Avoiding slow design

July 3, 2010

Keywords: speed, efficiency, effectiveness

Let’s be honest – it happens to some of us more than others: as a designer you’ve been asked to complete a design by some deadline which seems impossible to you. This could apply to any work, whether it’s developing a concept, creating a designs, a well-written spec or a good presentation.

What can slow designers down and what can you do to speed things up?

– First start high-level and touch all stones quickly

Personas with quotes (and business proposition value), user flow/sitemap, storyboards with scenarios, high-level user stories (in Excel or post-its), competitive research, blue sky sketching, design principles (!)…in the early stages you want to iterate fast over many of these methods. Eventually the vision will become clearer and you can focus more on detail design. If you get stuck, move on to another method.

For more, see my Steps of interaction design post

– Don’t be a perfectionist

Rest assured that there´s no perfect answer.  http://52weeksofux.com/post/694599232/theres-no-right-answer

– Don’t get stuck in detail
You must Know the constraints. Work on what you can or know first.

Walk the information space (competitors, sitemap, features post-its for roadmap) and gather what you can, put it out there on the wall)

Your first wireframes should be really high-level, use blocks. Don’t sweat the copy, only use header titles. Use a fat marker and don’t stress the details. You could sketch one screen on one A4; or to save space, split up an A4 into 4 or 6 parts to describes a sequence of user actions belonging to eachother (for example, if Registration steps needs to be visualised, it can be one one page. Or if you have the space, use horizontal or vertical tracks (of similar coloured paper or post-its) for Registration steps alone). At this point the purpose might be to visualise a possible direction to get team feedback early on.

– Find the detail balance
Don´t worry too much about the detail. It doesn´t have to be perfect. Get all the elements on the page in rough form, starting with high-level ´boxes´. When you´ve added enough detail and the deadline is nearing, start rearranging things. Then align things so they look good enough to the eye. Finally give everything some breathing space, leave some white space but don´t waste too much time on getting things pixel perfect. Eventhough your IA is only communicating something functional, giving it some visual structure and aestetic appeal helps convince the audience that the proposed design or concept is easy to use.

– Focus on the end-result, work on the essential 

Which pages really need be fleshed out? Spending more time on making the front page look and work  great may be better than having many dismal pages.

– Don’t get stuck in problems

While working on your design you may find an edge case that you feel will need more attention, sooner or later. Don’t give it your full attention just yet. Chances are, if it’s a conceptual presentation you are giving, it can be solved during detail design. Some problems solve themselves while working on other parts (relates to: deelproblemen). On the other hand, you might feel it’s a real biggy, some innovative products need some competitive/inspiration research in their most challenging or complex areas. However, you might discover

If it’s a core functionality that sticks out like a sore thumb, you might need to ‘go back to the drawing board’ and explore a different interaction approach.

– Distractions and concentration
Isolate yourself from distractions. Hide in another room. Put on headphones (I prefer instrumental or classical music that doesn´t contain words). Increase your concentration (get enough sleep, exercise and eat healthily). Create a serene working environment. (though a messy environment can make you more creative)

– Be honest
Be concious about when you are distracting yourself. Work towards your goal, and be cautious of diversions. For example, don´t delay because you like working out ´this little puzzle here´or like to get ´this little thing here´perfect because you personally prefer working on them.

– Rapid design
Don´t reinvent the wheel. There´s many sites or products out there which have done this before or something similar. Perhaps you could borrow their design and wireframe it.
Start with sketching. Don´t waste time with the tools (Axure, Photoshop, etc) until your certain about your design.

– Get help

Split the work, unless the briefing/training and communication required will take more time than actually doing it yourself. Where is the efficiency cut-off? And if you delegate, what quality and effort can you expect from the other(s)?

– Take a break!
Coffee anyone? You will still need some breaks to get your creative juices flowing and zoom out into the higher detail. Sleep is also important as it lets your subconcious work for you!
Take some distance. The more you look at a problem, the harder it will seem. Take a walk.

– Finally, say ´no´ more often – but nicely.
When the boss asks you to make the impossible happen, you have to manage his expectations on time. What does he need it for? Who is the audience? For example, will the design be thrown in as just one of many slides in his conceptual presentation, then don´t try to get it perfect. Chances are you don´t have to bog down into the detail, but just communicate the general idea. Get the objectives straight. If it still seems impossible, say so. Make it clear that with the time given, it won´t be a finished design but good enough to communicate the general functionality. Say what you will be able to do with with the given time. Here are some other tips to just say no under time pressure and other priorities. If time and budget are fixed, there is usually a trade-off between quality and quantity

Other thoughts:

  • Avoid interuptions. E-mails, phone calls, etc are unwelcome distractions. Don’t reply to them immediate
  • Finish what you started (when interupted). If somebody invades your space demanding your attention, show you are deep into finishing a sentence.
  • Work in burst. Work 45min shifts, take 10min breaks. Breaks help you see things from a distance, in perspective, from high-level.
  • Work intensively, twice a day. Research shows better violinists don’t necessary work harder or longer. In fact, they have two periods in the day where they are on full, intense concentration  (morning and sometime in the afternoon?). The rest of the day, they take it more easy. This way they get better at what they’re good at. Of course, if it’s not practice you are after but finishing something that requires relatively few brain-power, you might want to make an exception (?)
  • Stop early. Research shows more practice does not always make perfect. Quiting early, enough sleep is what differentiates good from expert musicians.
  • Be end-result driven. It’s all about goals. Constantly ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing and how does it help you achieve the end-result. If it doesn’t, take a step back and try a different strategy.
  • Fix your decisions. Constantly changing your mind about how to approach something, means you are constantly applying this new means over and over. Decide on a system, structure or format first. Work with it for all instances. Else you will find yourself with the next point:
  • Always have a finished product. Deadlines are tight. Your work might never be finished or perfect, but at least make it is written and structured in such a way that  you can hand it over for somebody to read or work on at any time.
  • Do one thing at a time. Research shows multi-tasking is not efficient.
  • Mind like water. Have a GTD system for clearing your mind. If you interupt yourself  with things not related to the task at hand (“I still have to do ….” or “I must remember to…”) or another project  (“I could use this solution for project x”). All this is held in your mental working RAM, waiting for action. Write it down somewhere where you know you will look at it  (@inbox). Getting this like that off your mind will clear it  and improve your creative potential.

Tool tips:

  •  Content and layout first, Style after. Whether you’re working in Powerpoint or Axure, add the content first. Styling, structure, alignment, font sizes, colours – all these things are better left until later. The reason is that more than often you want to add or change something, but you only realise later. Then you have to re-apply and adjust all the style again. Another reason is that the appropriate style or format sometimes only becomes apparent later.
  • Be creative away from the computer first. Whether you’re considering a good structure/format for a presentation, mindmapping/brainstorming, or have some wireframing to do: always first start on paper, post-its (for ppt)  or whiteboard, or even draw in sand. Creative sparks often happen elsewhere, not behind the computer. Computers limit exploration.
  • Be systematic, work in a structured manner. This won’t bother your creativity.


Fortune cookies

Neem genoegen uit wat je al hebt en gebruik dat gewoon!
“It’s good enough”
En klusje doorstrepen, hatseflats! En je bent er vanaf, hoe heerlijk is dat?!

Further reading
Making design decisions