Divergent thinking and collaboration

I watched an illustrated video of an illustrated speech by Ken Robinson on changing education paradigms. I believe the paradigm shifts he calls are also needed in the development process of software and information products.

In his speech, Robinson cites a study on divergent thinking—thinking in an unusual and unstereotyped way—which isn’t the same thing as creativity. Divergent thinking is an essential part of creativity. It is the ability to see:

  • lots of possible ways to interpret a question.
  • lots and lots of possible answers to a question.

Interaction designers engage in divergent thinking when they explore multiple ideas and try to “saturate the problem space.” Divergent thinking Initially, this exploration isn’t linear or convergent. Instead, it’s about trying different things, borrowing ideas, letting go of ownership and letting go of the idea that your idea is too good to edit or to combine with the ideas of others. Brainstorming is a structured form of divergent thinking. Only after the divergence—after the problem space is saturated with ideas—is it time to converge, to assess, to use judgement, and to make design decisions.

You can engage in a divergent-then-convergent process on your own, but for people new to the process, results are much better when they can borrow and combine each other’s ideas during the divergent stage. In the workplace this is called collaboration, and we need to add it to iterative, Agile development processes.

If development teams find collaboration difficult, it could be because of the paradigms we learned at school. As Robinson points out, the education system refers to sharing as copying, refers to re-using as plagiarism, and sees both as forms of cheating?

Although children innately engage in divergent thinking, Robinson cites a study from Break Point & Beyond that shows how our Return the fish to water ability to think divergently dries up as we pass through the education system. In school, divergent thinking is a fish out of water. At work, we need to put the fish back in the water.

It’s true. There’s a mismatch between what business leaders say they need and what schools teach, according to a 2009 Asian Development Bank publication, which reports:

What best demonstrates creativity?   (1 is highest) Business Schools
Problem identification or articulation 1 9
Ability to identify new patterns of behaviour or new combination of actions 2 3
Integration of knowledge across different disciplines 3 2
Ability to originate new ideas 4 6
Comfort with the notion of “no right answer” 5 11
Fundamental curiosity 6 10
Originality and inventiveness in work 7 4
Problem solving 8 1
Ability to take risks 9 (tied) 8
Tolerance of ambiguity 9 (tied) 7
Ability to communicate new ideas to others 11 5

In the table, above, compare where business ranks originality and inventiveness versus where schools rank it. Similarly, note the contrast between problem identification and problem solving.

Where to start? Sketching is one method that supports divergent thinking because a sketch intrinsically says: “As an idea, I am disposable. You can change me, or discard me, and then have more ideas.” Ideas are cheap, so have lots of them—that’s key to divergent thinking. There are people in your workplace who know this, already. People formally trained in design have been taught to use divergent thinking. Ask them for help. For other ways to learn to collaborate and to reward collaboration, an Internet search will identify many ideas and methods. One of the first things you’ll read is that collaboration requires support at all levels. Here’s a to-do list for executives:

  • Make sure the vision and mission are clearly communicated. This helps others to understand the problems to solve.
  • Remove the bureaucratic obstacles that strangle creativity.
  • Create a climate for an open flow of ideas, collaboration and knowledge sharing. Freedom and trust are key to creativity.
  • Embrace diversity. The more personality types (or team roles) are on the team, the more likely the project will succeed.
  • Give employees an opportunity to reap the rewards of the success they helped create. Stage celebrations to benchmark success.
  • Cultivate continuous learning. Revitalise by cultivating outside interests.

Drivers on the phone: Misusing the original social network

Researchers have been tracking the use of phones by drivers for almost a decade. We know that phones reduce driver performance, and that one fifth of motor-vehicle accidents involve cell phone use. We know that hands-free phones don’t help. Heavy traffic and stop-and-go traffic compound the risk, because driving in this type of traffic requires more attention. The type of phone use is also relevant. In Japan, dialling and talking while driving was involved in about one sixth of accidents, whereas attempting to locate the phone when it chimes to announce an incoming text message or voicemail was involved in almost half of phone-involved accidents. In addition, laws restricting phone use do little—at this stage—to reduce actual cell-phone use. This research applies not only to you and me, but also to professional drivers who deliver services to you and me.

Can we influence the phone use of drivers?I was in a taxi, earlier this week. Traffic was heavy, so when the driver’s phone rang, I said: “Please don’t answer unless you pull over, first.” The driver decided not to stop and not to answer the phone call. Instead, he attempted to read the incoming caller’s phone number, which involved taking his eyes of the road as he repeatedly glanced at the phone. At the next red light, my taxi driver announced: “I’m just going to use my phone quickly.” He made a call and was still talking when the traffic signal turned green and we resumed driving. After ending that call, he answered another incoming call.

Emotional rewards

In the back seat of the taxi, I decided to grin and bear it, because a phone offers a driver more immediate rewards than most fare-paying passengers do.

From time to time, all people—not only taxi drivers—find it challenging to ignore their phones. Mobile phones provide instant emotional rewards when you attend to them: your reward is interaction with your family, friends, colleagues, and business associates. Conversations and messages offer the phone user entertainment, drama, tension, (information about) money, connection, belonging—all manner of emotional reward.

If you see why phones are so rewarding to use, then you understand (part of) the popularity of social-networking sites, as well. Like phones, social-networking sites offer interaction with friends, family, and colleagues, regardless of whether these sites are accessed on traditional computers or mobile and wireless devices.

Service design

With a fifth of traffic accidents related to phone use, it’s worth exploring how to reduce the wrong kind of phone use by drivers.

If our goal is safety, and we assume that safety is a measurable attribute of service design, then what would it take to design safer services by professional drivers? Here are a few ideas.

Change beliefs and opinions. My taxi driver believes he’s an expert driver and volunteered that he’s never had an accident in a decade of driving. In another decade, ad campaigns similar to those against drunk driving might change his mind. For a more immediate effect, driving simulators could help professional drivers learn how phone use affects their driving performance.

Standards and pressure. Someone recently told me that they limit smart-phone use in business meetings with one simple rule that everyone agrees to in advance: You can check your phone messages and email if you read the message out loud, for everyone in the room to hear. When it comes to phone use in vehicles, could the phone report to peers and employers when it is used while driving? Peers can apply pressure and employers can set standards with pay-related and job-related consequences. In Canada and the USA, some employers already do this.

Technical solutions. Phone networks know when a phone is moving in traffic, from cell to cell. In addition, smart phones have GPS—so they know when they’re moving on the road. Phone companies could offer a soft-lock feature that silences the chimes and rings for incoming messages, texts, and calls, and that restricts outbound calls to emergency services while the vehicle is moving. For drivers in the delivery sector and service sector, a not-while-driving soft lock could reduce lawsuit payouts in case of injuries in traffic.

These are just a few ideas to kick-start what I believe needs to be a public discussion. What ways can you think of to redesign or influence phone usage by drivers?

Cumulative cost of a few seconds

Currently, I’m on a project team that’s designing, building, and implementing call-centre software. You can probably imagine the call-centre experience from the customer side—we’ve all had our share of call-centre experiences. I’ve been looking at call centres from the other side—from the perspective of the customer-service agents and their employer.

I started by observing customer-service agents on the job. At the site I visited, the agents were using a command-line system, and the agents typed so fast that I couldn’t make sense of their on-screen actions. I signed up for several weeks of training to become a novice customer-service agent. This allowed me to make sense of my second round of observations, and appreciate how efficiently the agents handle their customer calls. It also helped me to identify tasks where design might improve user performance.

Wrap-up choicesFor example, after each call the agent decides why the customer called, and then, by scanning lists of main reasons and detailed reasons, “wraps up” the call, as illustrated. I measured the time on task; the average wrap-up task is nine seconds in duration.

It’s only nine seconds

Nine seconds may not seem long, but let’s make a few (fictitious but reasonable) assumptions, and then do a little math.

If the average call-handling time is five minutes, or 300 seconds, the 9 seconds spent on call wrap-up is 3% of the total handling time. A full-time agent could spend 202,500 seconds—that’s 56¼ hours per year—on call wrap-ups, assuming a 7½-hour workweek and no lulls in incoming calls. Since call volumes vary, there will be times when call volumes are too low to keep all agents taking calls. The customer-service agents have other tasks to complete during such lulls, but if we assume this happens about a third of the time, we need to round down the 56¼ hours accordingly. Let’s choose a convenient number: 40 hours, or one workweek per agent per year.

One workweek is 2% of the year.

Based on this number, a redesigned call wrap-up that takes only half the time would save one percent of the labour. Eliminating the wrap-up entirely would save two percent. That frees a lot of hours for other tasks.

A similar calculation on the cost side (n hours to design and implement changes) leaves us with a simple subtraction. Projected saving minus cost is the return on investment, or ROI. Comparing that number to similar numbers from other projects that we could tackle instead—the opportunity costs—makes it easy to decide which design problem to tackle.

Simpler software leads to greater changes

If a group of users is accustomed to a complex software system, and you’re designing its replacement, how simple can you design that replacement to be? Simplifying software

Simpler software—software that is discoverable, easy to learn, and easy explain to others—frees its users to focus on tasks that add value. It may also frustrate former expert users as they suddenly find themselves less-than-expert users of the new tool.

If the software you’re replacing is so complex that it requires a dedicated group to mop up the errors of other users, then the impact of a very simple replacement is potentially disruptive. The users’ jobs are going to change.

The discipline of change management would advocate using a structured approach to transition individuals and teams to the new software, in a controlled manner, by following a pre-defined framework with, ideally, only reasonable modifications. But for an in-house UX-design team tasked with replacing a complex legacy system in one fell swoop, questions arise:

  • How much workflow change is reasonable? How much process change is reasonable? How much is too much?
  • How much organisational restructuring will a simpler system trigger? Who prepares the company’s other teams for significant change and possibly for job reassignment?
  • Should any inefficiency be deliberately ported from the legacy system into the new system, merely to reduce the scope of change, for the comfort of existing users or to reduce the soft costs of workplace disruption?

In a business environment, where data—numbers—often have more sway than wireframes and design walk-throughs, one way to prepare stakeholders (that is, managers) for significant change is to test the designs and prototypes early and to measure their impact on user performance. User-experience designers and usability researchers then need to communicate their projections far enough in advance to permit the user groups to plan for change.

If the user can’t use it, it’s broken

A few days ago, I tried to pump up my bicycle tires. I had to borrow a pump.

Bike-tire pumpThe connectors and attachments suggested this pump would fill North-American and European tire tubes as well as air mattresses, soccer balls, and basketballs.

But the thing is, neither the pump’s owner nor I were able to make it work. We couldn’t pump up my bike tires.

Was it me? Was it the pump’s owner? Or was it the pump’s design?

If the user can’t use it, it’s broken (…or it may as well be).

Natural mapping of light switches

I recently moved into a home where the light switches are all wrong. I was able to fix one problem, and the rest is a daily reminder that usability doesn’t just happen—it takes planning.

Poorly mapped light switches.
The switch on the left operates a lamp on the right, and vice versa. This is not an example of natural mapping.

On one wall, a pair of light switches was poorly mapped. The left switch operated a lamp to the right, and the right switch operated a lamp to the left. The previous resident’s solution to this confusing mapping was to put a red dot on one of the switches, presumably as a reminder. I put up with that for about three days. Continue reading “Natural mapping of light switches”

A banister has multiple user groups

We don’t always know what a design is intended to convey. We don’t always recognise or relate to a design’s intended user groups. But we don’t have to know everything that an object’s design is intended to do, in order to make effective use of the object.

I imagine the metal inserts in the wooden banister (see the video, above) are detectable warnings for people who are visually impaired, but that’s only a guess. If you watch the video again, you’ll see that the metal inserts do not occur at every bend in the staircase.

Whatever the intent, the banister fully met my needs.

Gestalt principles hindered my sudoku performance

Last week, while waiting for friends, I picked up a community newspaper in hopes of finding a puzzle to help me pass the time. I found a sudoku puzzle.

A sudoku puzzle consists of nine 3×3 squares, sprinkled with a few starter numbers. The player must fill in all the blanks by referring to the numbers that are already filled. A number can only occur once in each row of 9, each column of 9, and each 3×3 square.

I regularly complete difficult sudoku puzzles, but this easy one—more starter numbers makes the puzzle easier—was taking much longer than I expected.

I soon realised that my slow performance was due to a design decision by the graphic artist!

In the original puzzle, shown at left, the graphic designer used  shading  for all the starter numbers. In my reformatted version, on the right, I used shading to separate the 3×3 squares. Both puzzles also use thicker lines to separate the 3×3 squares.


The shading for starter numbers, on the left, is unfortunate because it interferes with the player’s perception of the nine 3×3 squares. Instead, players perceive groups of numbers (in diagonals, in sets of two, and sets of five).

I assume the designer’s intention was to help identify the starter numbers. Regardless of the designer’s intention, the human brain processes the shading just as it processes all visual information: according to rules that cognitive psychologists call gestalt principles. A sudoku player’s brain—any human brain—will first perceive the shaded boxes as groups or sets.


In sudoku, the grouping on the left is actually meaningless—and counterproductive. However, since the brain applies gestalt principles rather involuntarily and at a low level, the grouping cannot easily be ignored. The player must make a deliberate cognitive effort to ignore the disruptive visual signal of the original shading. This extra effort slows the player’s time-on-task performance.

You can check your own perception by comparing how readily you see diagonals and groups in both puzzles above. On the left, are you more likely to see two diagonals, two groups of five, and many groups of two? If you are a sudoku player, you’ll recognise that these groupings in the puzzle are irrelevant to the game.

If you like, you can print the puzzles at the top, and give them to different sudoku players. Which puzzle is faster to complete?

Interested in gestalt principles? I’ve blogged about the use of gestalt principles before.

Auto-correct a touch-screen problem

For the past few months, I’ve been taking an average of 1.6 flights per week on commercial airplanes. Most of these offered seatback entertainment, so I could watch the TV show or movie of my choice, or listen to satellite radio while reading. Touch-screen controls are easy to use because they let me touch—or tap—the item or the control that I want. By using the touch screen, I can select a program, adjust the volume, skip the next song, and so on.

One thing I’ve noticed is that about ¼ of seatback touch screens are poorly registered. By registration I mean that the system and the user agree on where the user is tapping or touching the screen:

An illustration of registration

I recorded a video of two common tasks for a seatback entertainment system: selecting the language and adjusting the volume. As you can see, the registration is off, so I initially get the French interface instead of the English, and I must press an unrelated button to adjust the sound:

The registration error is significant. My fingertip tapped about 2 cm left of the centre of the EN button. The larger the registration error, the harder to tap a small target—as was the case with the volume controls in the video, above, where I appear to be tapping the Fast-Forward button. On more than one flight I have unintentionally increased the sound to painful levels while attempting to lower the volume!

A system such as this could be made to detect and auto-correct poor registration. If we assume that repeat taps on a blank location indicates poor registration, the software could:

  1. After several repeat taps, select the nearest target—a reasonable guess—even if it is a centimetre or two away from the user’s tap.
  2. Ask the user to confirm the guess. “Did you mean [this one]?”
  3. If the user confirms, calculate the amount by which to correct the registration, and then fix the registration error.

This solution requires a screen—perhaps the start screen—whose choices are spaced far apart, so the system can detect when the user appears to be tapping a blank space:

Tapping a blank space (at right)

If user testing were to show that auto-correction needs human involvement, after calculating the registration error, the system could ask the user to check the corrected registration. For example:

Confirming that the registration is correct
Are you there? Please tap the green circle.

I haven’t done any testing of this idea, nor have I given this much thought, so I’m certain there are many more and better ways to auto-correct a registration problem on a touch screen. I merely wanted to identify one possible solution in order to get to the next point: the need to consider the business drivers when deciding to address (or deciding not to address) a usability problem.

Everything costs money

Fixing this problem—it’s a real problem, you’ve seen the video—would cost money. If the following can be quantified and evaluated within a framework of passenger-experience goals, there may be a convincing business case:

  • Not every passenger can work around a registration problem. Those who cannot would be unable to use the entertainment system. When everyone else gets a movie, how does the passenger with a failing system feel?
  • If a failed entertainment system is perceived as a negative experience, will passengers blame the touch-screen/software manufacturer or blame the airline? I’m sure you can imagine the complaint: “I sat there for hours without a movie! It’s the airline’s fault.” What’s the likelihood that this will cause churn (passenger switches to another brand next time)?
  • Based on the screens I’ve seen, some frustrated passengers must use hard objects that scratch and even gouge the touch screen. Are they trying to force the screen to understand what they want? Are they vandalising the screen? What’s the cost of replacing a damaged or vandalised screen?
  • A scratched screen is like graffiti. It affects every subsequent passenger in that seat. Do vandalised screens affect the airline’s goal of attaining a particular passenger rating for perceived quality or aesthetic experience?
  • The in-flight entertainment system was implicated in a catastrophic Swiss Air crash near Peggy’s Cove about a decade ago. Would a fix to the touch-screen registration problem incur prohibitive safety-testing costs?

Leaner, more agile

This week, I’m attending a few days of training in agile software development, in an Innovel course titled Lean, Agile and Scrum for Project Managers and IT Leadership.

My first exposure to agile was in Desiree Sy‘s 2005 presentation, Strategy and Tactics for Agile Design: A design case study, to the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) annual conference in Montreal, Canada. It was a popular presentation then, and UPA-conference attendees continue to be interested in agile methods now. This year, at the UPA conference in Portland, USA, a roomful of usability analysts and user-experience practitioners discussed the challenges that agile methods present to their practice. One of the panellists told the room: “Agile is a response to the classic development problem: delivering the wrong product, too late.” There was lots of uncomfortable laugher at this. Then came the second, thought-provoking sentence: “Agile shines a light on the rest of us, since we are now on the critical path.” Wow! So it’s no longer developers, but designers, usability analysts, etc, who are holding up the schedule?

An agile loadDuring this week’s training, I’m learning lots while looking for one thing in particular: how to ensure agile methods accommodate non-developer activities, from market-facing product management activities, to generative product design, to early prototype testing, to usability testing, and so on.

I’m starting to suspect that when agile methods “don’t work” for non-developers, it’s because the process is wagging the dog (or that its “rules” are being applied dogmatically). I think I’m hearing that agile isn’t a set of fixed rules—so not a religion—but a sensible and flexible method that team members can adapt to their specific project and product.