Think Smarter, Faster: Your Brain on 6-Ups

One of my favorite strategies for quickly generating ideas for user interfaces (UI) is using 6-Ups — visual artifacts showing how to solve a problem in 6 different ways.

Here’s how you create them:

1. Identify a single UI problem to solve. Write it on top of a sheet of paper.

2. Divide that piece of paper into 6 boxes. See below for an example.

3. Set a timer to 5–15 minutes (this will help you rapidly brainstorm and is surprisingly effective).

4. Sketch! Fill each box with different ways to solve the UI problem you identified earlier until your time is up.

  • If doing this in a group, share your ideas with others and choose the best ones.
  • Note: The third or fourth ideas are often the better ones.

Here’s an example of a 6-Up exercise for a hypothetical Coursera mobile app feature:

Why is this so effective?

A look at Focused and Diffuse modes of thinking

My hypothesis is that it encourages your brain to go into the “focused mode” of thinking (see Learning How to Learn, a MOOC co-taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley. The images below are artifacts from the course).

Focused mode is when you give your attention to something and intensely concentrate on it. It is a direct approach to problem solving. Oakley uses a pinball analogy to explain how it works.

If your brain were a pinball machine, the rubber bumpers would be placed closely together. When you release the ball (or “thought”), it rapidly bounces off those bumpers, creating neural synapses on familiar neural pathways that help you solve the problem at hand. However, what if the better solution lies somewhere outside the tightly spaced area that the ball is already travelling in (in the diagram below, this is represented by the black lines)? How will you ever know?

It is important to balance the focused way of thinking with the “diffuse mode”, which is essentially a relaxed state. In this mode of thinking, the rubber bumpers are spaced farther apart, allowing thoughts to

travel greater distances and thus, make greater, “big picture” connections that being in focused mode can prevent you from seeing. You can get into this mode by letting your mind wander, through activities like taking a nap, a bath, exercising or simply having fun.

The 6-Up exercise helps you get into focused mode, and limit your time there. So once you’re done, and before starting the next, why not dance a little?

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Resources and Tools

Course: Learning How to Learn

(Focused Mode and Diffuseimages above have been adapted from the course material)

Techniques: Pomodoro

Timers: Menubar Countdown (lightweight app for Macs), Pomotodo (app for the Pomodoro technique)

Sarah Khalid is a UX Designer/Researcher working with UXReactor.