Managing Design Innovation

with Matthew Beebe

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Define Project

Coming up with the right questions

Matthew Beebe

Design & Idea Expert, User Experience, Human-Centered Design

Lessons Learned

The first step to effective brainstorming is to define your project.

Effective project managers understand who consumes on what timeline for which ideal outcome.

Brainstorming is not a linear process. Your project will evolve on all fronts all of the time.


Lesson: Managing Design Innovation with Matthew Beebe

Step #5 Define Project: Coming up with the right questions

Basically, I think of there being projects and projects need to have brainstorms. At least the projects that I do, you need to come up with a bunch of ideas. First piece of pre-work is defining the project. I think so many projects that I've seen both at IDO and after, nobody can tell you what the point of the project is with any detail. An even bigger problem is different stake-holders in the project have different project definitions in their head and so the first piece of pre-work is be clear on the objectives of the project, time frames, goals, and deliverables.

So you need to know for instance, who is the primary consumer of the deliverable and what are they going to need to do with this outcome. How long do we have to do this project? Nobody goes into a project without some idea of what the outcomes are that they want. For instance, with that Salad Packaging Project, they knew a bunch of things like the thing had to be shelf-stable for a certain amount of time and had to have this manufacturer ability requirement. So there's all these requirements at the beginning of the project.

Part of the point of a project like this is to discover all the requirements, all the other requirements, but you have something going in, so you need to put those down in the beginning. There's a worksheet for that, it's called Project Definition Worksheet, capturing all the defining topics of the project.

Next piece of pre-work, at least in a human-centered design project, is to define the research. Inevitably, you don't know everything you want to know or would like to know to move forward with the project when you start the project. There's some things you need to go learn and probably you're not going to get to learn everything you want to learn. The point of the Project Definition Worksheet is to outline all the different things that you would like to go learn so that you have a starting point or a framework to say these are the highest value learning opportunities for our team.

We're not going to be able to go learn those things, but let's focus on these things. Then you go out and learn and you come back and you have all this new data, lots of new information, but it's not really actionable yet, so the next piece of pre-work is called, in the worksheets, The Design Analysis Worksheet. Now, we're going to try and take all this stuff that we just learned, this raw data and, first of all, understand which pieces of data we just learned are really valuable to our project, and how are they valuable?

Inevitably, at least half of what you learn during the research phase is not really that important to your project. It might be very interesting in some generic sense, but it's only useful, at least I think, it's really only useful if it's potentially inspirational information to help you come up with new ideas. The whole point of these projects is to come up with new stuff. There could be stuff that is interesting from a human interest perspective, but not useful for the purposes of the project.

It's best to focus on the stuff that's most useful. So the first thing is how do we filter out the stuff that we don't really need? And the stuff that we think we need, how do we understand it in a way that helps us move forward, make it actionable basically. That's what the Design Analysis Worksheet does. Now, if you fill out the Design Analysis Worksheet, you end up with a bunch of brainstorm topics and now you can put those up on the wall and say we've identified.

I mean it's easy in a not very big project to have 50 potential brainstorm topics, and you're never going to be able to ask all of those questions to a team. Usually you can't. Basically the next decision is which of these things should we brainstorm. It's really easy to walk into a room now and say I have this unique understanding of these five problems, let's say, and these are experiences that we're trying to fix.

I now have Raw Observation Data to show the problem, like the dressing stuck to the lid. I can show you what that problem is. You can now have empathy for the problem and I've identified three high-level questions to help us come up with some answers and now you guys can help me come up with a bunch of ideas. My experience is, most brainstorms, you walk in and say, "hey, we need new ideas! Who's got some?" and most people can't respond meaningfully to that question because it's too abstract. The point of the worksheets is to bring concrete evidence of real problems into the room. This way even somebody who hasn't been involved in the project can get some level of empathy for the thing you're trying to solve.

The beginning of a project, typically there's a bunch of conversations, whether it's all the different stake-holders, so it might with a consulting arrangement, where here's a bunch of the client stake-holders or there's engineering, product marketing, and QA's going to be involved in the project. There's all the different people involved in defining what the project is.

There's all these conversations, people throw out ideas about what the project should be. I think it's very hard to have the discipline to capture that conversation so that's it's usable. A lot of times there will be meeting notes that go out and they're going to be buried in someone's inbox. What you need is to be able to recall all that stuff when you need it.

The other thing that's difficult is the project definition inevitably changes. You need to have this stuff randomly accessible throughout the process. It's not a linear process. It is convenient to understand it as a linear process or to communicate it as a linear process because each of the decisions is a platform for the next decision.

Inevitably you're half way through the project and you realize you're missing some important defining topics or you're at the beginning of the project and you already have ideas for the things you want to go make. It's all totally permissible and normal and to be encouraged. You need a way to capture all of this stuff, meeting notes don't cut it because meeting notes are like a moment in time. The project evolves on all fronts as you move forward. The point of the Project Definition Worksheet is to have this living document of the goal of the project.

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