Brandon Schauer – Getting to Good Design, Faster

Sean Carmichael

September 9th, 2011

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Everybody strives to arrive at the end of a project with a great design. But often times the “brilliant idea” isn’t easy to communicate and takes a long time to develop. Brandon Schauer believes that you can develop techniques to help this communication, arriving at good design in shorter amounts of time.

Brandon is President and Managing Director at Adaptive Path. He feels making your ideas tangible is key. By putting your ideas on paper and post-its, and getting everyone participating, you create a collaborative environment that allows these ideas to grow and develop. Brandon also feels that the ideas should require some explanation in order to bring that understanding to the entire team.

As luck would have it, Brandon will be teaching the Good Design Faster workshop at the User Interface 16 Conference in Boston, November 7-9. He’ll be showcasing his approaches to developing innovative designs in record time during this full-day workshop. For more details about Brandon’s and the other 7 full-day workshops, visit UIConf.com.

Here’s an excerpt from the podcast.

“…You really have to attack the most critical part of the problem first. And so you often end up [with] what I would call donut prototyping or donut solutions. You build out a ring of all the things you already know to be true. Like, we know the style guide that we’re going to be applying to this. We know the constraints of the platform. Let’s just go ahead and start filling all those parts of the puzzle in, and you build this donut around the true core part of the problem. You feel like you’re going to slowly sneak up on it, because you’re constraining all the other variables.

You really need to chase after that center of the donut, that really big unknown part of the problem, first. Usually that has to do with the big cases of flow. Like, how big is this experience? How do we structure it? What’s the first thing people encounter? How do we make sure they recognize the true differentiators? Or the real true strengths of what this new product or service brings?

You think you’re going to sneak up on it by filling in all the known parts. Ultimately you get to it, but that’s too late to solve the problem…”

Tune in to the podcast to hear Brandon address these questions:

What are your experiences with generating ideas during the design process? Share your thoughts in our comments section.

Recorded: August, 2011
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Full Transcript.


Jared Spool: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of the SpoolCast. And I am speaking to you today from our lovely offices in North Andover, Massachusetts. And on the other side of the country, in their lovely offices at Adaptive Path, I have the fabulous Brandon Schauer. Brandon, how are you today?

Brandon Schauer: I’m good, I’m good. I have a little bit of a cold, but hopefully that’ll bring the deeper, sexier voice to the audience.

Jared: Yes, well it’s working for me right now. So, Brandon, I hope you know this, but the rest of our audience may not. If you don’t know this, then I’ve screwed up somehow. You’re speaking at our upcoming User Interface 16 conference. You’re giving the “Good Design Faster” workshop. Did you know that?

Brandon: I did, and in fact, I would even say I’m happily speaking. I’ve been part of one UIE conference before, and was very excited to meet the folks there and I liked the talent and some of the ideas that even the folks brought forward to the workshop, so I’m looking forward to getting engaged with you all again.

Jared: Yeah, so, this is going to be in Boston, November 7th through 9th. It’s the second year that – or is it the third year? I’m trying to remember now. Leah did this twice, I think, before. Leah Buley had done this in the past, but you’re bringing it to us this year, and I’m very excited to have you doing that, because you bring a whole different sort of viewpoint to it. It’s a great workshop, and it was our highest rated workshop the last couple years. And I expect it to be the same this year.

And what’s really interesting about it – I remember walking in on the session at the end of last year. There was all this stuff on the walls. They had been busy designing… There were a hundred and some odd people in the room, and they just didn’t stop designing from the moment they walked in, in the morning, to the end of the day. It’s probably the most productive workshop there. If we could somehow turn that into electricity, we could actually power the entire conference.

Brandon: Awesome. Yeah, I think volume is certainly one of the techniques we’re using to get to “Good Design Faster,” and so you see a lot of it and you feel a lot of it. I think that’s one of the exciting things for folks is the ability to take that same sort of energy, then take it home with them and put it into the work they’re doing every day, and spread that kind of energy internally.

It’s something our clients love when we’re engaging with them that way, and I think there’s a reason why some of the techniques of “Good Design Faster” have really started to permeate through our practices in the industry.

Jared: Now, the point of this workshop is to give people a set of tools – a whole boatload of tools, in fact – to be able to take a project and just get to the really good ideas as fast as possible. And in a lot of teams that I work with, the team seemed to struggle with knowing whose job that is. Is it the product owner or the product manager or you know do the executives get together and sort of hand down the Tablets of Thought that is going to go be in the product? Is it going to be 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?

And my sense is that you’ve got a big opinion on this.

Brandon: Well, I’d say, we would all love to hear, like, “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 that it depends greatly – 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’s 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, but they have the technical know-how and insight to see a really 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, so that the brilliant idea you have isn’t stuck in your head, but everyone can see it. And I think that’s too often the case is 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 “Good Design Faster” is built to thwart, is 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.

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 from of the average Joe on the street and that Joe or Josephine 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, so that you can look across a lot of ideas, you know? A dozen, two dozen ideas before you really find out which one’s 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? So you’ve got, if you’ve got executives in the room, they’re doing some of that, and if you’ve got other folks from the various projects, you know, developers or whatever – they’re also 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 kind of 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.

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 it’s without a terrible lot of filters. 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: I believe it’s agreeing to the terms and conditions, isn’t it?

[laughter]

Brandon: Absolutely. And figuring out the – do you pay for a $1.99 now or after the trial?

Jared: Exactly, exactly. Plus, signing up for our email!

[laughter]

Brandon: Because that’s the first moment you want to have.

Jared: That’s the first moment – is to sign up to find out if you want to get our email forever.

Brandon: But, exactly, that helps you get through, like, “Oh, wait. Those are the stupid ideas that we might add on.” So what’s the real first moment we want to design for? How do you really start someone into letting them know that the potential of the application but without trying to tell them everything, to convince them of your marketing plan, to build in retention right away? How do you just let them know this is a great start and explore that space fully to find the right very first moment?

Jared: Do you play games like that? 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. I mean, we’ll teach several within the “Good Design Faster” workshop. Some, like just wordless – the ability to look through a dozen, dozens and dozens of types of interactions that are common, so 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 over 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 that 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. That the not-so-obvious, blatantly obvious solution, but the one that really works.

Jared: But I really like that first idea.

Brandon: Isn’t it lovely? Isn’t it the one you hold onto and you kind of dream at at night and you…

Jared: I’ve been thinking about that one forever.

Brandon: You just can’t wait to unload it on everyone, and them kind of shine radiance back upon your brilliance and acknowledge you for how smart you are.

Jared: Well, it’s just like Amazon, right? So, we’re just going to do it like Amazon does it. After all, they do it really well.

Brandon: And that argument works out well and it sells it so well internally that – why deviate?

Jared: Exactly, exactly.

So, there seem to be… Like the first idea problem, there seem to be a whole set of obstacles that teams run into when they are trying to get to a good design. What are some of the ones that you’ve seen?

Brandon: I see the desire to move into high fidelity quickly. I would say the tendency to jump into the visual mock up, the high fidelity wire frame where you’re starting to worry a whole lot about spatial relationships. You start thinking about how exactly do we phrase this sentence to introduce this screen? What do we call something? When that may not be where the true nature of the problem lies.

You really have to attack the most critical part of the problem first, and so you often end up what I would call, like, donut prototyping or donut solutions. You build out a ring, the donut, of all the things you already know to be true. Like, OK, we know the style guide that we’re going to be applying to this. We know the constraints of the platform. Let’s just go ahead and start filling all those parts of the puzzle in, and you build this donut around the true core part of the problem. You feel like you’re going to slowly sneak up on it, because you’re constraining all the other variables.

You really need to chase after that center of the donut, that really big unknown part of the problem first. Usually that has to do with the big cases of flow. Like, you know, how big is this experience? How do we structure it? What’s the first thing people encounter? How do we make sure they recognize the true differentiators? Or the real true strengths of what this new product or service brings? Those are the big unknowns often.

And the sooner you can tackle those quickly, rather than filling in all the knowns – the style guides that contribute to the platform, the obvious components of the functionality. But you forget to work on the real core of the problem, that center of the donut, that’s really the unknown. You think you’re going to sneak up on it by filling in all the known parts. Ultimately you get to it, but that’s too late to solve the problem.

I see a lot of teams doing that, where they go ahead and fill in the obvious stuff and wait to solve the really challenging part of a problem much later. Those are often things dealing with flow or scope of the solution. Or how do you really crystallize the value prop through interactions that people have with a product or service? Those are the really hard things that people need to tackle earliest. And so how can you bring a team to that kind of thinking really, really quickly?

Other types of problems I see – people not paying attention to flow. They pay a lot of attention to individual screens or to, you know, core important parts of the navigation. But what is the flow of the experience really like? What is the peak moment in a series of interactions you have with someone? What’s really the best moment that really needs to stand out because it’s what this service, this organization does really well? And how do you end the experience really strongly?

We as interaction designers should be incredibly good at that and incredibly good at hosting sessions to work on that. Yet, we get very much stuck in just sort of key frame moments of the experience. I think some of the processes we’ll be teaching at Good Design Faster will be a lot about, how do you look at flows of interaction, not just these little crystallized moments?

Jared: This was a question I had. What’s the difference between a flow and a wireframe?

Brandon: Yeah, I think wireframe, in many ways, is that evil monster that Good Design Faster is trying to battle against, that a lot of time and attention is placed on wireframes and really nailing down the perfect layouts and the perfect points of information and information design for one. Good Design Faster says, “Let’s pay attention more to the flow. How do you go from start to end in the experience so that each moment is building upon the earlier one?” And with, of course, increased level of interaction through HTML5 and all the other things we’ve been using technology-wise, you’ve got to pay attention to those things. Because the difference in… Let’s just take Google’s new style of search ahead that they’re using where the page is refreshing while you’re typing. That’s almost a totally different experience than the old world of search. Instead, these little moments of interaction can matter a great deal to how a product or a service is really being perceived.

So if you’re not working in a medium that allows for that, if you’re not paying attention to how a product or service unfolds over time with the user, then you’re really not doing interaction design justice.

Jared: Yeah so, a lot of the design today you know involves all these gesture based activities where you’re scrolling, or you’re dragging, or you’re putting two fingers and spreading them apart, and all that sort of thing. The flows… If I understand it, what you’re saying is the flows represent the behaviors that the design’s going to have there, whereas wireframes are just these sort of static – you use the word key frames. They’re sort of these snapshots in time of where it’s at, but it’s hard to know how something gets from point A to point B. Did I get that right?

Brandon: Exactly right. I think we see where expectations are heading. I think I’ve seen a couple of reports of US consumers actually spending more time on a mobile device now than they do on a desktop or web interaction. And so, the expectations are going towards great simplicity. And I think that’s going to spread from mobile back to web and other kinds of interactions.

And so, people really expect the interface to almost teach them or naturally afford all the things they want it to be able to do. These types of interactions of – what does this swipe allow me to do, how does this interaction respond, and little moments – become really, really key to making sure the product’s successful. And without having a way to model that, it becomes very difficult to ensure.

So those wireframes, those just kind of state changes of the web circa 1995, we really need to break those kind of mediums for thinking about what we’re going to design and move over to much more highly interactive design tools. Those don’t have to be the prototyping tools that some of us are also very familiar with – the Axures and things like that – that allow for still higher fidelity type of prototyping.

A lot of times those don’t allow for a lot of exploration around what is the best idea. You move very quickly into rounding corners rather than still trying to explore what is the right flow. That’s what we’re trying to develop as a technique is something that teams can share, we can work through interactive solutions, but you can bring in great breadth to your thinking as well.

I think another challenge that this helps address is a little bit of the Agile mentality that a lot of your experience designers and UX teams are starting to approach. Internally, they’re finding their development teams are using Agile. They’re being asked to do things like Sprint Zero. How do we feed a natural process?

Good Design Faster is something that fits into a sprint style scenario of how do we quickly get to a lot of ideas, find the right one, and then take that one set of bright ideas into a higher fidelity wireframes, or things that can be provided to a tech dev team.

Jared: Yeah, and I think that the Agile thing is a really good point. As you said, you know, a lot of folks are sort of getting into that. It’s very rare now at one of our events that when someone says, “How many people here are using some form of Agile,” that the majority of the audience doesn’t raise their hand. It’s really very common, yet Agile was never designed with any sort of design process baked in. So it’s always this sense that you’re gluing it on the side.

The workshop technique that you teach, it really does feel to me like it would be a great way to get an Agile team started in terms of thinking about what they want to do with their Sprints from a design perspective versus a technical perspective. Have you found that to be the case?

Brandon: Exactly, yeah. And even some of the techniques we use, we use one of the things called sketch board for really putting your ideas tangibly out into the world, organizing them, and working with a group to evaluate what are the best ideas. It really feels a lot like a scrum board whereby you’re tracking end-user storage through the process, and which ones are being implemented, and that sort of thing.

It’s really kind of the design mate to a scrum board of, what are all the ideas we have? Which ones are the best to implement now? How do they connect together into an overall flow? You can always go back to that board again to find the next best idea. It really provides that Agile type of feel of knowing what your choices are, being able to figure out which ones you want to prioritize and feed into a development spread.

Jared: So the sketch boards, they live throughout the project, right? You put them up on the wall in war room and they just keep coming. They’re not just a product of this workshop and then when you’re done you take a picture of them, store it on a server somewhere, and never come back to it.

Brandon: Exactly. I think when I’ve seen sketch boards out there in the wild – meaning after people have gone through the Good Design Faster workshop and then shared some of their work with us – that’s one of the things that is most evident that people are finding a lot of value in. You can even do some sketch board word searches on Flickr and find some nice galleries and pools of those kinds of photos that people have compiled of showing what it’s like in their actual work environment.

It’s something that can live on. It’s something that you can track in terms of how much of this envisioned experience has gotten implemented at this point. Then keep on migrating, keep on moving along to find, what’s the point in the flow that we next need to move on? Maybe even track analytics in terms of, what’s the constraint or the bottleneck in this funnel of conversion from one side of the sketch board to the other, so that you know which part you really want to attack as a UX team.

Jared: I’m going to bet it’s that terms and conditions screen that I was so hoping would be the first part of the experience.

Brandon: Maybe that’s it. You start with a really terrible experience to show how much you’re improving it over time.

Jared: Well there you go. That keeps management there. If you could come up with some solid metrics to go with that, everybody would be very happy.

Speaking of metrics, you mentioned that when you’re in this process, you’re having conversations about who the user is and what they’re trying to do. Are you discovering that in the Good Design Faster workshop? Or is that something you have to bring to the workshop and have already researched? What happens when the team has different opinions on what that is because they don’t have very good data?

Brandon: I think this is something we’re assuming that someone is bringing to the Good Design Faster workshop. The process of Good Design Faster and sketch boarding is that there’s some base level of understanding of who the customer is, a very top level understanding of “what is this product?” What might its value proposition be? I think you’re much more successful than executing good design with a little bit of alignment already.

That being said, I think it can be a little bit of a fine tuning process of being able to look at all the ideas that are possible and saying, you know what, now of everything we’ve thought of maybe you can start to refine and say we can satisfy the needs of user A much better than User B. Or we really need to evolve the value proposition of this product or service because the ideas we’re coming up with point at a different kind of value than what we’ve been theorizing at a strategy level.

I think it can definitely be a tool for fine tuning, evolving, those understandings of who a target user is, but I don’t think it’s a place where you’re going to discover new customer needs that you never knew before. That’s going to be more at spending time actually in the world with end users with customers, not by spending it at a sketch board.

Jared: Well this all sounds really awesome. I’m really looking forward to the workshop. I think there’s a lot of stuff packed into this full day that people walk away with that is really quite useful. I’m really excited about it. Thanks for talking about it with me.

Brandon: Yeah, of course. What I’m excited about is people coming, learning about the technique, and then taking it and doing what really makes it work for them in their organization. We’ll present a lot of different ideas, but I love seeing where some of the techniques go because that’s what really pushes the practice forward. So I’m interested in what people want to do with it.

Jared: Well it’s great, because I know that in past years when we’ve done this workshop at the conference people have told us that it absolutely is something they’re able to go back to their offices and do right away. They see marked improvement in the types of designs they’re producing and the speed at which they get them done. It really is Good Designs Faster.

Brandon: Who knew?

Jared: Yeah. Awesome.

Brandon: Living up to the value prop.

Jared: Exactly. Brandon, thank you so much. For everybody who wants to attend this workshop, you can sign up at uiconf.com. Of course, the conference is going to be in Boston, November 7-9. There are seven other fabulous full day workshops to choose from for the other days plus a day of great presentations from all of our speakers.

It’s really a great conference. Again the URL for that is uiconf.com. That’s the User Interface 16 Conference in Boston, November 7-9.

Brandon, thank you so much for taking time today to talk to us about this.

Brandon: Absolutely. I hope some folks come and learn not just how to do good design faster, but maybe even great design faster.

Jared: That’s fabulous. I want to thank our audience for listening to yet another one and enjoying this. Please, by all means, if you haven’t done so and you have a moment, if you listen to us on the iTunes, go into the iTunes and give us a rating. Tell us what you think, because the ratings help other people find us. And we appreciate that.

Of course, I want to, as always, thank you for encouraging our behavior. We’ll talk to you again. Thank you very much.

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