Designers, grow out of ideation

The job of a digital product designer is not to generate out-of-the-box ideas.

A digital product is nothing short of a living being. It’s not a simple clock or a chair, it’s a complex, multifaceted system that has many moving parts at any given time.

However, designers of digital products still largely cling to an outdated understanding of their role — one which is rated on the quality of the ideas they can generate. They talk about lateral thinking and ‘wow-factors’, and frequently feel threatened when a good idea comes from somewhere else.

Design requires creativity, sure, but creativity must not be equated to out-of-the-box ideas. That’s trivialising it to just one specific aspect. It’s time that designers relinquished their self-proclaimed ownership of ideas, and that the industry in general acknowledged the importance of the real role that the designers should instead play: that of the idea-gatekeeper.

You see, ideas are dime a dozen. Moreover, inspiration for ideas can come from almost anything. In a system as complex and intangible as a digital product, it’s impossible to expect any one person to have a complete enough picture to be able to generate ideas that work for all problems. Thus, not only is it healthy, it is even necessary that ideas in such a system come from stakeholders that belong to all kinds of domains — business, product, engineering, sales, marketing, branding, customer support are all dimensions of the system that a designer cannot alone master completely.

In an environment like this, when the designer makes the mistake of holding ideation as the yardstick of their performance, many things go wrong. They frequently see better ideas coming from other people, and feel threatened and frustrated by it. They start working in silos to protect their ideas, and spend more effort on their presentation as a way of making their ideas look better. The worst outcome, though, has to be this: they unwittingly relinquish their real responsibility of idea-gatekeeping. If one is married to the ideas one generates, one cannot be expected to be a neutral gate-keeper of ideas.

The real creativity that design in a digital product needs is not so short-sighted as to be used only to generate granular ideas. It is, in fact, a lofty one, and similar more to that of a story-teller. The designer must have a deep, unshakeable vision for the end-to-end story that this product will present to its users. This story then becomes the gate-keeping mechanism for rating ideas that come from various people and teams. The designer must reject ideas, no matter how ingenious, that do not fit the entire story. If a particular chapter of this story lacks in good ideas, the designer must hold brainstorming sessions and fill in that gap. The designer must be adept at generating ideas, sure, but should not own them all.

This story that the designer builds, must foster consistency across the product and allow the users that interact with it to form a clear mental-model. It should be geared towards creating a system that follows mechanics built on a set of rules that form the universe in which this story is set. Once a solid universe has been created, the designer must work towards creating interest within this story — build in controlled and deliberate unpredictability that prevents this story from becoming boring.

Just like a story-teller, the designer has many tools at their disposal. Like a writer has plot-lines, characters and anecdotes, the designer has primary and secondary usage scenarios, constructs that users will encounter across the product, and states which the user might run into every now and then. Just like a story, an interface has language which can be tailored to project an aura and a specific kind of environment.

With this world in their view, the designer must now poise themselves at the gate, facing the great stream of incredible ideas that teams deeply invested in their product invariably end up generating. Through an inclusive and open process, the designer must direct this stream without losing their footing, instead of becoming just a piece floating along in it.