The creative process and UX

Added on by Mircea Botez.

This is part II of Switching gears and locking paths.  

Sometimes when figuring out solutions we go from A to D instinctively. The mental cookie you get from leapfrogging a few steps is an incredible drug. It's seductive, gives off an air of mystique; you pace along for 5 minutes and come down from the mountain with a solution. 

I did it in the past. It's a lottery. The team will never know whether it will take you 5 minutes or 30 to come up with the next solution. Skeptics (i.e. developers) will demand an explanation and the B and C points of the path. You need to convince your stakeholders and your team that D is where you need to go to but cannot quite articulate why. In the past I've used charisma, persuasion and authority to get over this. The solution is so obvious to you that you roll your eyes when your team/client/users dispute your suggestion. However, "Trust me, I'm a designer" can only go so far. 

People label "creatives" and keep them at a distance. Never anger them or they will attack with their arsenal of pencils. Clients use this as an excuse to never get involved in the process and hope that "creatives" will surprise them pleasantly. Some "creatives" use this to build an ivory tower around them. They feed the mystique because they are afraid they will lose their jobs once people find out how they do what they do. And so they gamble designs and jobs and then justify losing a customer with "they just had no taste, they couldn't appreciate my work". 

In the end both sides lose. I have a few theories why this happens. I reckon putting all of this together in a documented manner might fill a book or two. I'll take a shot at it. I think the biggest factor is education: minimisation of arts in classes. People are not aware that drawing is a language and a skill you can learn. Here is the truth about any creative pursuit:

Success is always commitment and hard work. Talent is just a shortcut. 

That is rather unpleasant to hear. People are more comfortable to say "I just don't have the talent" than "If I invest several hundred hours I might get to that level". 

"I know these are bad... " you say when you're showing your photos : create an account on Flickr. Go every weekend and browse the Explore tab for 2 to 4 hours. Favourite the ones you like. Do that for up to 40 hours or about 2-3 months. Note that I didn't ask you to take photos for 3 months. I only asked you to look at pretty pictures every other lazy Sunday for a few hours. After those 2-3 months, go take some photos. As if through a feat of magic, your compositions will have improved. People think learning photography is about wielding a DSLR and slaving over technicalities. In reality, it's about grabbing your cellphone or setting the DSLR on auto and learning to "see". Paying attention to details. Taking a step back. Ignore details and focus on an interesting subject. 

"I can't draw".  Take a look at the following images: 

Does the cylinder on the left look like something you'd draw?

Does the cylinder on the left look like something you'd draw?

These couldn't have been made by the same person, right? I mean, it's not like someone took 3 years and dedicated himself to learning to draw from scratch? Go ahead, take a look at his progress shots. But that's some guy from the internet, right? Let me put my money where my mouth is:

Left: 7 days after starting; Right: done at lunch 

Left: first color sketch in Photoshop. Right: 8 months later

I'm nowhere near where the guy above is, but seeing his progress has helped and inspired me (and others, no doubt) so much. 

In "The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses" Jesse Schell makes the distinction between the minor and the major gift:

"The minor gift is the innate gift.[...] game design, mathematics or playing the piano comes naturally to you. You can do it easily, almost without thinking. But you don't necessarily enjoy doing it. [...]

The major gift is love of the work.[...] How can love of using a skill be more important than the skill itself? If you have the major gift you will design using whatever limited skills you have. And you will keep doing it. And your love for the work will shine through, infusing your work with an indescribable glow that only comes from the love of doing it.  And through practice your skills will grow and become more powerful until eventually your skills will be as great or greater than those of someone who only has the minor gift. And people will say: "Wow. that is one truly gifted person" They will think you have the minor gift, of course, but only you will know the secret source of your skill, which is the major gift: love of the work."

There is only one way to find out if you have the major gift. Start down the path, and see if it makes your heart sing."

People look at my drawings and say "Wow, you're talented". They didn't have any chance to discover that one year before as none of my drawings existed then. That has been my path, tackled bit by bit every day. 

I've become convinced that there is a process to creativity. If we can describe quantum mechanics, surely creativity cannot be more complicated than that. Now, I'm not a cognitive scientist; I've certainly not studied enough on the subject to begin to approach defining this process. All I have are floating bits and pieces. 

An order of magnitude easier is to define a narrower scope. And this is where I want to bridge User Experience design with process. Thankfully I've matured past my youthful rebellion against paperwork and structure to recognise the benefits of a process oriented thinking. 

A clean, concise process explained to teams, customers, bosses helps ease people into collaboration and understanding. It also brings you, the creator, back on the path of creative flow. Listen to yourself and find out your process. This will bring you back on track when you think the "muse" has left you. If you listen carefully, you will also find out why it "left". 

Sharing this process will ease everyone around you. They will understand that it takes several tries and failed attempts and that it is normal. They will learn the need to explore a domain of solutions and not try to find only one "correct" answer. Clients will know that you require input from them and they'll prepare to be part of the process. 

The disconnect in people's heads when faced with a design-related activity is avoidable. You remove the lottery. Take out the guesswork. Dispel the mystique. Teach people the major gift and share your love of the craft. Don't hide behind the minor gift. 

You will discover newfound trust among people around you. And be recognised as a professional.