In Defense of Being Nonproductive

Jack and Georgie taking a moment to relax.

Ever since Alex Duloz asked me a few months ago to write a post for his collective blog on productivity, SuperYesMore, I’ve been thinking about how incomplete productivity is in evaluating a designer’s work. Of course it’s necessary to consider what can get done related to time and resources. But focusing solely on productivity as a measure misses two key aspects of design work, both of which are often seen as unproductive.

  1. Asking Questions, Validating Assumptions

One of the biggest challenges designers face day-to-day is clarity, not speed. As designers, we are trained to first define the problem, then look for solutions. So we ask questions like, what problem are we solving? what do our users’ need? what are they values? how does our product fit into their lives? Unfortunately some of the people we work with see research as time consuming. We’re often told that even though we are asking good questions, the business has a solid sense of what is needed, so why not go ahead and start designing? There are, after all, six engineers sitting around waiting to begin coding.

This is such a big problem that I have started using the definition of User Experience that is based on research:

UX is a process for evidence-based design.

User research takes time (anything worth doing does) and often does not produce specific deliverables that can be built against; therefore, it can be viewed as non-productive. But this is shortsighted. Research’s goal is to understand what is needed for a design to be successful. This reduces requirements churn and assures the team that they are building the right solution. This reduces waste over the long-term and should be considered when evaluating team productivity, efficiency, and speed.

2. Thinking Outside the Box

The other area where productivity becomes problematic for designers is creativity. Designers need time to reflect, try new things, and look at things from different perspectives. But creativity is not linear and is very difficult to time box.

The trouble with seeing creativity as non-productive is that it ignores its inherent non-linear nature. One cannot force creative ideas — creativity needs to be nurtured and treated like a favored guest.

This is because creativity is not a product of the will. Research has shown that focusing on a problem actually inhibits the brain’s ability to make connections between concepts that the conscious mind may not see. This is why “a-ha!” moments arrive during monotonous activities like showering or exercising. Routines don’t require mental focus, so the mind is free to make creative associations.

Designers need to stop producing work periodically and focus on other tasks or simply take a break. Doing something different, even if it is routine, can allow one the mental freedom needed for new thoughts to make their way to our conscious minds.

How do you and your organization approach productivity? Do you make room for asking questions? Do you encourage slack time, doing things differently, mixing things up? If you don’t because they are seen as a waste of time, you need to revisit your ideas of what it means to be productive.

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