Intentional Inspiration: Fostering Creativity in UX Teams

At Inkling, I manage a multi-disciplinary team of user researchers, product designers, and a technical writer. Our team is responsible for the end-to-end user experience, from the exploratory phases of research and discovery — identifying the problems we need to solve for our customers — to designing powerful, intuitive solutions. I am lucky to work with an incredibly talented group of people, and we have excellent strategy partners in our product managers and engineering teams.

In the constant thrum and flurry of a startup, it can be hard to find a time to take a breath, to be creative, and to find inspiration. As UX managers, it is critically important that we make time for our teams to zoom out, to see the bigger picture, and to understand the full context of the problems we’re solving for our users.

Understand your Team’s Values

I recently ran an alignment exercise with my team to uncover our shared values and motivations. During this activity, we learned that one of these values is “intention”. By intention, I mean that we do things with purpose, and we consciously make decisions with an understanding of the impact a choice will make for ourselves and others. We are intentional in our research and design approach, and in the way we work with each other. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given Inkling’s efforts to ensure that we run a “conscious business”. Some time ago, it also occurred to me that while the team often shared links (via email and slack) to various inspirational articles and videos, we never took the time to discuss why they were important or how they could help improve our work quality — we weren’t being intentional.

Create Opportunities for Sharing

I wanted to bring a clearer intention to our team meetings to ensure that the inspirational ideas that we share have an opportunity to take root and flourish. And since we have only one hour a week to cover everything from the administrative to the tactical and strategic, it can be hard to create an atmosphere that fosters creativity and problem solving. Through experience, I have also found that the first 5–10 minutes of a meeting tends to set the tone for the remainder of our time together. So we make those first few minutes count. At the beginning of each team meeting, one person is responsible for presenting and leading a discussion on an article, product, or video that inspired them during the past week. I’ve also found through experience that this activity works best with a rotating schedule — assigning one team member the task of bringing something to the team each week. We tried a more ad hoc approach, but with people’s busy schedules, we found that sometimes we’d arrive at the meeting and no one had consciously thought to bring a topic to the group.

Think Outside the Box

Studies have shown that psychological distance improves creativity. And indeed, this part of our meeting is a deep breath amidst the hustle and bustle, an invitation to be creative and see the big picture. Our discussions lead us to consider how we can change our designs, whether in process or output. It is an invitation to put our laptops away, to be present with our teammates, and to think at a strategic level about how we fit into the world around us. The inspirational offerings have included a wide range of artifacts, from well-designed coffee shop sign to the latest theories in conversational AI. We began with John Maeda’s Design in Tech Report 2015. Other topics we’ve discussed include Adam Alter’s Drunk Tank Pink, UI animations and micro-delight, the History of the Shopping Cart, and a Chrome extension. Most recently, we pondered how great industrial design examples (in this case, security doors), could help us understand how we as digital designers should also pay close attention to the physical contexts in which our users work.

We call this practice “Inkspiration”. It’s a moment we all look forward to each week. By being intentional about how we start our meeting, we have deeper discussions and more productive design reviews. And because we take the time to discuss topics seemingly unrelated to our work, we can come back to our customers’ unique challenges with renewed perspective and excitement the creation of elegant, outside-the-box solutions.