Sometimes you just run out of triangles.

Getting Unstuck in Design Conversations

A playbook for keeping discussions flowing

Here are three conversations you might have in a typical week as a design professional:

  • Discuss the results of a usability test
  • Plan the tasks for an upcoming sprint
  • Critique some design concepts

And not just these: You probably sit in all kinds of conversations. I propose that all these conversations, even though they seem very different from each other, all follow a similar pattern:

  1. Framing
  2. Extracting
  3. Composing
  4. Reflecting

Being aware of where you are in this arc, you can see when and how you’ve become stuck, and you can take steps to move to the next stage.

For each stage, there are at least a couple things you can do — what you might call “moves” or “plays” — to avoid getting stuck.

Framing: Set the tone

At the outset, you do things like remind everyone about the agenda, describe the desired outcomes, and clarify the boundaries of the conversation.

The framing stage of a conversation entails setting the stage so everyone can contribute to the best of their ability.

Examples of framing:

  • Usability Test Review
    Thanks for coming everyone! We’re here to walk through our observations of the usability test. We want to identify some themes and determine what updates to make to the design. We heard lots of good stuff, but let’s just focus on the design updates. What are the main things you heard from participants about the user interface?”
  • Task-Planning
    Let’s keep this pretty quick. We’re here to determine what we’re focused on for the next two sprints. Let’s make sure everyone knows what they’re working on and what might be blocking them. Let’s not dig too deep into any one issue: we can schedule separate follow-up conversations, if needed. What are the main things you need to get done in the next two sprints?

When you’re stuck in Framing

More than just setting ground rules, you’ve established clear boundaries for the conversation. People get stuck here when they don’t buy into the purpose or scope of the conversation. Perhaps they misunderstand what you’re trying to talk about, or they want to talk about something else entirely.

Reduce the Scope: It may seem counter-intuitive to reduce the scope, but when there’s anxiety or confusion about a conversation, it’s sometimes because people feel like you’re doing too much. Take a topic off the table, or keep your attention on only one aspect of the topic. Sometimes just explicitly excluding something can help dislodge a conversation.

Accept the Confusion: Rather than getting bogged down in clarifying the scope, you acknowledge that things aren’t clear. You suggest checking in throughout the conversation to see if the confusion has abated. Sometimes just digging into the topics at hand are enough to clarify the conversation’s frame.

Extracting: Gather raw materials

With the conversation framed, you get inputs from everyone — the raw materials of your discussion. Depending on your topic these can be observations, requirements, tasks, features, content, or user needs. There’s no judgment on anyone’s contribution, unless it’s way outside the scope of the conversation.

In the extracting stage of a conversation, the facilitator draws an initial set of ideas out of participants.

Examples of extracting:

  • Usability Test Review
    OK. I’ll click through the screens and let’s talk about each one. Let’s just focus on the observations for now. As we look at each screen, what did you observe about the participants’ use of the screen?
  • Task Planning
    Starting with Keisha here, let’s go around the table and each list your upcoming tasks. Jump in if you have a dependency or a question or a concern. If you’re not sure what your tasks are, that’s cool. Also let us know if you think you’re short on time or tasks.

When you’re stuck in Extracting

While it’s true that people may run out of ideas, this generally isn’t what holds up a conversation. When the ideas stop flowing, even if it seems premature, it’s time to switch to the next stage. Instead, getting stuck in Extracting means that it’s difficult to turn the faucet off — people just keep going. Extracting activities in my workshops almost always have a natural end point: it’s a timed activity or people take turns. But if your conversation is free flowing, you need a move to bring this part of the conversation to a close.

Just One More: When you start running short on time, tell everyone they can add one more idea to the pile.

Pick Your Best: When the pile of ideas is too vast to work with, ask the team to edit themselves first. Tell them to pick their best ideas. You can leave the definition of “best” up to them, or you can help them by qualifying best as “your ideas that are most novel or best answer our prompt”. Let them pick three or five.

Composing: Assemble new ideas

With the raw materials on the table, you direct your participants to use them to build something new: a screen design or a flow or a schedule of activities or themes, depending on the scope of the conversation.

When the participants are composing, they’re taking the raw ideas and turning them into something new and interesting.

Examples of composing:

  • Usability Test Review
    OK, with all those observations out on the table, let’s group them together into themes and prioritize. What were some of the overall patterns you notice in all these observations? Don’t worry about whether these problem areas are big or small, we just want to look for overall patterns.
  • Task Planning
    OK. Let’s line up these tasks and make sure we covered all the dependencies.

When you’re stuck in Composing

In the latter half of a conversation, you’re asking participants to go from what they know–which they provided during the first half–to what could be. Because of the speculative nature of Composing people get stuck because they don’t have the right tools to put things together well.

Clarify constraints: When we ask people to imagine possibilities, instead of opening the flood gates, this total freedom causes them to freeze. They censor themselves because they tell themselves every idea they have is wrong. By calling out constraints, you’ve given them permission to work within a space. By telling them they can relax those constraints, you’ve given then permission to defy those boundaries.

Establish prioritization criteria: Sometimes we ask people “what’s most important?” but that question isn’t always easy to answer. Instead, give your participants more to go on. For the usability test review, you might ask: “How do these observations exemplify user pain points?” For a brainstorming meeting, you might ask, “How do you address the top three user needs?”

Reflecting: Generate insights

Now that your participants have had a chance to look at ideas in new ways, you step back and reflect. What did you learn? How does this change what we’re doing? Reflection gives people time to process new information, and integrate it into the context of the project. Without this important stage, your conversation is incomplete.

Finally, in reflecting the participants revisit the outcomes and put them into context.

Examples of reflecting:

  • Usability Test Review
    Now that we’ve gotten the themes out on the table. Let’s take a step back. What does this tell us about our users that we didn’t know before? How do you see users differently?
  • Task Planning
    I think we have a clearer picture of what we’re doing over the next couple of sprints. Let’s go around the table and answer the question, “What’s your biggest worry or concern about this plan?”

When you’re stuck in Reflecting

One thing that makes Reflecting difficult is that facilitators don’t ask great questions. They leave it open-ended, asking “So any final thoughts?” or “What did you think about that?” It can be difficult for people to answer such open-ended questions in the context of a creative activity. Instead I ask pointed questions.

Ask what they learned: “Any big surprises for you?” is how I generally frame this question. I like calling out the fact that in the space of this conversation, we helped people make new connections. Sometimes there are no surprises, but instead people reveal they’re more confident about the direction we’re going.

Ask what worries them: By uncovering any lingering concerns, you can identify what might impede further progress.

Generally speaking, the flow of my conversations about all aspects of design goes from Framing (establishing a topic and space to do it in) to Reflecting (stepping back to gain new insights). Along the way we do some Extracting (putting some basic ideas on the table) and Composing (moving those ideas around in novel ways). Getting stuck in each stage is inevitable, and I’ve offered some “plays” to help get you unstuck.

Getting stuck in a stage isn’t a death knell for your conversation. Instead, it’s a cue, a sign that your participants need a nudge or some more structure to activate their minds. By keeping these “plays” close at hand, you’ll have a set of tools to keep your conversations moving forward.

Need help getting the most out of your product team? EightShapes works closely with organizations to facilitate design processes and drive product discovery. Get in touch, and let’s talk about what you’re working on!