This article is an excerpt from an interview that Jared Spool had with Brandon Schauer of Adaptive Path. You can hear the full interview on their podcast or read their transcript.

Whose job is it to bring out product ideas?


Jared Spool: Getting to the really good ideas as fast as possible in a project is a difficult task. With many of the teams I work with, there's a struggle knowing whose job that is. Is it the product owner or the product manager or do the executives get together and hand down the Tablets of Thought that should be in the product? Or is it the marketing people? Does it come directly from the customers? Is that what the designer's supposed to do? There seems to be all this question around whose job is it to bring out the product ideas?

Brandon Schauer: Well, I'd say, we would all love to hear "It's the designer's responsibility. It's the user experience people's responsibility to bring forth the product idea."

I think that's crap. I think there's a lot of creativity and a lot of ideas that exist in all sorts of different disciplines. Sometimes a great idea comes from someone on the front line who is seeing and hearing about the customer support problems every day.

Sometimes it can be a clairvoyant rare leader who really knows what's necessary. Sometimes a good product solution needs some technical creativity, someone who realizes the possibility of how to solve a customer need that no one else knew could even be done. They have the technical know-how and insight to see a technically creative solution for a product.

So, from my perspective, the user experience designer can do a lot to create the right situation for great product ideas to emerge, that the user experience designer can bring customer requirements to the forefront to make sure that customer need and the customer voice is part of what's injected into a session to find the right ideas.

But then the right ideas really need to be made tangible. Get that brilliant idea you have out of your head so everyone can see it. I think often is the case that I can talk about a brilliant idea, but no one else quite gets it. Everyone has their interpretation stuck in their head.

So the more we can do to get our ideas out there and make them tangible so that everyone can point, look at, and even make them better, that's great, and the tendency to which we can also get great ideas out there and then move on to the next great idea, which is often even better of an idea. That's what we really need to pursue.

So, the fact that one lone function within an organization can really possess all the great product ideas I think that's what the concept of "Good Design Faster" is built to thwart, to get around that belief and allow ideas to come from wherever they might be able to come from, and for everybody to be able to evaluate which ones are really the great ideas.

How do you make these ideas tangible?


Jared: When you say, "make them tangible," we're not talking some 120 page UI design spec here.

Brandon: Exactly. I think the faster you can get your ideas tangible at the lowest resolution possible, the better you're going to be able to get to the idea that really makes a difference. So we're talking Post-It note size ideas scribbled and we like it when everyone's participating in drawing, when everyone has a pen in their hands, regardless of you're background or discipline or comfort level with it.

An idea shouldn't be something that you can put in front of the average Joe on the street and that person knows exactly what you're talking about without interpretation. We like ideas to take a little bit of, "Hey! Look at these couple of boxes here. Here's what I'm thinking is going on here." But it still has some richness to it. That you've really captured an idea, put it out there in the world for everyone to see, even at a low resolution. The idea is to look at a dozen, two dozen ideas before you really find out which ones are the core idea that really works.

Jared: So, when you're putting all these ideas out there, you've got everybody on the team doing that at this point, right? The executives, folks from the various projects, developers or whomever they're drawing and sketching and putting these ideas out there?

Brandon: Absolutely. I think the more the better, if you can really host a situation like that within an organization. It works really, really well. What we like to do is bring the customer voice, the need, so it's not endless sketching of anything, but that you've actually prescribed a particular type of flow for a particular type of user to stimulate the right kind of ideas. So you really have to cultivate the right kind of idea generation session.

But then also separate the generative from the evaluative. Before anyone starts questioning whether an idea is good or not, let's get a lot out there on the table. And it doesn't really matter where it comes from, which function within the organization, as long as it's out there on the table. You can find out pretty quickly ideas start to merge and ownership even starts to fade away. That it's not really clear who brought up the idea, but really the value becomes the idea itself and how appropriate it is.

So making it tangible stops it from becoming the idea that's attached to the highest opinion in the room or the most senior person in the room. It becomes which one really works and which one doesn't.

Do you filter the generative process?


Jared: When you're saying "generative," are you talking about just trying to get really good ideas on the table, or is this without any sort of filtering?

Brandon: I think there's some filtering. Like I said, you do want to provide a framework, a setting by which people can come up with the right sort of ideas.

Sure, some crazy ideas certainly have had their place and can help you move on to maybe things that are more appropriate. But if you know who the user is we're designing for, what their motivations and behaviors are, what possible technologies you might be looking at to address those needs, you're probably going to have some pretty productive ideas within some of those constraints, but great design solutions can come out of smart provision of constraints.

But I think at that point, we're really then looking for generating as much within some certain boundaries, so just think what would be a good food reverse recipe application for a hand-held device, let's say, for a tablet? You might just assign the problem of, "OK. You've got these foods in your refrigerator. You're trying to figure out what you could cook with them. What's the starting screen? What's the first moment with that kind of an application that you might have?"

There are a dozen, several dozens of ways you might design that first moment for a particular type of user.

Jared: Do you play games like what's the worst possible experience we could design? And then sort of go back and say, "OK. What's the essence of that?"

Brandon: I think there are all types of techniques to get the generative process going. You need the ability to look through dozens and dozens of types of interactions that are common and ask, is cover flow a way to introduce the first moment? Is progressive reveal the way to present the first moment? Is information visualization?

So there are all these kinds of devices that could help stimulate new ways of trying out that first moment with people. We use spectrums. We use inspirational libraries from other design moments, well-designed moments to drive our thinking. So it can be everywhere from the silly to the more purposeful or pragmatic approaches to really try to spread out your thinking.

The important idea is get past that first idea. That first idea the one that's been in your head since the start of the project is kind of the killer. If you move right ahead to a high resolution version of that, you're never going to move away to the next great idea. And time after time, I find the really great ideas are not the first one that comes out of your head. It's the third, fourth, seventh, tenth idea that you've really found.

Want to learn more on producing ideas

This article is just a small taste of what the Good Design Faster workshop is all about. On Wednesday, November 9, 2011 Brandon shares a lot more on Good Design Faster at an all day workshop at the User Interface 16 Conference in Boston.

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