At work, I keep hammering on to people about how design is an iterative process. How it’s not something that you do once at the start of a project and then never touch again. Mostly my colleagues seem to get that and run with it, but occasionally I get farmed out to elsewhere in the company, where I find stark reminders of how much progress the team I usually work with have made.
The big eye-opener is to work with people who’ve never had the opportunity to learn about good design or how to shape a user experience. Going right back to the basics like that reminds you of a few of your core ideas, and forces you to find new ways of expressing them. On my most recent such excursion, I became a lot clearer about an idea I already knew and understood:
Good design is as much about the bad ideas as the good ones.
Bad ideas happen. There’s no way around that. They happen, and they chew up time and resources before they either finally get identified and cut away, or they get munged around until they’re workable. In the really bad cases, they linger for a long time and chew up all that’s good about a project, leaving only an enthusiasm-free husk.
I’ve generally found that the bad ideas that hang around the longest are the ones that come out latest in the project… the ones that looked good when somebody suggested them at the 11th hour, and which grabbed all the remaining free time. The ones that became somebody’s pet idea, which they couldn’t let die because they’d invested too much time already. The “fixer-upper-opportunity” style time-and-money sinks that just seem worse every time you look at them, but that you can’t step away from because you don’t have the resources to start again.
It’s those ideas that are why I’m a big fan of collaborative, rapidly-iterating design processes early in a project. To find the bad ideas, and to find them early.
The early stages of design are often referred to as “exploration”, and that’s an extremely appropriate word. Exploration isn’t just about finding your way somewhere or finding the things you want… it’s also about finding and avoiding the pit traps, blind alleys and quicksand. It’s not just finding the destination, but about avoiding the hazards whilst doing so.
Good design isn’t just about making sure you build a perfect picnic bench. It’s also about making sure you don’t build it on an ant colony, next to a sewage plant or halfway down a firing range.
So, folks, make sure you spend enough time identifying bad ideas… just so you know where they live and you can avoid straying too close to them by accident.