In a previous post, I talked about how designers and strategists can respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make good decisions that are critical in the business. I’ve brefiely mentioned that any decision-making approach should involve creating choices.
In this post, I’ll talk about how can designers step up to the plate and become skilled facilitators that help teams with creating choices.
- Strategy Choices
- Design is about Creating Choices
- Decision-Making Processes and Creating Choices
- Creating Choices through Sketching
- Creating Choices and Selecting Alternatives
- Beware of Analysis Paralysis
- Recommended Reading
- It is crucial that designers engage with their business stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions they want their products to assume in the industry, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions.
- The effectiveness of the team in making good decisions by picking the right choices depends on their ability of generating alternatives.
- Design is about exploring and comparing merits of alternatives. There is not just one path, and at any given time or any given question, there may be numerous different alternatives being considered, only one of which will eventually find itself in the product.
- Your decision can be no better than your best alternative.
- Truly creative solutions to problems often begin with some form of sketching.
- Sketches make us think through the issues embodying the idea in reality, and it goes us closer to refined concepts. In doing so, it often sparks more ideas for further exploration.
- Design studios provide a collaborative creative problem-solving method, where designers, developers, and key stakeholders create and explore design alternatives by offering these advantages.
- One of the goals of the leaders should be to help organizations multiply their options — to an appropriate extend. Too many options and you can become paralysed when trying to make a decision. Too few you may be cornered into a course of action that doesn’t work for you.
- To mitigate analysis paralysis, probably one of the most the most critical aspect of facilitating good decisions is to help teams converge and align on the direction they should go.
Designers may have naively believed that the user perspective can be provided at one point of the product development lifecycle (e.g. during project/backlog/sprint planning phase).
In reality any product that makes into the the world it’s actually the outcome of a set of dozens, hundreds or thousands of decisions along the way. Each decision building upon each other, informing and influencing all aspects of the user experience (Garrett, J.J, Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond“, 2010).
It is crucial that designers engage with their business stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions they want their products to assume in the industry, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions (for more on ensuring decisions align with objectives, check the PrOACT approach later in this article).
In the second post of this series, I’ve mentioned that I’ve found that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve.
Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood — as my colleague Anton Fischer usually says — it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.
Design is about Creating Choices
The effectiveness of the team in making good decision by picking the right choices depends on their ability of generating alternatives.
Without multiple solutions to any question, the process is highly vulnerable. Without the ability to see all the work at once, spread out, relationships will be missed, and the conversation and subsequent designs will suffer. (Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design, 2007).
Teamwork can make or break a collaborative project and affects all of the design activities, particularly in the selection of design alternatives and resolution of conflicts (Cross, N., & Cross, A. C., Observations of teamwork and social processes in design in Design Studies,, 1995).
Decision-Making Processes and Creating Choices
In another post of this strategy series, I’ve also argued that the connection among decisions you make lies not in what you decide, but how you decide. An effective decision-making process will fulfil these six criteria (Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H., Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions. 2015):
- It focuses on what’s important: does your decision-making process helps the team keep vision, goals and priorities in mind?
- It’s logical and consistent: in the context of work group, how repeatable is the decision-making process? how “workshopable” it is?
- It acknowledges both subjective and objective factors and blends analytical with intuitive thinking: does your decision-making process helps keep instincts and biases in check, but leverage on hunches, gut feelings and emotions when needed?
- It requires only as much information and analysis as is necessary to resolve a particular dilemma: how does your decision-making process helps you to comprehensively understand the problem, its contexts, and create choices?
- It encourages and guides the gathering of relevant information and informed opinion: how does your decision-making process helps you weigh your options without running into analysis paralysis.
Now let’s deep dive in how to create great choices.
The PrOACT method (Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H., Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions. 2015) — which stands for Problem, Objectives, Alternatives, Consequences, and Trade-offs — is a every effective for making good decisions by breaking down the decision-making process into basic components:
Work on the right decision problem: what must be decided? The way you frame your decision at the outset can make all the difference. To choose well, you need to state your decision problems carefully, acknowledging their complexity and avoiding unwarranted assumptions and option-limiting prejudices.
Specify your objectives: Your decision should get you where you want go. Ask yourself what you most want to accomplish and which of your interests, values, concerns, fears, and aspirations are most relevant to achieve your goal.
Create imaginative alternatives: your alternatives represent the different courses of action you have to choose from. If you didn’t have different alternatives, you wouldn’t be facing a decision. But have you considered all the alternatives or at least a wide range of creative and desirable ones? Your decision can be no better than your best alternative.
Understand the consequences. How well your alternatives satisfy your objectives? Assessing frankly the consequences (intended or unintended) of each alternative will help you to identify those that best meet your objectives — all your objectives.
Grapple with the Tradeoffs: because objectives frequently conflict with one another, you’ll need to strike a balance. Some of this must be sacrificed in favour of that. Your task is to choose intelligently among the less-than-perfect possibilities. To do so, you need to se priorities (read more about prioritisation methods later in this article) by openly addressing the trade offs among the competing alternatives.
Sometimes the simple act of setting out your problem, objectives, alternatives, consequences, and trade offs (as well as any uncertainties, risks, or linked decisions) will fully clarify the decision, pointing the way to the smart choice. If not, you should to reconfiguring (or reframing) your problem in various ways.
Six Thinking Hats
The Six Thinking Hats — a concept articulated by Edward de Bono — is a powerful tool for brainstorming and innovation. By breaking down thoughts into six “parallel” or “lateral” areas, it allows a spectrum of thought, from gut feeling to data analysis, to be separately discussed. By using these six types of thinking in a structured way, groups can more effectively approach problem solving (de Bono, E., Six Thinking Hats, 1999).
If you’re interested in exploring creativity techniques like lateral thinking, please check out my lecture on Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats for the MA Integrated Design at Köln International School of Design.
“…the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each.”“Integrative thinking” in The opposable mind: How successful leaders win through integrative thinking, Martin, R. L. (2009)
- Articulate the models. Understand the problem and opposing models — even, or perhaps especially, those that make us deeply uncomfortable — more deeply.
- Examine the models. Define the points of tension, assumptions, and cause-and-effect forces, with the aim of getting to an articulation of the core value that each model provides. The intention is not to help you choose between these opposing models, but to help you use the opposing models to create a great new, choice.
- Explore new possibilities. Play with the pathways to integration. Go back to the problem you have been working on. Take a step back and ask, how might I break my initial problem apart, along a meaningful dividing line, so that I could apply one of my models to one part of the problem, and the other model to the other part of the problem? What might a new answer look like in these conditions?
- Assess the prototype: Concretely define each possibility, more comprehensively articulating how might it work. Understand the logic of the possibilities, asking under what conditions each possibility would be a winning integrative solution. Design and conduct test for each possibility, generating needed data over time (read more about testing business ideas later on this article).
Integrative thinking spurs us to metacognition, empathy, and creativity. It helps mitigate some or our sticky biases. And provides a plataform for a different way of thinking about the work — one that leverages the tension of opposing ideas to create new choices and new value.
Integrative Thinking (or any of the other approaches I listed here) is not a silver bullet. It is not the single thinking tool for all circumstances. But when you find that your conventional thinking tools are not helping you to truly solve a problem, integrative thinking can be the tool that shifts the conversation, defuses interpersonal conflicts, and help you move forward.
Creating Choices through Sketching
While most business professionals, do not have a formal design education, they do think visually. Marketers brainstorm new ideas on whiteboards. Developers sketch out data flow. User Experience designers create wide maps, sketch mockups, and draw customer task flows. Database administrators sketch entity relationship diagrams. In short, truly creative solutions to problems often begin with some form of sketching (Sullivan, B. K., The design studio method, 2017).
Concepts sketches convert ideas into concrete frames that are easier to understand, discuss, evaluate, and communicate than abstract ideas that are described in word (Kumar, V., “Concept Sketch” in 101 design methods, 2013).
Bill Buxton lists a few attributes of sketches that make them suitable for generating ideas and creating choices (Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design, 2007). The ones I’ve found important for this discussion are:
- Quick: A sketch is quick to make, or at least gives that impression.
- Timely: A sketch can be provided when needed.
- Inexpensive: A sketch is cheap. Cost must not inhibit the ability to explore a concept, especially early in the design process.
- Disposable: if you can’t afford to throw it away when don it probably not a sketch. The investment with a sketch is in the concept, not in the execution. By the way, this doesn’t not mean they have no value, or that you always dispose of them. Rather, their value largely depends on their disposability.
- Plentiful: Sketches tend to not exist in isolation. Their meaning or relevance is generally in the context of a collection or series, not as an isolated rendering.
- Minimal detail: include only what is required to render the intended purpose or concept.
- Suggest and explore rather than confirm: sketches don’t “tell”, they suggest. Their value lies not in the artefact of the sketch itself, but in its ability to provide a catalyst to the desired and appropriate behaviours, conversations, and interactions.
Sketching and Teamwork
Sketching is most often done in team brainstorming sessions to clearly communicate, discuss, and steer participants in promising directions. Iterating and reacting to a teammate’s sketch often leads to many more concepts, subconcepts, or concept improvements than just ideas based on only abstract thinking (Kumar, V., “Concept Sketch” in 101 design methods, 2013):
- Assign sketching tasks to team members: to ensure a smooth work process, assign some team members as designated sketchers, while others focus on verbal ideation and communication.
- Gather early descriptions of concepts already generated: collect the descriptions of concepts suggested by the analysis frameworks, design principles, opportunity mind map, value hypothesis, ideation sessions, and other methods. Sketches may be prepared beforehand and distributed as a prop for discussion (e.g.: Design Reviews or Charrattes) or drawn live as an augmentation of a discussion (e.g.: Design Studio).
- Sketch out the core idea: one idea, one sketch. Force yourself to capture the idea in a single representative image. Communicate only the core ideas under discussion through this sketch. Sketches can be very rough at this stage and can be drawn by anyone; no drawing skills are needed. In fact, if sketches have too many features or details present, it may hinder communication at this early stage.
- Move from rough figurative sketches to more detailed ones: initially make rough figurative sketches that are good for quick visualization (“what if we did something like this?”). Later on you can move on to detailed figurative sketches that are good for seeing the concept as more real (“what would that ideas really look/feel like?”).
- Capture every sketch and discuss: capture every sketch, from paper or from the whiteboard. Document every sketch with small descriptions. A concepts sketch that may seem un important at this stage may have more value later in the process when concepts are combined into solutions. Review all sketches in teams, discuss their qualities, identify issues, iterate the concepts, and gain an initial sense of where further attention is needed.
Sketching and the Design Studio
Jim Ungar and Jeff White took the sketching methodology mentioned above and merge it with agile teams development practices into something that is now know as the design studio (Ungar, J., White, J., Agile user centered design: enter the design studio — a case study. In: Proceedings of ACM CHI 2008 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2008).
Design studios provide a creative problem-solving method, where designers, developers, and key stakeholders create and explore design alternatives by offering these advantages (Sullivan, B. K., The design studio method, 2017):
- Design studios are fast: in most cases, design studios can done in a few hours or days. This method is ideas for aggressive deadlines. Plus design studios fit nicely into rapid development processes, such as Agile Scrum or Extreme Programming.
- Design Studios allow you to share knowledge: you should include a cross-functional team of people with different background and experiences. Concepts get discussed from multiple point of views, which enrich and strengthen the final design.
- Design Studios promote team cohesiveness: by spending time together, participants create a shared vision for the final design. Their commitment will be based upon their effort spent creating and evaluating the different concepts.
- Design Studios help you get early commitment on design direction: When a design studio ends, the project team should know its design direction. As you move to production, the design will continue to refine, but he design direction should be set.
The activities conducted during a design studio can be adapted for timelines, group dynamics and environments in a variety of ways. Most sketching session in design studio workshop consist on variations of the following (Kaplan, K., Facilitating an Effective Design Studio Workshop, 2017):
- Sketch: Each attendee brainstorms several individual ideas in order to generate a wide set of concepts. (This is the divergent part of the process.)
- Present and critique: Studio participants present their ideas to each other, and then have a chance to offer feedback and critique each other’s ideas, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of those ideas.
- Converge: Together, the group sketches a collaborative idea, making modifications or combining the strength of several ideas.
- Prioritize: Participants identify common themes or elements and determine which ideas are highly valuable.
Creating Choices and Selecting Alternatives
One of the goals of the leaders should be to help organizations multiply their options — to an appropriate extend. Too many options and you can become paralysed when trying to make a decision. Too few you may be cornered into a course of action that doesn’t work for you (“Multiply your possibilities” in The decision maker’s playbook. Mueller, S., & Dhar, J., 2019).
One of the most difficult things for a group of people to do is to choose what to do and what not to do. We’ve all sat around with a group of friends feeling frustration as a discussion of where to eat or where to drink drags on… the problem is without a clear framework for making choices, endless conversations will always happen (Courtney, J., The Workshopper Playbook: How to Become a Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Expert, 2020).
Scott Berkun’s “Weighing in Your Options”
While weighing in your options, there are a few important considerations to have in mind (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008):
- Always include a “do nothing” option: Not every decision or problem demands an action. Sometimes, the best way is to do nothing. Sunk costs are rarely worth trying to recover!
- How do you know what you think you know? This should be a question everyone is comfortable asking. It allows people to check assumptions and to question claims that, while convenient, are not based on any kind of data, firsthand knowledge, or research.
- Ask tough questions! Cut to the chase about the impact of decision. Be direct and honest. Push hard to get to the core of what the options look like.
- Have a dissenting option. For more important decisions, it’s critical to include unpopular but reasonable options. Make sure to include opinions or choices you personally don’t like, but for which good arguments can be made. This keeps you honest and gives anyone who see the pros/cons list a chance to convince you into making a better decision than the one you might have arrived at on your own.
- Consider hybrid choices. Sometimes it’s possible to take an attribute of one choice and add it to another. Like exploratory design, there are always interesting combinations in decision making. However, be warned that this explode the number of choices, which can slow things down and create more complexity than you need. Watch for the zone of indifference (options that are not perceived as making any difference or adding any value) and don’t waste time in it.
- Include any relevant perspectives. Consider if this decision impacts more than just the technology of the project. Are there business concerns that will be impacted? Usability? Localization? If these things are project goals and are impacted by the decision, add them into the mix. Even if it’s purely technological decision, there are different perspectives involved: performance, reliability, extensibility, and cost.
- Start on paper or a whiteboard. When you’re first coming up with ideas/options, you want the process to be lightweight and fast. It should be easy to cross things out, make hybrids, or write down rapid-fire For some decisions that are resolved quickly, the whiteboard list is all you’ll ever need.. If it turns our you need to show the pros/cons list at an important meeting, worry about making an elaborate spreadsheet or slide deck later.
- Refine until stable. If you keep working on your options, it will eventually settle down into a stable set. The same core questions or opinions will keep coming up, and you won’t hear any major new commentary from the smart people you work with. When all the logical and reasonable ideas have been vetted out, and showing the options to people only comes up with the same set of choices you’ve already heard, it’s probably time to move on and decide.
Morphological Synthesis (a.k.a. SCAMPER checklist)
As a design method it start with a set of categories under which concepts are organised. Normally the categories selected for organising are either a set of actives, user needs, product functions, or even design principles. All the concepts together from a menu od concept options. A solution is a set of concepts that work together as a complete system. How it works (Kumar, V., “Morphological Synthesis” in 101 design methods, 2013):
- Select user-entered categories to organise concepts: make a list of categories that could include user needs, user activities, product functions, design principles, etc.
- Create a morphological chart with concepts filled in: list the categories in the first row. Show the related concepts below each category.
- Combine complementary concepts into solutions: select concepts from each category, or column, and combine them with complementary concepts from other columns to form combined concepts, called solutions. Write a brew descriptions of how the solution are systemic in nature.
- Compare and evaluate the different solutions. rank and order your solutions according to their ability to see as many of your user-entered criteria as possible.
Besides the morphological box, the SCAMPER checklist developed by Bob Eberle will also help you to reconfigure an existing idea or product (Krogerus, M., & Tschappeler, R., “The morphological box and SCAMPER” in The decision book: Fifty models for strategic thinking, 2018):
- Substitute. Substitute people, components, materials. Find a part of your concept, product, service or process etc. that you could replace with another to see whether it will result in improvements, such as efficiency gains. This will help you test which alternative works better, like a trial and error process. An example for a substitution would be an automobile manufacturer using different composites for the frame to make vehicles lighter
- Combine. Combine with other functions or things. Most of the time you don’t have to come up with something entirely new, but the solution(s) actually already exists. One idea might not work alone, but you could combine several ideas, processes or products into one more efficient output.
- Adapt. Adapt functions or visual appearance. As in combination, you probably already have the right solution to your problem, you just don’t know it yet. Sometimes an idea that worked to solve one problem, could also be used to solve a different problem.
- Modify/Magnify. Modify an aspect of your situation or problem, for example by magnifying, i.e. exaggerating, them and see whether it gives you a new insight or whether it adds any value. This will help you identify which part of your process or concept is the most significant.
- Put to other use. Other, new, combined uses. This is very similar to “Adapt”, as in many times, an idea only becomes great when applied differently than first imagined. It’s about putting an existing idea or concept to another use, i.e. using it differently than it was originally intended to. An example would be using ocean waste to produce shoes or products that were invented for a whole different use than they are being used now.
- Eliminate. Reduct, simplify, eliminate anything superfluous. The elimination might sound familiar to those that know about Lean or Six Sigma. It’s about eliminating inefficient processes (‘waste’) with the goal of streamlining them. Through repeated trimming of ideas, objects, and processes, you can gradually narrow your challenge down to that part or function that is most important.
- Reverse. Use conversely, invert, revert. Reverse the orientation or direction of a process or product, do things the other way around, completely against its original purpose. Think of what you would do if part of your problem, product or process worked in reverse or were done in a different order.
Design Criteria Canvas
Whether you’re designing a new Value Proposition, Business Model, or even an entire strategy for the future, design criteria form the principles and benchmarks of the change you’re after. Design criteria are not formulated from thin air. Rather, design criteria incorporate information from your business, vision, customer research, cultural and economic context, and mindset that you have formed along the way (Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K., Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation, 2016):
After you’ve got a hand what what the business needs, along with an understanding of what users need, we should help the team answer the questions what’s actually worth our time effort? what’s worth the organization’s investment in the project? What’s worth our time and investment in the project?
The answers to those questions are determined by figuring out what the tradeoffs are between the product’s importance and its feasibility/viability (Natoli, J., Think first, 2015).
Prioritisation Grids can be adapted to use whatever axises you want (value to business and time to market, number of customers impacted and speed to adoption, importance and urgency, etc.) as long as all the stakeholders involved agree on the which criterion are more useful to the decision being discussed, and if there is enough expertise and data available for the team making the prioritisation exercise.
- What problem are we trying to solve?
- If there are multiple problems, which one is most important?
- How does this problem relate to or impact our goals?
- What is the simplest way to fix this that will allow us to meet our goals?
Beware of Analysis Paralysis
As you probably noticed, all the methods I’ve mentioned above involve creating options. While having alternative help increase our chances of making good decisions, it also creates the danger of team being stuck with Analysis Paralysis.
From that perspective, I find it incredibly important that — while designers need to ask good questions that foster divergent thinking, explore multiple solutions — probably one of the most the most critical aspect of facilitating good decisions is to help teams converge and align on the direction they should go (Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., “What is a Game?” in Gamestorming, 2010).
Knowing when teams should be diverging, when they should be exploring, and when they should closing will help ensure they get the best out of their collective brainstorming and multiple perspectives’ power and keep the team engaged.
In the next post, we will be talking about some of my favourite ways to facilitate investment discussions and prioritising design work.
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Buxton, B. (2007). Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann.
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Garrett, J., (2010), “The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond“, 192 pages, New Riders; 2nd edition (16 Dec. 2010)
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Sullivan, B. K. (2017). The design studio method: Creative problem solving with UX sketching. London, England: Routledge.
Ungar, J., White, J. (2008): Agile user centered design: enter the design studio — a case study. In: Proceedings of ACM CHI 2008 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems April 5-10, 2008, . pp. 2167-2178.https://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1358628.1358650
Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K. (2016). Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.