ensure that design energy is not wasted. They are almost always avoidable.

It’s also important to keep consider the balance between the open nature of exploring ideas, and the closed reality of the budget, time and resource limitations. Sometimes the right project decision will be to change the schedule. Other times, the right choice might be to cut a great design to ship the project sooner. Finding the right balance is difficult, but it is as much a design problem as a management problem. Designers and usability engineers should be as interested in the business needs as the user needs. Their goal should be satisfy the overall project goals, not just the interaction design goals. Design is matching solutions to problems, and true designers recognize that technical and financial considerations play as significant a role as aesthetics or usability. Most design failures occur at the intersection of these different design constraints, and can be avoided here as well.

The structure of the process

Depending on the makeup of your team, and the work culture you are working in, there are many different ways to structure your time and divide the labor. Software and web engineering practices vary widely from organization to organization, and it follows that the approaches used for planning and integrating design vary as well. In all cases, everyone should be clear on the answers to the following questions. Any reasonable design process has clear answers to them, and any reasonably good design team should have complete awareness of the answers.

It’s the role of the project leader, or design process owner, to define and communicate the answers to these questions:

  • What are our business / project / strategic goals?
  • What user problems are we trying to solve? (how do these fit with the business / strategic goals?)
  • How much time do we have? How will we divide that time into planning, idea generation, development, and testing?
  • What is the output of the idea generation phase? Pictures? Prototype? Specifications?
  • How many usability studies will we have time for during idea generation? After?
  • During development, how much room do we have to make tweaks and adjustments? How final does the specification need to be?
  • How will we communicate our designs to engineering? When will this happen?
  • How are design decisions made? Who needs to be involved?
  • Who manages the schedule? Design? Engineering? Business? Project manager?
  • Will there be a design review meeting? Who makes final decisions?

(If you want my answers to these or other questions, head to the forums and ask there. I’ll write a column on it)

References on creative thinking

Lateral thinking, by Edward De Bono
Education on the nature of critical thinking. Full of exercises and techniques for applying better thinking practices to many different situations. Many examples have direct applications to design problems.

The Universal traveler, Don Koberg
Handbook of creative thought and behavior. The book covers a wide range of philosophical and pragmatic ideas, and is a fast read. Many references to other resources. This one is a gem.

Design for the real world, Victor Papenak
An industrial designer offers his best practices and philosophies. Includes sections on his techniques for idea generation, with examples of attribute matrixes and other techniques.

Are your lights on?, Donald C. Gause
This was the first book on critical thinking that I really enjoyed. It combines humorous stories with the underlying lessons for improving your thinking skills.

Rapid Viz: A new method for the rapid visualization of ideas, Kurt Hanks
If you’re looking to improve your sketching and drafting skills, check this one out. It’s a fun book with lots of exercises and examples for developing anyones skills. No formal design knowledge or training required.

Next issue: Part 3

In part 3 of this series, I’ll cover critical thinking in project management for web and software design.

Scott’s first book, the art of project management, will be published by O’Reilly in April of 2005.

One Response to “#15 – Critical thinking in web and interface design, part 2”


    A good article, it assisted me alot for my class assignment!


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