Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Its Ok to Think Out-Of-The-Box

It is ‘Ok’ to think out of the box, at least we keep telling ourselves that. I know we always talk about thinking out of the box but frequently this tends really be ‘think out of that box as long as it’s not too far out of this box’ so just use a different box and stay in it. Begs the question how to really think out of the box and how do we let ourselves know its really ok to do that?

Case in point was a project we did recently where we were tasked to build a touch wall for Nike Basketball and the World Basket Ball Festival in New York City. One of the key elements was this idea of helping people (ie targeted demographic being male ages 14 to 35) connect with the history of basketball. The idea of the ‘history’ of anything in most ideation processes is going to bring up a time line. How boring is a timeline though, been there done that. This story is abit about how we broke out of the mode of a stereo typical timeline but still be a timeline and not some other metaphor that is been overly used like the carousel or something like that and therefore how we really thought out of the box and allowed our selves to do it.

So how can we let ourselves think out of the box ‘more’ better [yes yes I know English, it’s just more fun this way]? With that let us talk about 3 points on how we can better enable real life out of the box thinking without limiting out selves to preconceived notions and build really sexy User eXperiences (in this case all about basketball) and be ok with it.

Emotional Connections

One of the biggest problems we have as User eXperience professionals is: understanding our users. Do we really understand them? Have we bothered? Do we think we understand them but not really? Being open to the fact that you might not, as a team, really know your target demographic is a good start to not just thinking out of the box but being able to let yourself think out of the box. In doing so how then to you really know your users and in that how do we know we know? I would argue that we must always be in a mode of trying to better understand our users as they are diverse and ever changing and as soon as you think you know them you don’t, so therefore don’t stop getting to know them.

More than anything then you need to learn to connect with them emotionally and through constantly working on that connection emotionally you can better use that connection and cater to it. Working with emotional connections with users gives us a basis for building UX that takes it to the next level and we can vet those against our users to gage how well we connect and we can see if our out of the box ideas will fly. The user then is the judge of our ideas and not our perceived notions about them.

When we are building UX it is important to keep this process of emotional connections with our users as this is how our ideas will be connecting and how our ideas fail. To really get out of the box that emotional connection is critical. Now the reason I chose to bring emotional connects up first is that this idea of emotionally connecting with users helps us in the other two points I wanted to bring up.

Communication, Communication, Communication

Remember when building awesome UX it is not just you. It helps me and my team at Wirestone to think of ourselves as a single unit. It is not the developers vs the designers, it is our team and us including designers, developers, information architects, UX architects, PMs, the customer, and even demographic representatives. Its all of us working together and as I’m sure you’ve heard if you have studied group or team dynamics at all the trick always gets down to communication. When we communicate and ideas flow freely in a positive non critical way where we can talk about them and try them out we always come out of with cooler better ideas. No idea is bad it’s the degree in which it is awesome that matters. When a group or team then understands the business goal, understands the ROI, the technology, the information and content and are passionate about what they are doing and then fully communicate openly freely and often then things always, always go better.

Let’s get back to that Nike touch wall thing I mentioned earlier. As it turns out this was a case in point where brainstorming with the entire team was really a key defining moment it this projects success. With content we clearly had a demographic that was passionate about the content but really we had 2 kinds of elements to present and the typical time line was just so over done and not unique and some one other then the designers and developers in the room suggested why don’t we just have two lines one for this and one for that… of course at first much of the team scoffed but it was the most unique idea and no one could think of a reason not to at least try it. Getting a sample of the content together and putting in to a dual timeline that would expand and grow depending on which elements were of interest was an interesting idea and when put in front of users it worked much to many of our surprises. Further with a slight bit of gratuitous movement we found that it made it easier for users to wrap their heads around the content and learn to explore making the new dual timeline metaphor easier to understand or in other words more ‘discoverable’.

Let the Users Decide

The key then to the Nike touch wall success turned out to be putting it in front of users and letting the user decide if it was cool or not. Frequently we jump to conclusions about our users that may or may not be true and truth be told nothing is better than putting the UI in front of the real users to see if a UI/UX works or not.

Part of putting your ideas for UI in front of users is for the team to understand who the user is. One of the key tools a lot of people find successful is to have personas or virtual people that personify your typical user. This method also makes it easier to help other understand the user your team is targeting and help is finding real life version of the user. Even informal UX testing helps and in fact in our case we use some informal UX testing up front and additional more formal UX testing at all phases of the project to help let the user’s guide our creativity and our thinking. When we put our ideas in front of users it helped us focus on what worked best and in fact find the out of the box ideas that really worked.


That all being the case, letting ideas flow and putting all of them or the most unique ones in front of users can help bring focus to the out of the box thinking, where the entire teams is involved and no idea is left un vetted in front of users. Why is it ok to think out of the box? The reason is you will find the next best idea waiting for you and through that idea and the emotional connect with the user that you understand your UX will more likely hit the mark, be out of the box and a home run metaphorically speaking. Thinking out of the box requires that you let yourself as a team be open to all ideas, to give them serous configuration and let the user decide for you. Go forth and think out of the box (well at least head in the right direction). Like anything it takes time for a team to get up to speed and a willingness from everyone on the team to work together with novel techniques like ‘communication’, ‘brainstorming’ and the like. Here is hoping to see your next Hot and Sexy User eXperience…

also published at: http://www.interactseattle.org/?p=704

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