Lean UX as Creative Design Process

Ideation from a recent design project

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of heading up to NYC to attend Smashing Conference 2015. I started the conference at Monday’s Lean UX workshop by Susan Weinshenk. I will preface this by saying that I consider myself a Visual Designer and although I occasionally work on interactive projects, I primarily have been focused on Graphic Design, Illustration, and Animation based projects. Because of this, I saw the importance of taking Susan’s workshop vis-a-vis an opportunity to diversify my skills in other areas of design, specifically User Experience.

Going into the workshop, I really did not have a very good idea of what Lean UX was. While I have done some User Experience in the past, particularly when I worked at an agency, the visual designers were kept separate from the user experience designers. I believe that the separation creates a waterfall approach to design and this process doesn’t result in well-crafted experiences.

While I found the workshop incredibly helpful in expanding my awareness of user experience design methodologies, what struck me the most was the strong parallels between Lean UX and visual design in relation to both processes’ iterative nature. Iterating in visual design is ostensibly the foundation of creating strong concept-driven work. The key to developing strong design concepts, just like Lean UX, is setting your laptop aside and sitting down with pencils and a sketchbook and starting to sketch. If you are a designer without a form of a physical sketchbook you should fix that immediately. You will be surprised the positive effect it will have on your work and ideas.

Simply put, there is no other method of ideation as effective as physically writing or drawing your ideas by hand before starting to prototype digitally. The goal is to get as many ideas down as you can. Through experimentation and refinement you will arrive at an effective and engaging solution. A common mistake many designers make is skipping the pencil and paper part and just jumping straight into designing on their computer. This should be avoided whenever possible. By jumping into your computer too early you seriously limit your ability to experiment. The further down the rabbit hole you go with an idea the harder it will be to be able to change gears if that idea turns out to not be right for your project.

When starting on a new concept keep these two things in mind: First, forget what you learned in Art School — your first idea is not your best idea, push yourself. Secondly, and most importantly, you will come up with bad ideas. These bad ideas should be embraced! Get them out of the way so you can come up with better ideas; swiftly and mercilessly eliminating them. There is a well known phrase in the creative field for this: “Kill your darlings.” It means putting your creations out to pasture once it is determined they are ineffective at solving the challenge at hand. (I have also seen this phrase as “kill your babies,” they mean the same thing, it just depends how dark you’re feeling I guess…) Nothing good can come from holding onto a bad idea. It’s bad for your project, startup, agency, etc. Killing off ideas can be particularly hard, the most common being that you’re already pretty far along with your current idea only to realize its not going to work. The thought of starting over after spending all that time is daunting but that’s ok!

Putting in the effort to try an idea, even when you were totally sure it would work, only to find out your idea doesn’t meet your project’s goals is part of the creative process. In Lean UX this part of the process is summarized by having a “hypothesis,” which creates a framework where its ok to be wrong, because ideas are experiments, which I think translates perfectly with Visual Design. With this in mind, take a deep breath and head back to the drawing board to craft your next experiment. (While experimenting with your design it’s fun to pretend you’re a mad scientist.) On the other hand, you might be resistant to killing off an idea. Even though this idea might not solve the problem, you might push for it because you’ll receive validation for your efforts, a delusion you may face because you don’t feel you’re getting enough from your team or organization. This is a symptom of an un-collaborative environment which can be remedied by better communication and education around the value of experimentation and collaboration in design. Worst case scenario? Start looking for a new job where it’s commonplace to have healthy professional dialogue around people’s ideas to reach better creative solutions.

Visual Design and Lean UX at their core are about sketching, experimenting, testing and collecting data, then repeating until a desired outcome that meets your project’s goal is achieved. This process is supported by a balance of an understanding of the problem you are trying to solve and experimentation. Without either of these things you will have an incredibly difficult time creating an effective solution. Although this process takes time and a lot of creative energy through sketching and experimenting, by practicing Lean UX in your design process you can expect to start developing stronger concepts earlier and faster than you would have by jumping straight in with your computer. So once you have a good handle on your next project’s objective, reach first for your pencils and start sketch’n. Happy concepting!

Originally published at ruffconcepts.tumblr.com.