Thinking About Thinking (Part 3/3) — Practicing What You Preach

Now that we understand linear thinking, non-linear thinking, and how these concepts mesh, let’s take a look at how Elegant Solutions approaches a problem. You’ll notice that most of the techniques described here (insEYEte included) require us to combine linear and non-linear processes.

Wikipedia Surfing

Link surfing is as old as the web. The treasure trove of information that is Wikipedia is one of the most visited sites on the web. Therefore, it makes sense that users have found Wikipedia surfing to be such a compelling activity. With over 4.5 million articles, there are endless possibilities for moving from one topic to another. In the research and development phases, we find that this free flow between ideas is both stimulating and (if constrained by time) productive. Understanding a new technology or industry is an essential part of what we do. However, contextualizing this technology within the larger system is typically a challenge. We find that by delving into topics that are of tangential relevance to the main concept we are investigating, we further understand the values and social underpinnings of the main concept.

Of course, this is also a great way to blow a few hours seeing how long it takes to get from “internal combustion engine” to “storm-trooper commandos”. But when done right, it is a seamless and fun way to gain a new perspective.

Concept Mapping

Although we’ve already looked at concept-mapping, we’d like to dive a bit deeper into how Elegant Solutions utilizes it for product development. The first step to any developmental cycle is to research a client’s idea and decompose it into a main goal, define this goal’s significance, and then extract objectives and constraints. Once we’d finished researching a concept to the point where we could define a goal with the client, we would draw a concept map with this goal in the middle. We’d then start brainstorming objectives as bubbles off of this central concept. Based on these objectives, we would create lists of tasks to test each objective. To help us collect and share data, we would create Dropbox directories. Once we started using insEYEte, we were able to combine all of these steps into one streamlined process — a very useful tool indeed.

Talking to People

You cannot develop in a vacuum. Everyone knows this, but very few designers are able to effectively take their concepts into the real world because they are guilty of not talking to enough people. Along each step of the way, we are coming up with hypotheses and testing them. One of the most effective ways to test a hypothesis is to run it by users. Whether it’s sitting in a coffee shop and chatting up random patrons for a few minutes, or inviting testers for longer interviews and focus groups, talking to people is a great way to make unconventional connections and gain insights into what people really want. We like to create a set of questions that we would like our interviewees to answer, but we realize that the true benefit is the questions and suggestions these interviewees ask us in return.

Reading and Writing

This is probably the most important part of what we do. A common stereotype about engineers is that they are poor at both spoken and written communication. We’ve found this to be somewhat true, but no where near the extent to which those pesky liberal arts majors make us out to be. And as a counter point, engineers tend to look down upon the non-technical disciplines as a waste of time. Our experiences have shown us that this is just as false. Honing our communication skills is an important practice and activity, and we’ve found that writing about subjects that interest us helps us better understand the material. We also regularly follow industry sources and websites to make sure we are on top of our fields of interest. Setting aside a portion of each workday for these activities allows us to maintain a balance, while simultaneously improving our designs simply by giving us more source material to draw from.

Reflecting

After each contract is completed, we pause and look back on our process. Figuring out what worked, what failed, and what can be improved is a great way for us to make sure our process is ever-evolving. And a healthy dose of meta-cognition, i.e. going back and figuring out why we made the decisions we did, helps us become better, faster, and stronger with each successful project. Sure, this activity cuts into time we could be spending on sales or our own projects, but we deem it important enough to make it a part of our process.

Effectively practicing each of these techniques takes a combination of linear and non-linear thinking. Very rarely are we thinking in exclusively one way, and how we apply these tools is what makes us effective at product design. insEYEte was designed to complement each of these steps, and has been a tremendous asset in helping us save both time and resources in executing this workflow.

At our core is the desire to create and build something awesome, and we’re always finding new ways and tools to help us do this!