An interesting side effect of being a user experience designer is having a hightened awareness of your own work process. I often find myself, for better or worse, thinking not only about the work that I’m doing, but about how I am actually doing it. On a project-wide scale we generally think about our tasks in terms of milestones and deliverables, but I think it’s worth noting that in going through the motions of a project from conception to completion, we’re not simply creating the thing itself but also developing, exploring, refining or simply practicing the framework for our creative process. At the core of creativity there is a foundation on top of which we find the ability to create. Working on a team, we need to understand the roles we play in layng that foundation and be committed to further refining and improving the process as wholeheartedly as we approach the work itself.
Wether this preoccupation is some vestige of my background in classical music performance (a highly methodical, often excrutiatingly structured process in the midst of which the performer has to find the inspiration and opportunity for creativity) some tell-tale of the point I’m at in my career (where my personal creative process is still being refined) or simply the fact that this is what I do, I’m not sure. Whatever the reasons, I really enjoyed this talk at SXSW given by Bryan and Sarah Nelson of Adaptive Path. The talk is about points in the creative process that teams from a variety of fields share. We all have deadlines, and how we come to a process that helps us meet those deadlines without stifling creativity is tricky business. Click through to hear the full audio with slides.
And if you don’t have time to listen, here’s my take on the 10 tips below:
1. Cross Training
I guess I’ve been pretty fortunate to work for and with multi-talented people, so I tend to take it for granted, but it’s important. On the flip side, however, I will say that there’s nothing more annoying than a person who thinks they know so much about another role that they can butt their heads in too much or at inappropriate times. Sure, sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it’s productive, but a lot of times, you’re just dealing with some jerk who thinks they need to naysay what everyone else on the project is doing. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman (yes I went there, but it’s true – many people I’ve worked with are naturally predispositioned not to believe that I have any understanding or authority over technical matters) or maybe it’s because I work in web (where everyone seems to dabble, but few really master) or maybe it’s because I’m an interaction designer (and so am forced to constantly field other peoples’ well-meaning opinions about how things should work). But I think we can all tell the difference between a person who is informed in fields outside their expertise and a naysayer. I do agree that understanding other roles allows you to understand technical constraints and feel empathy for those roles. While I don’t particularly enjoy programming or technical development myself, I’m really glad to have sent some time doing it, and will continue to do it in an effort to stay informed. I’m not going to tell my developers how to do their jobs, but I like them to know that I will understand most of the problems their facing, and that I might be available to talk about them suggest other ways of doing things that they might not have thought of themselves.
2. Rotate Creative Leadership
I like to think that a person can feel ownership over a project that they aren’t necessarily leading as well, but I get the point here.
Actively Turning the Corner
I love the way Sarah puts this. She says that in any creative process there is a period of divergence followed by a period of convergence, and like she says, there is nothing worse than having to entertain the person who doesn’t know which phase the team is in.
4. Knowing Your Roles
See comment #1. On a more positive note, there is nothing that helps the creative process more than knowing what other people can be relied on for.
This was a general theme for me at this year’s SXSW – practice was a major point in this year’s Kathy Sierra talk as well (no audio on this one yet), and it just made me pine for my music school days. As grueling as it is to sit in a practice room for 6 hours a day, I’ve had few other experiences in my life so rewarding as actually feeling myself getting progressively better at something, to the point of a sort of level of mastery. In other fields, it’s not so easy to justify or make time for a practice period, and Sarah addresses this point in the Q&A at the end. I try to make sure that in every task I perform, I am either introducing or practicing some new tool or technique. Also, an iterative approach to design could be considered a form of practice.
6. Make your mission explicate to the whole team
Ah, yes. So important! This is one of those things that makes me happy that my job exists mostly at the beginning of a project, during the requirements gathering phase. I don’t think there’s anything more integral to the success of a project as identifying clear goals! Almost any moment of doubt or internal dispute can be resolved simply by revisiting those goals. Unfortunately it’s often the case that not everyone on the project gets to be in on this phase, so it’s equally as important that these goals are properly communicated – to everyone! (This reminds me also of the talk that Tony Hsieh of Zappos gave at SXSW, which also speaks to the idea of cross-training – apparently every new employee spends their first two weeks taking customer service calls. At Zappos, customer service is the most important part of the business so he needs to make every new employee aware of the company’s goals. He says that later on, the real payoff is employees who can be trusted to make independent decisions with those goals in mind.)
7. Killing your Darlings
I don’t know what the actual term for this was in the talk, but the point here is to have a system in place that allows the team to essentially veto any material that doesn’t further the goals of the company or project. We often end up calling this a “Phase 2,” especially when you’re dealing with features that take development time. I think that can be really misleading to clients though, since a Phase 2 isn’t always a guarantee, and just lumping everything together doesn’t really give you a chance to do any strategic thinking about why something should be launched when. So there must be some better way to refer to these ideas internally without any delusion or false hope. I do, however, really like their point here in that it’s often important not to discuss what gets tossed out in too much detail. (Other terms I’ve heard for this include the "parking lot" or the "refrigerator", as Jean Marc used to say.)
8. Leadership is a service
Leadership is about support and facilitation of the members of the group. If everyone in the group doesn’t feel enfranchised then they are going to be miserable. Totes agree!
9. Generate projects around the groups creative interests
Again, yes! We all know how miserable a project can be when it’s not actually interesting to you, or how suddenly fun it can be to do work on a topic you personally find new or exciting. I’d like to also add, to people who aren’t managers but workers, that a lot of this is your responsible too. If you’re interests aren’t shared with the company you are working for, then you already know you are doomed. It’s important to communicate these interests up the chain as well or no one will ever know.
10. Remember Your Audience
Like they say, this is an obvious one for us UX peeps
11. Bonus Point! Celebrate Failure
Red Burns would be all about this one. She gets an almost sadistic pleasure in seeing her students fail. Not because she’s mean, just because she doesn’t like to think of the fear of failure as something that will hold people back from trying something new and exciting. I think it’s a great point to live by.