Design is an act of creation. All designers suffer from “Designer’s Block” from time to time. Everyone who has designed has experienced this block, usually followed some time later by the “ah hah!” moment in the shower or during a walk.
I work hard to nurture the creative inside of me – to give it what it needs so that I can get the most out of it. I take breaks, go for walks, think in the shower, keep a notebook by my bed, play games, brainstorm, and lots of other things. But one of the most important things I do is to work to keep my design momentum going.
When I am working on ideas, they tend to come slowly at first. Then I get my first idea, it’s usually followed by another idea. Then another. Then more and more, until they are a fire hose gushing all around me, and I am just trying to capture them as quickly as I can. That momentum is powerful, and learning to nurture it and harness it has been a critical skill for me.
How do I do it? These days, when I am working on a user interface design, I always begin with the “easy stuff” – the stuff I know. Then I let the momentum carry me through the harder designs.
Let’s say I am designing an application for a library – something that patrons can use to search for books in the library’s holdings, request books, see what’s checked out, renew books, etc. I would start by designing the screen for a book itself.
Even if I know nothing else about this application I do know that at some point the user is going to have to look at the information for a book. The title, the description, a photo of the cover, the publication date. Because it is a library book I know that there will be information about how many copies the library has, or other libraries in a network that might be sharing the book. Is it checked in? If it’s checked out, when is it expected back? And of course there will be actions such as request this book. I can design this screen and lay out all the information on it, and get it just right.
I don’t know how the user got to this screen. I don’t know what the navigation system looks like. Will there be a search box on this page? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter for now. I will answer those questions in the end, and whatever the answers are, this is the screen that will be used.
Once I know what one book looks like, I can begin to guess what a list of books would look like. I can design the search results. I can think about what people care about in these results, figure out ways to avoid pogo sticking down to view books. I can add filtering controls for faceted searching. Once I have that in place, then I go on to the search itself. If I get stuck, I’ll jump over and work on the user’s profile page – where he sets up his account information. Or maybe what he has currently checked out – that will be similar to search results… Any time I’m stuck I leave and go do things I think I know how to do.
Pretty soon, I’ll be ready to answer bigger questions: how will people browse the library? Will we show the “hot titles” for your town’s library? What about New Releases? NY Times Best Sellers? What does the home page look like? What should be in the navigation? By now the momentum is strong and the fire hose is pouring out ideas. All I have to do is to be quick enough to capture them.
I contrast this with how I used to work. I used to start on the home page, to try and get the navigation system roughed into place. Then I would start to work on the next screen down… I would start at the top and think about the big picture. And I would hit lots of Designer’s Block. There were just too many unknowns. But there are always things I DO know about the design. So I do them first – give that momentum time to build. Then let it carry me right through the hard stuff.
I find that this strategy works just as well for teams of people. When you’re designing with a group and the design seems bogged down, leave it behind for a while. Jump around. Tackle the easy stuff. Come to agreement on those things, first. Not only do you have momentum, but you have a team working together successfully. Nothing kills a project (or a team collaboration) faster than spending your first design review meeting arguing about the user’s home page for 2 hours.
I worked with a client a couple of years ago who had this great new idea for a dashboard. It had really key information – great stuff that none of their competition was doing. He had a fabulous “napkin drawing” and wanted to turn it into a UI prototype. But he was worried about how to set up the dashboard – it was going to be a long hard process, lots of screens, complicated. Every time he tried to draw it, he got really muddled and couldn’t figure out how to do it.
So I said: let’s forget about set up for now. Let’s just get the dashboard right. And so we made a prototype of his dashboard. We showed it to users, got their feedback. We made lots of changes and honed the design until the dashboard really was outstanding. By then we had momentum – not just design momentum, but all kinds of momentum: the users wanted it, the business was behind it, the engineering team could see what it needed to do. We were rolling. When it came time to do the set up side of of the UI, we knew what we were configuring – what it needed to do. It was still hard work, but the momentum we had built up carried us through.
And so I say: May your designs be full of momentum.