As designers we spend most of our time coming up with solutions to problems. Even when we aren't actively trying to solve a specific problem we often theorize potential solutions. To better understand problems and focus our problem solving skills we also spend time researching and analyzing within a given problem space. And thus begins our ideation; a collection of potential answers to a line of “what if” style questioning that generates a number of concepts and variations within those concepts.
But when is it time to stop?
This is a problem I see many internal teams struggle with. Why? Because there are almost always more than one answer to a problem and an exponentially increasing number of variations and permutations of concepts based on the number of elements being modified.
And so I see teams waiting, trying to find one solution that shines brighter than all the rest. As soon as they speculate about or identify potential flaws, they generate a new set of variations, without ever fully dealing with the previous. This type of behavior is often the result of wanting to make sure they've considered everything, combined with a fear of making the wrong choice. It also seems to happen most often with teams who have no defined decision maker or whose decision maker has no actual power to act on the team’s decisions.
The road not taken
Many times, these teams employ analysis techniques like usability studies, closed cardsorts, and cognitive walkthroughs to evaluate their solutions. These all make perfect sense. But more often than not, budget limitations dictate the amount of testing that can be done, so they end up choosing a subset of potential solutions. And then, regardless of the outcome of their analysis, their curious natures leave them wondering about the solutions that weren't analyzed.
Another common trait I see shows up once the initial analysis is performed and the results are in. There is a reluctance to reduce their solution set and focus on a single solution to move forward with and iterate upon. Instead, they identify the pain points in a number of their options and generate a number of variations to each that might solve for that pain. They end up increasing their solution set rather than reducing it.
This has numerous negative impacts. The most obvious is the impact on the project's time and budget. It also lowers team morale. This cycle removes any sense of progress and can leave team members feeling frustrated and fatigued.
Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to avoid this outcome. You just have to follow two simple rules:
1. Set a definite “stop” time for concepting.
Yes, the exploration of multiple solutions is a critical component in design. And, yes, due diligence comes from making sure you haven't been too myopic in your problem solving. But without proper constraint it can become an endless state of asking "what if.” Defining a beginning and end for the concepting stage is critical and should happen at the onset of an engagement. You don’t have to select actual dates. You can base the start and end times on other activities in the project timeline.
Once concepting is completed, the initial concepts should be evaluated and eliminated based on their merits. The end result of this process should be one “winner” which will then be further explored and iterated upon. From this point on, design is a series of analysis and adjustments. Analyze the solution to find where it succeeds and where it can be improved. Then adjust and reanalyze.
At Mad*Pow we employ the Design Studio methodology/activity to do this whenever possible. I'll be describing Design Studio in another post very shortly, but in a nutshell, it gives us a set time and place where we will, in a time-boxed session, generate as many solutions as possible, analyze via critique, eliminate some, and refine the remaining.
The Design Studio is almost always done with a cross-functional project team. The DS results are then handed over to the designers, who will take all the concepts they've seen and analysis they've heard and generate a single design solution based on the studio's exploration and refinement. The Design Studio required an intense contribution of time, energy, and focus, but when done right, it can help us get through weeks – and in extreme cases, months -- of work in a few days.
2. Make sure someone involved is ready, willing, and able to make design decisions.
The second key to avoiding an endless, and fruitless, cycle of analysis, is to involve key decision makers from day one. These decision makers should know what goes into a design decision. They should be familiar with, if not well-versed in, the design process. And they should, in most cases, be involved in the exploration and refinement of designs.
I've seen too many situations where the key decision maker was an executive with little time to attend meetings and no expertise to inform any decisions. In fact, these people often end up raising more questions than they answer. Or they bring up issues that have been explored and solved without their input, and now must be explored again.
Additionally, the decision maker must have a clear sense of when a decision must be made and must be willing to move the team toward a decision. Unanimous agreement isn’t always possible. A good decision maker knows techniques and activities that can help, but can’t ensure that it will happen. A good decision maker is not afraid to step in and make the call if the team is at an impasse.
For many of us, “putting the hammer” down can be extremely uncomfortable, and it’s human nature to try to pass this responsibility to someone higher on the org chart. The problem with this, again, is that the person on the next rung of the ladder is typically someone who hasn’t been involved in the process and won’t be able to make an informed decision.
Be prepared: It’s not just for Boy Scouts anymore
These two rules won’t solve every problem you’ll encounter during the typical design engagement, of course. But when combatting endless ideation, they are the two I view as most critical.
Problems can't be solved without progress, and design (aka problem solving) can't happen if solutions live in a perpetual state of "what-if."
By narrowing your solutions and defining a decision maker, you improve your chances for achieving measurable progress, maintaining motivation and momentum, and releasing your solution on time or sooner. (after which you'll continue to analyze and iterate, right?)