Thursday, March 28, 2013

Why Structure is the Secret Weapon of Great Design Teams

So you're sitting at your desk in the morning addressing some leftover emails from last night when a message pops up that you're needed in the main conference room. A major client opportunity has come up and the Design team has been asked to whip up some creative concepts. You head to the conference room, sit down with your fellow creatives and the brainstorm begins. After a couple hours of tossing ideas around, the whiteboard is full of ink, including a great sketch of a user journey and a list of a few potentially killer concepts. The meeting ends with you agreeing to document the ideas with the help of some rendered storyboards from one of the better artists in the group. The team will have the new concepts ready for review by the end of the week. Design has delivered. 

This is the model that exists in so many organizations, and it can work just fine. Creatives free of soul-dampening process, temporarily unhindered by reminders of budgetary and technical limits, creating wildly divergent solutions for their less creative counterparts to develop.  

The underlying wisdom is (1) unstructured creative "magic" generates ideas, and then (2) structured engineering process makes the idea of a reality. As far as creating great products, however, it is completely flawed.

The reality is that an unstructured creative process (I'm talking more idea generation than detailed UX design) bounces randomly around the problem and solution spaces, undoubtedly spending too much time on some aspects while accidentally ignoring others. This random approach MAY result in a great outcome, but it's not efficient or reliable as a process.

5 Reasons Why You Need More Creative Structure

1. Trust
If you're a designer, I'm sorry to tell you this but your co-workers don't trust you. They have process and structure. You have whiteboards and brainstorms. They're quantitatively-driven, and you're.... not. By cloaking the creative process and being exclusive, you're creating an unknown that will lead to an uneasiness from people who are not familiar with it. If you want to establish credibility with non-creatives in your organization, you need to have a transparent creative process with a level of rigor that is understood by roles which are traditionally more structured and process-oriented. Otherwise, your work is just "magic" and it will never really be trusted. Sure, you might maintain some of the mystique of being an exclusive design department, and you may generate some fantastic design concepts, but the influence of those concepts will never be fully realized without a considerable level of trust in how they were created. 

2. Ideas
An odd relationship exists between structure and creativity. Bad structure can create a negative environment where brainstorms become more about avoiding constraints than achieving optimal solutions. Good structure can provide a "creative scaffolding" where problems can be more fully understood and the full range of solutions can be explored more effectively. Good structure can also present people with a creative tension that spurs new ways of thinking about problems or generates unexpected solutions. I'm going to focus on the "how" much more in my next post, but an example would be the creation of User Journeys where designers must think through the entire time scale from the initial touchpoint through conclusion. This method promotes a more holistic and comprehensive perspective, which can often reveal unexpected needs or opportunities.
For methods of pure idea creation, check out Dave Gray's "Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers" for ideas for creativity-generating games:

3. Communication
A standalone idea is really just an opinion and it is at risk of misinterpretation  When you have a good process however, it is much easier to strengthen your ideas along with the thinking that led to them. For example, I like to define and share the intent behind every design decision. Something like "To make it easy for users to find what they're looking for by providing a Search box". User Journeys are also good at this with their "User Need State" phrases at each step. Verbal statements like these provide a good complement to any visual design, and the combination of the two provide a great talking point. It's the "why" behind the design decision that promotes understanding and acts as a catalyst for conversation.

Well communicated ideas also have a better chance of standing unscathed throughout the product development process. If communicated with intent and reasoning and explanation, design ideas will be more likely understood by the people who are responsible for implementing them. 

4. Product
In my thesis work last year, I discovered that one of the key factors in the success of a company's design strategy was in their ability to take a holistic approach. By this I mean that they clearly considered the entire continuum of their customer touchpoints and developed cohesive product ecocsystems to support them. Designing like this requires a different set of techniques from the earliest ideation stages. It requires a creative framework that is set up for generating ideas across a range of expected user states. The end result should be a series of complementary ideas that form together to create better products and services.

5. Repetition
I recently read the Lean Startup. It took me a while to get around to it becuase I made some incorrect assumptions. I assumed that it was basically "Design Thinking for Startups": rush quickly to a minimum viable product, learn from it, and then iterate. Then I read it and realized that it was much more structured than this. Eric Ries was espousing for scientific rigor in the product development process because it allows for learning and advancement. This is where it separates from Design Thinking. Instead of just being a Way of Thinking, it was a Way of Acting. That's a big distinction.
The benefit of a Way of Acting is that it can be learned, it can be refined, and it can be repeated. The design process should not be an exception to this. Systematic creativity is entirely possible.

To summarize, I believe that design teams would benefit from a more systematic approach to their creative process as it leads to better ideas and a greater chance of realizing those ideas. In the next post, I would like to get into some specific techniques for structured creativity. In the meantime, I would love to hear what has and hasn't worked for you in terms of structuring your creative process. Comment here or fire me an email at 

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