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.

Starting over on the right problem

If you’re designing a bedpan washer, do you design one that nurses don’t have to wait for?

According to a newspaper report, BC’s Centre for Disease Control, or CDC, found that a British Columbia hospital had

bedpan-cleaning machines that take 13 minutes for each cycle.

If they wanted to ensure each bedpan got returned to the right patient, nurses had to stand by for the duration. […]

The BC CDC found the [bedpan washing machines] to be inconvenient and too time consuming.

As additional disincentive for nurses to wait out the 13 minutes, the newspaper says: “If you don’t load the machine exactly right, they not only don’t work, they sometimes spray aerosolized feces on you when the door is opened.”

Oh dear.
                 Cleaning bedpans by machine

It’s easy to ask pointed questions after the fact, but here goes. Since nurses are too rushed to wait 13 minutes, would ethnographic study of hospitals have identified time pressure as a factor? Did researchers ask how long a nurse could or would wait for a bedpan washer? If the answer is “they won’t wait at all; they’ll go do something else,” then that reframes the design problem:

Can the machine track which bedpan gets returned to whom without relying on a nurse’s memory?

Can the machine clean bedpans so that it doesn’t matter to which patient they are returned?

These are very different design problems to solve. Other possible design questions to have asked:

Can the machine’s design prevent improper loading?

Can the machine not spray fecal matter at the person who opens it? Or, if this problem wasn’t predictable at the outset, Is the machine pleasant to use?

Can the machine be operated correctly by untrained users?

…and so on.

I’ve worked on projects where we thought we had the problem space clearly defined, and then—after exploring the design space and attempting to converge on a solution—realised that we had to redefine the problem and start over. I’d say that happens in about 20% of the projects I work on. I’ve also worked on a health product where we couldn’t change the hardware component, so we had to design a software and website solution to mitigate the hardware’s intermittent connectivity problem.

I don’t know anything about the design of the bedpan washer, above, but I understand that BC CDC implicated bedpans in the hospital’s outbreak of Clostridium difficile, and that the hospital switched to another cleaning method. The costs to the manufacturer are potentially horrendous. If the design team did everything right—including an iterative design process and early, user-involved testing—and still missed the mark, then they have my sympathy.

But now that they have a better understanding of the problem space—now that they know the “right” problem—they can design and build a better product.

Speed sketching vs. art/perfectionism

For a Five Sketches™ design session, I ask design participants to bring at least five substantially different ideas to the table, in the form of sketches. A common initial reaction is: “…But I can’t sketch!”

Many design participants believe they cannot draw. To be honest, I believe that about myself. People who feel they cannot draw tend to extend that belief to encompass design sketching, as well. However, I have learned to distinguish between drawing (below, left) and sketching a software design (below, right).

Drawing versus sketching

Software design does not require drawing, only sketching. From experience, I can tell you that sketching is easy once you realise that the goal is to produce only rough and low-fidelity ideas, not decorative and high-fidelity pictures.

Occasionally, I encounter a design participant who has trouble with sketching. I once had a participant who was so self-conscious of her sketching ability that she was paralyzed during the rapid iteration phase, when the design participants are quickly mashing up the sketches with borrowed and new ideas to produce additional sketches. I noticed that this participant was always busy—talking or wiping the board or replacing the snacks—but never sketching. This avoidance, and the underlying mental block, was an impediment to the whole team. Like all generative design processes, Five Sketches™ relies on its participants to saturate the design space with ideas. If a participant isn’t participating, it increases the project risk.

To pre-empt this mental block and to reduce the project risk, during Five Sketches™ training, I now introduce a quick speed-sketching exercise. Speed sketching is a race against the clock. With pen and paper ready, before each round, I give the participants five seconds to think, and then:

  • Speed sketching in seconds!10 seconds to sketch a cell phone.
  • 8 seconds to sketch a sandwich.
  • 6 seconds to sketch an airplane.
  • 4 seconds to sketch a ship.
  • 2 seconds to sketch a house.

After each sketch, the participants look at the other sketches. I ask them to identify the details that make the sketched object recognisable. There isn’t time to draw a high-fidelity rendering, so the sketches are rough and have few details.

Interestingly, with few details the sketched objects are still clearly recognisable. Participants learn that detail and fidelity aren’t needed. By the last round of sketches—the “2 seconds to sketch a house” round—participants have seen that everyone’s ability to produce sketches is about equal, and they usually conclude: “I sketch well enough for others to grasp my ideas.” Generative design requires lots of ideas—disposable ideas—not fancy drawings.

Jason Santa Maria says a similar thing in his Pretty Sketchy blog post, in which he declares that sketching is not about being a good artist; sketching is about being a good thinker.

Sketch, wireframe, prototype

Over the past month, I’ve come across the same discussion several times: “When designing a website or product, do you use wireframing or prototyping?”

The first part of my answer is: “Make sure you sketch, first.”

At the design stage, sketching, wire-framing, and prototyping are not equal. Sketching is useful at the divergent phase of design because it lets the design participants express and capture lots of different ideas quickly and anywhere that pen and paper will work. Nothing is as fast as running a pen across a sheet of paper to capture an idea—and then another, and another. And since sketching is intentionally rough, everyone can do it.


Responding to Œ the problem statement, first  saturate the design space with lots of ideas, and then Ž analyse and rapidly iterate them to  a design solution.

I also believe sketching is great for the convergent phase of design, but there are potential hurdles that design participants may encounter. It can be challenging to convey complex interaction, 3D manipulation, transitions, and multi-state or highly interactive GUI in sketches without learning a few additional techniques. This is unfortunate, because having to learn additional techniques reduce the near-universal accessibility of sketching.

The second part of my answer, therefore, is that “if you need to learn additional techniques to make sketching work, feel free to choose wireframes or prototyping as alternatives when there are compelling reasons to do so.”

I should point out that the three techniques—sketching, wireframing, and prototyping—are not mutually exclusive. Wireframes and paper prototypes can both be sketched—especially for simple or relatively static GUI designs.

There are no validity concerns with the use of low-fidelity sketches, as these readings show:

Low-fi sketching increases user input

Here are three techniques for eliciting more feedback on your designs:

  • show users some alternatives, so more than one design.
  • show users a low-fidelity rather than high-fidelity rendering.
  • ask users to sketch their feedback.

To iterate and improve the design, you need honest feedback.  Let’s look at how and why each of these techniques might work.

Showing alternative designs signals that the design process isn’t finished. If you engage in generative design, you’ll have several designs to show to users. Users are apparently reluctant to critique a completed design, so a clear signal that the process is not yet finished encourages users to voice their views, but only somewhat.

Using a low-fidelity rendering elicits more feedback than the same design in a high-fidelity rendering. Again, users are apparently reluctant to critique something that looks finished—as a high-fidelity rendering does.


The design is the same, but it feels more difficult to criticise the one on the right.

Asking users to sketch their feedback turns out to be the single most important factor in eliciting feedback. It’s not known why, because there hasn’t been sufficient published research, but I hypothesize that it’s because this is the most indirect form of criticism.

Where’s the evidence for sketched feedback?

The evidence is unpublished and anecdotal. The problem with unpublished data is that you must be in the right place at the right time to get it, as I was during the UPA 2007 annual conference when Bill Buxton asked the room for a show of hands. Out of about 1000 attendees, several dozen said they had received more and better design-related feedback by asking users to sketch than by eliciting verbal feedback.

When you ask a user: “Tell me how to make this better,” they shrug. When you hand them a pen and paper and ask: “Sketch for me how to make this better,” users start sketching. They suddenly have lots of ideas.

My own experience agrees with this. In Perth, Australia, I took sketches from a Five Sketches™ design session to a customer site for feedback. I also brought blank paper and pens, and asked for sketches of better ideas.

Not surprisingly, the best approach is to combine all three techniques: show users several low-fidelity designs, and then ask them to sketch ways to make the designs better.

Are *five* sketches too many?

I first heard Bill Buxton talking about sketching in Texas, at the UPA 2007 annual conference. I was running around with a video camera asking people what they thought of Bill Buxton’s presentation. Everyone loved it, including his ideas on sketching and design. But almost everyone I spoke to also said Buxton’s requirement for five sketches was several sketches too many.

Buxton’s probably heard this objection a few times, because he addressed it at Mix09, last month in Nevada. He said:

Image derived from a screen capture of Mix09 videoI can hear your clients and your managers saying: “Well, Mr Buxton may have told you that you have to be able to do five different versions for every single question you’re asked—each one equally valid—but we can’t afford it because we’re already behind schedule. We don’t even have time to do one solution, and you’re telling me we have to do five?”

What are you going to say to them?

It’s a good question. Buxton also had an answer. “Doing multiples is critically important” because it’s how you saturate the design space with enough ideas to rapidly iterate to the best design solution. The challenge, says Buxton, is to balance “doing multiples” with the budget, with dollars, time, and personnel.

It comes down to technique.

Sketching is a fast, inexpensive, and therefore disposable way to capture ideas. And five really is key. In my experience, when I asked design participants for two or three sketches, they each brought “two”—actually versions of the same sketch where one had an extra squiggle or mark on the page. This is not how you saturate a design space. It has to be at least five—hence the name, Five Sketches™. The sketches have to be fast. They have to be low fidelity. The sketches have to be disposable.

Sketching is the right tool. You also need the right team, working at the right time. The right team has an understanding of generative design and knows that there’s a time to sketch, a time to iterate and analyse design ideas, and a time to code or program. (A team of three or four design participants can learn and practice everything but the programming in a half day.) In my experience, design participants—developers, QA staff, marketing staff, support staff—can sketch and produce great software and web designs as effectively as a graphic designer or industrial designer can.

Again: it comes down to technique. And since sketching is cheap, you can’t afford not to design.

Ideas are disposable

Having a good design idea is not an amazing event. Sketching worksPeople have good design ideas all the time. What is amazing is having lots of good design ideas, so that they can be combined and iterated into the best possible design.

Here’s why ideas are disposable:

  1. Sketching lets you capture lots of ideas, quickly and inexpensively.
  2. The more ideas you try for, the sooner you learn that it’s easy to come up with five or more ideas.
  3. The easier it gets to have lots of ideas, the sooner you realise the value of any one idea is minimal.

Minimal value = disposable.

This is one of the keys to the success of Five Sketches™. Once you learn how easy ideas are to have, you can saturate the design space, iterate the design, and produce excellent design outcomes at will.

Put the card in the slot

We know that human brains use patterns (or schemata) to figure out the world and decide what to do. This kind of cognitive activity takes place very quickly, which means we can react quickly to the world around us, as long as the pattern holds.

Here’s a pattern (or schema) that your brain may know: to put a card in a slot, use the narrow edge. If the card has a clipped corner, use that edge. Some examples:
This pattern is easy for your brain because of the physical cues—also known as affordance. The narrow edge + clipped corner say: “This side goes in.”

A pattern that’s harder for your brain to learn is the magnetic-stripe bank card. You have to think about which way the stripe goes. And it seems harder when you’re in a hurry, or when you feel less safe. Have you used an outdoor bank machine at night, with people hanging around?

Vancouver transit tickets are awful because they don’t follow the card-in-the-slot pattern correctly. As a passenger on the SkyTrain (overhead subway line), you must punch your ticket at the station entrance. The machines are placed so you must turn your back on the drug dealers and their customers who hang out in the subway. As with bank cards, these transit tickets fit four ways, but only one will punch the ticket, and it’s not the edge with the clipped corner. There’s a yellow arrow to assist, but while the arrow is clearly visible in daylight, it’s almost invisible in the yellow-tinged fluorescent lighting of most SkyTrain stations. Also, the yellow arrow must be face down, which is counterintuitive because then you cannot see it. In the photo (above, right), can you find the arrow on the ticket?

Did the designers consider how their ticket machines or bank cards would make passengers feelDesigning for emotion seems to have legs, these days, but it’s not a new idea.

Doing better. I wonder whether the designers of these systems (transit tickets, bank cards) considered all possible options. It’s a Five Sketches™ mantra: You get a better design when you first saturate the design space. This can include doing a competitor analysis to seek out other ideas. And there are other models for transit tickets. I’ve seen Paris subway tickets with the magnetic stripe in the middle, so passengers could insert the ticket face up or face down, frontwards or backwards. The more recent tag-on/tag-off technology used from London, UK, to Perth, WA, avoids the insert-your-card problem—though the overall experience may be worse, since failure to tag off means paying the highest possible fare.

As for bank cards, IBM’s designers must have modelled bank cards on credit cards, which had the magnetic stripe toward the top instead of in the middle. This doubles the customer’s chances of inserting the card incorrectly. An obvious question to have asked at the design stage: can we design a bank machine to read the card regardless of how it’s inserted?

Generative design vs. Five Sketches™

© Leah Buley, from her presentation on SlideShareLeah Buley talked about generative design at the South by Southwest Interactive conference, today. Buley feels design methods are lacking in the set of professional tools we use for software development: “We don’t have so many good, reliable, repeatable design techniques.” I agree with her.

Buley tells how, in her first design session at Adaptive Path, she was handed a pen and paper, and told to sketch. The point was “to crank out a lot of ideas in a short time.” That’s what generative design is all about: saturating the design space with ideas. Design programs teach generative design, but there’s no generative design taught in programs for developers, QA staff, technical communicators, product management, or marketing.

There are already several design methods for software development teams to choose from, including Buley’s wonderful grab bag. Others I know of are Five Sketches™ (obviously) and Design Studio, both of which focus on the complete process of producing a design, start to finish, with all its challenges. Microsoft’s Bill Buxton told the UPA 2007 conference that he insists on generative design, and I’d love to see that in action. Each method differs slightly, but they all work because….

Why do they all work? Because of generative design. Generative design addresses what Buley calls her “dirty secret.” She freely confesses, about her design work before Adaptive Path: “I had very little confidence that what I was presenting as the design was in fact the one, optimal solution to the problem.” My experience teaching Five Sketches™ tells me that once you’ve participated in a generative-design process, you’ll know that you can have that confidence.

Buley’s great presentation (slides with audio) is here. Have a look:

A tangential question: when will computer science programs teach Basic Design Methods?

Functional sophistication, not complexity

Some software companies add ever more features to their software as a way to differentiate it from its competitors. Lucinio Santos’ lengthy analysis of sophistication versus complexity includes this graphic:


An excellent example of simplification is the Microsoft Office ribbon. Many users who upgrade dislike the ribbon for months because of the sheer amount of GUI change it imposes, but the ribbon successfully simplifies and makes existing features more discoverable.

Incidentally, the Office ribbon was designed by a design team using generative design. I facilitated a ribbon-design project that used a team of developers Five Sketches™—a method that incorporates a generative design.