Wednesday, February 23, 2011

3 Tips for design block

Design block sometimes feels that you’ve painted yourself into a corner and there is no where left to go. I find it most typically happens after you’re confidently presented your first design concepts to the client, with a beautifully argued rationale for how you’ve delivered on their brief, and to your great consternation, the client just doesn’t like them. Puzzlement slowly gives way to a gradual erosion of confidence in your own abilities. 
I’ve found the following 3 tips help to get the creative juices flowing in the right direction.

1 Start with the problem, not the solution
Designers tend to be most comfortable operating on the visual plane and will often brush over the functional specifications, customer research and business requirement documents and go straight for the crayons. Another pitfall of designers is stalling the design process by spending too long looking at other designs in the market and pouring through design annuals – they are all solutions but not ones that perfectly match your client’s problem.  It is a mistake to start visualising a solution before you have all the information. If you can’t answer the following questions, then you’re not ready to start design:
  • Why is my client doing this and what outcome are they looking for? What does your client want to achieve from the initiative, what are their priorities and constraints, what are their competitors doing in this space and who is doing it best
  • Who is this design for?  Who will be using it, what do they want from it, why would they use it and what are their alternatives – don’t rely on your client to tell you this, get if from the horse’s mouth, whether that be interviews, contextual enquiry, focus groups or online surveys
Once you have a good understanding of the business requirements and customer context, the scope of your design will be well defined and I always find it easier to design within boundaries. Once you feel a constrictive design block, it helps to return to the problem.

2 It takes a lot of ideas to know that you’ve got the one idea
It’s tempting with small budgets to reduce the design effort to one concept. Big mistake – you’ll end up doing the extra concepts anyway – after the first design misses the mark. A basic principle of innovation is that great ideas start with lots of not so great ideas. Here’s how to get the creative juices flowing:
  • Get more than one designer working on the problem, work in pairs 
  • Start on paper, whiteboards, post-its, make it easy to throw away if it doesn’t work
  • Get peer review and brainstorm the problem before you narrow down your solutions. It’s also OK to involve the client sometimes in these ideation sessions, their perspective can help focus the solution on the problem and they’ll be more aware of your design rationale
  • If possible, socialise the designs with real users of the product – this is quite confronting for designers but it almost always leads to some further refinement of the idea
Then when you’ve got two or three winners, you can review them with your client.

3 Refine and iterate
Complex design problems often take you repeatedly back to the drawing board. When designing large scale interactive systems like transactional websites and online applications, often there will be many interconnected design problems to solve. Sometimes it’s hard to keep the creative mojo throughout the design and development of the product. The principles of iterative design will help ensure that you stick to good design practices:
  • Start with a master set of design principles for use across the project. This helps to ensure a consistent and efficient approach to solving the composite parts of the design and allows a design team to work in concert
  • Break down the project into individual design problems and do just enough design to have something to test, review and refine
  • Follow the same process of brainstorming and exploring multiple options and involve your client and their customers in the process 
I’ve found that following these basic principles really help to keep the design team engaged and motivated by the problem. Design fatigue can be a problem on really large projects but an iterative approach helps to break things down into manageable and solvable challenges.

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