I had the pleasure of mentoring at the first Design Jam in London today. The event brought together about 50 UX designers from student to seasoned professional to form teams of about 4-5 to design a solution in response to a design challenge.
The challenge for today was:
What is the ideal interface to keep track of previously viewed online content, across multiple devices and locations?
You can see what the teams came up with by checking out each of the team wiki pages.
It was a lot of fun running around from one team to the next seeing what they were working on and, hopefully, helping to guide them towards a solution to present at the end of the day. It was really interesting to be able to observe nine teams approaching the same design question, and to see where the common challenges emerged. Some observations and advice:
- Spend less time choosing your idea and more time defining it. Specifically, what problem are you solving?
Peter Drucker, a business management guru said ‘Ideas are cheap and abundant; what is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.’ Nowhere is this truer than at DesignJam. If you want to have something interesting to present at the end of the day, you need to quickly identify a specific problem that you can solve, and then you need to be able to describe that problem in a concrete story. ‘ Keeping track of previously viewed online content, across multiple devices and locations‘ is so broad as to be meaningless from a designer’s perspective. But, being able to re-find a hotel website I saw a week ago when considering a holiday, or the location of the event I’m going to tomorrow, or finding the link to that funny website my friend emailed me about the other day – those a real, concrete, solvable problems.
It doesn’t really matter which one of these you choose, what matters is that you quickly identify a relatively small, concrete problem that you can solve and that you can describe the problem clearly and believe that the problem is real, and describe how life will be better for people with this problem resolved.
The elevator pitch technique is one method you might want to consider to help get yourself to a stage where you *really* *clearly* understand what you’re working on and why.
I really can’t stress how important this part of the project is – this is the foundation on which all the rest of your work is built on, and the most important thing is not *which* idea you choose, it’s about how clearly you’ve defined the problem you’re going to solve and the value you’re going to deliver – your value proposition.
- Define your audience by understanding the important behavioural characteristics.
Ah, the vexed issue of personas.I saw a lot of personas at DesignJam today and very little evidence of them being used as part of either the problem or solution definition. Personas *can* be very valuable but only if they’re used in the right way and that is as a tool to help you understand what are the behavioural differences that are significant to your design problem, preferably informed by real data points (your mum, husband, grandfather do count as data points in a DesignJam scenario!).
Time is precious in a DesignJam environment (as it is on all the project we work on, right?) – we need to make sure our time is being spent in the best possible way. I witnessed too much time being spent making personas because it felt like the next logical step in the design process. In most cases, I would have preferred to have seen groups spend time defining usage stories or tasks and then, if it became clear that there were divergent behaviours and we needed to choose to support one kind of behaviour or another, then capture that somehow – and perhaps a persona is a good way to make that behaviour more understandable.
Having said that, one of my favourite designs today emerged in response to an ‘extreme’/edge case persona – so persona’s can be a starting point – but what drove this design was not the persona as such but the behaviours we were able to identify that were specific to that persona (and very different from our own) – in this instance, the use of links in email as a primary trigger point for viewing websites, also getting relatively few emails from relatively few senders.
If you must do personas, then do as few as possible. If you’ve got more than three personas, I want to know why.
If you’re going to spend time making personas, then I want to see you actually using them in your design process.
- Get sketching! Generate and evaluate lots of design solutions before you start wireframing
So, all that time you probably spent trying to come up with A Good Idea, spend it here instead. Quickly generate as many ideas as you possibly can. I reckon it was at least 2pm before I saw people starting to sketch out ideas at DesignJam today (teams started tackling the design problem at 10am and were supposed to present at 4pm).
A really popular approach to generating lots of ideas at the moment is to do 6-up wireframes another technique I quite like is Design Consequences. However you do it, the key is to get as many ideas as you can onto paper. And then – once you’re out of ideas – to use your clearly defined design problem and whatever user behaviours or personas you have defined to evaluate which aspects of which ideas are strongest.
Once you’ve evaluated the first round of ideas and you’ve got fresh ideas in your head – do another round of visual brainstorming. Rinse, repeat until the answer becomes obvious. Eventually, it will. Then everything will start falling into place.
- A group is a resource and a liability (user your numbers, appoint a facilitator)
When you’re designing with a bunch of other designers (or actually, with any group at all), there are two key things to remembers – firstly – use all the people in your team, get them all actively designing, make sure everyone is sketching and contributing ideas, remember to do things quietly and individually sometimes and to do things collaboratively and together at other times.
Secondly – make sure that someone is driving the team – keeping you on a schedule, working out how you’re going to get from here to the end of the project, making sure that you’re staying true to the project problem you’ve defined, making use of the personas you’ve defined, keeping everyone focussed, on track, and working productively. Have this discussion at the beginning of the project rather than waiting for a ‘natural leader’ to emerge (especially if you’re working somewhere where politeness is at a premium and potential leaders might be nervous of treading on other team members toes)
- Pitch clearly and persuasivelyThe day wraps up with each team presenting their design to the larger group – for me, this is as important as all the design work you’ve done throughout the day. A clear, focussed and compelling presentation enables you to convey to the group what you’ve been working on, what problem you’re solving, who you’re solving it for, and finally, to show the design solution you’ve come up with.That clear value proposition and the user stories or tasks that you’ve defined come in handy yet again and show be key to framing your work in a way that is understandable and compelling to your audience.
Don’t think of this as ‘just the presentation’ – as much as any of the design work you’ve done throughout the day is great experience and practice for your day to day design work, the same couldn’t be truer for this part of the process. As designers, we’re only ever as good as the design we can convince our client/team to implement and this means that we’re constantly presenting our work – explaining what the problem is, why we’ve done what we’ve done. This is something that, as designers, we should be able to do at the drop of a hat because of the preparatory work we’ve done earlier in the design process.
While these thoughts are specifically in response to the DesignJam day, I think they’re pretty much universally true to any design project and very common issues that come up on projects I’m involved with. The hothouse environment of DesignJam brought it home, yet again, how difficult it can be to facilitate a team around designing a solution – it’s tough work but very rewarding.