Flare and Focus

How would you describe the creative process?

‘Brainstorming, out-of-the-box thinking, and radical innovation’ are a few of the buzz words that may come to mind. All of these words fall under the category of ‘flaring’ — thinking widely to incorporate unusual solutions, offbeat ideas, and to expand the solution set as widely as possible before narrowing down to one. But the creative process is rarely linear and notoriously difficult to pin down.

Design thinking, whether you love it or hate it, has one thing going for it. It takes a stand on one methodology for getting to solutions sooner rather than later (time) and in a collaborative fashion (with diverse indviduals working together on a team, trying to leverage findings from real users.)

As a grad student in architecture, I worked in group settings for projects, but rarely were we taught how to facilitate this process to save valuable time. And introverted designers who expect to work alone (aspirations of becoming that ‘lone, creative genius’) had few, if any tools with which to communicate and collaborate on their vision with others, resulting in frustration and isolation.

Flaring must be paired with moments of acute focus, in order to learn and move quickly.

UNDERSTANDING → PLANT A FLAG

In design thinking, every exercise is designed to allow us to understand the user. This can take on several forms, including personal interviews, careful observation, and on-site visits. But it is ultimately useless unless it is followed by a callibrated decision to ‘plant a flag’ after developing a deeper understanding of the user’s world. To plant a flag is to decide on who, or what you will focus on moving forward. Is it the schoolteacher who needs your app the most or her student? Flags can be un-planted, but without planting a flag first, (a hypothesis), it is difficult to know whether or not you are moving forward, and the rest of the process can feel tetherless.

EMPATHY → SYNTHESIS

Greater empathy for the user is often generated through interviews and conversations with individuals over coffee, at the office, a park bench, on on the subway home. Findings are difficult to record. They’re difficult because people aren’t robots. Our conversations take divergent, organic and non-linear paths. We learn about someone’s life, but lives are messy, and humans are inconsistent. People will say one thing, but when you watch them closely, you observe the exceptions to their rule.

‘I work out 3-4 times a week.’

‘I never leave dishes in the sink.’

‘Eating healthy is important to me and I make sure to have a balanced meal every night.’

We have every intention of doing these things, but when you observe someone’s kitchen or treadmill, these spaces and things can tell another story about the individual.
Empathy is empowered to enact change, when paired with synthesis.

I find that if I don’t synthesize my findings before I fall asleep that night, I risk having it blend into tomorrow’s conversations and I lose the nuances of the conversations I had the day before.

What could you learn from the reams of interview notes if you synthesized your findings into a clear statement from your user’s point of view?

Granted, it will feel like an oversimplification, but summaries, book reviews, articles, and encyclopedia entries skimp on details and nuance to deliver memorable headlines and actionable takeaways.

Here is one template that might work to synthesize your user’s point of view:

‘_______ (name) is a _________ (description) who needs a way to ________ (verb) in a way that makes him/her feel _______ (emotion or attitude).’

‘Maria is a first-year school teacher who needs a way to capture her student’s attention in a way that makes her feel heard.’

‘Jeff is a semi-retired individual who needs a way to contribute to his community in a way that makes him feel relevant and empowered.’

If feeling stumped when writing a clear POV statement, return to the user. Flare in order to focus. But just not at the same time.