The World Series is barely over, which means most of my thoughts this time of year get colored by baseball. Events in game five got me thinking about design exploration, of all things. I'll try not stretch the metaphor too much.
I work throughout the year with product managers, technologists, and executives at companies ranging from small startups to Fortune 100 megaliths. Many of these companies have a vision for creating a game-changing product within their industry, “the iPhone of the xyz market.” They mean it, too. But as conversations progress and a project plan begins to take shape, many of the project owners start piling on technology constraints before any design work has even begun.
“We need to use these off-the-shelf components.”
“Don't explore any solutions that won't let us use our current technology platform.”
“Actually, what we really need is just a facelift of the presentation layer.”
Not exactly the words I imagine Steve Jobs used to drive the creation of the iPod and iPhone.
Sometimes this slow degradation of vision is a result of poor or conflicting communication...which brings me back to last night's baseball game. St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, already a two-time World Series winner and owner of the most wins by an active manager, had a vision for which pitchers he wanted to be warmed up in the late innings of a tight ballgame. He called the bullpen coach (using a land-line telephone in the dugout), and, amazingly, not once but twice, the bullpen coach misheard LaRussa's instructions and warmed up the wrong pitcher.
I don't know if that's happened before in a World Series game, but in the corporate world, we see the wrong product get sent into the game all the time. Executives have a vision for the future, but don't clearly articulate it to the product owners (other than specifying a deadline which is often arbitrary and not tied to actual work milestones), so what gets built isn't visionary at all but driven by the calendar...which means introducing lots of constraints from the beginning. The result may be an incrementally better product, but not a game changer.
We like the saying “reality bats last,” one of Alan Cooper's original design principles. For us that means for any design we create to actually be a solution, it needs to be buildable by our client. It has to live within their unique technology, price, deadline, and resource constraints. However, we have been pushing more and more for the opportunity with our clients to do at least some unfettered, unconstrained design exploration on every project, even ones that have a narrow scope. We don't completely ignore constraints (especially things like regulations which are out of our client's control), and we won't explore designs that rely on telekinesis or nuclear fission, of course. That said, we will definitely push the envelope on what's possible—for a few days or even up to a week—so we can begin with the mindset of the absolute best experience for the user. Over the course of the project we'll push to achieve as much of this game-changing vision as we can.
Allow some your design team to let their imaginations run wild before they get saddled with constraints. (photo by Peter Duyan)
Typically, the output of this design exploration is a collection of hand-drawn sketches that target key plot points in the most important scenarios, and signature interactions (parts of the system fundamental to the experience). The sketches often explore a range of ideas, some that can be implemented within all known constraints, but also others which may bend (or break) constraints. After that, it's really a business decision our clients need to make about how to proceed. Sometimes it makes sense to restructure deadlines, add resource, buy a technology, or abandon a legacy infrastructure to get that “killer app.” Other times it doesn't make sense...but as designers it's our job to imagine the future and enable business decision makers to make the most informed decision they can.
Which brings me back to baseball. You are the manager of your company: what's your strategy? Reality is a heavy hitter, but it shouldn't bat in every slot in your lineup. Can you really afford to play it safe every game? Even if your competition is miles behind, spending time to imagine a better future for your product will position your company to more nimbly take your offering to the next level when constraints go away.
And while you are at it, I would recommend upgrading those bullpen phones.