A Practical Guide to Capturing Creativity for UX

Beautiful Information

Discovering patterns in knowledge spaces

A column by Jonathan Follett
July 6, 2009

“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”—Linus Pauling

For UX professionals—and creative professionals in general—our ability to both stimulate creative thinking and capture it when it happens is a key aspect of our work process. Capturing creativity—that Aha! moment of inspired thought—is trickier than we’d like to admit. While some people might be able to be creative on demand, whether you’re a visual designer, interaction designer, information architect, or software developer, creativity is rarely something you can turn on and off as necessary. In fact, in my experience, creative moments often happen when you’re least ready to capture your ideas.

If you view creativity as the melding and molding of disparate ideas into something new, a relaxed mindset is usually a key ingredient. Some creatives run, swim, or take a walk to achieve that mindset. You can have a great idea just as you’re nodding off to sleep, in the instant when you wake up, or even standing in the shower.

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As UX professionals, we naturally spend much of our time in the digital world, either pushing pixels or preparing to do so. However, the craft of user experience is still evolving—the design of digital products and services, as we know it, is in its infancy. So, while we may be designing the future, we are constantly drawing upon existing methods from a variety of fields for guidance and to provide a framework for our UX process—whether from psychology, art, industrial design, or some other discipline. Methods of capturing creative thought and inspiration—like sketching, brainstorming, and guided exploratory research—are established creative techniques made new again in our digital age.

This column explores a few low-tech and high-tech methods of stimulating UX professionals’ creativity and capturing creativity when it happens. Codifying the creative process for the digital industry is difficult enough. It helps to have techniques that make our most elusive asset—our insights and inspiration—easier to manage.

Creativity as an Asset in UX

Creative thought is a most mysterious and elusive human talent, which can seem like maybe a bit of a miracle, even to people who rely on their imaginations and insights daily to earn a living. At the same time, creativity is an asset that we can and should harness, enhance, and refine. While creative thought may be fleeting and difficult to pin down, that does not mean it should be undisciplined or unstructured.

As UX professionals, our work requires us to straddle the worlds of technology and human behavior. One is rigid and systematic; the other, squishy and unpredictable. In the process of finding ways to solve the myriad problems of human-computer interaction, capturing creative solutions efficiently and effectively can be a challenge.

In traditional creative fields like writing, painting, and music composition, people have developed methods for harnessing that creative spark over many decades, if not centuries. But many UX professionals—tied as we are to the workaday practices of the corporate world—ignore this important and almost magical aspect of our professions. Unfortunately, we sometimes spend so much time and effort trying to fit our duties into workflows, processes, and production models—just one more step between cost estimating and manufacturing—we forget that our work, if it is to be great, needs something more, something that doesn’t fit into a few cells on a scheduling spreadsheet.

When the creative moment strikes, we need to be ready for it with ways to save, preserve, and ultimately use our invaluable ideas, notes, and sketches, so they can contribute to the success of great digital products. Such ideas don’t always come to us in the office environment. I find, generally, that there are far too many distractions in my own studio. In our over-stimulated modern world, with thousands of messages competing for our attention and bandwidth, it’s no wonder creative professionals require time away from their desks and computers to generate new ideas.

Low Tech Is Good Stuff

First, let’s explore some low-tech ways in which UX professionals can capture their creativity—using anything from Moleskine notebooks to sketchpads to waterproof paper.

The Power of Sketching

Sketching by hand can be a stimulating, but quick method of experimenting with new design ideas. While some might view sketching on paper as an unexpected technique in our digital world, it is currently experiencing a kind of revival in both software and Web application design. For some great documentation of this technique, read Bill Buxton’s book Sketching User Experiences. It serves as not only a useful resource on this topic, but also an inspiration for digital designers who want to try sketching, as well.

If you’re drawing a user interface design or sketching a screen flow, paper and pencil is still the cheapest, most portable method of capturing that creative spark—anytime and anywhere. For sketching, UX professionals might typically carry a notepad or loose sheets of paper with them, wherever they go.

Even if you aren’t a nomadic Web worker—living and working in a collection of coffee shops, on site at client offices, or split between a downtown workspace and your home office—it’s likely you’re in transit at least part of the day. When you’re on the move, for sheer convenience and ease of use, a notebook that is extremely popular with creatives is the Moleskine. Moleskine bills itself as “the legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers” and counts among its famous former adherents Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Ernest Hemingway.

The original Moleskine is a black book, 3.5 inches wide by 5.5 inches tall, with an elastic strap that holds it closed. It fits easily into a pants or jacket pocket or purse. For user interface designers or information architects, nothing beats the graph paper Moleskine notepad, shown in Figure 1. It’s great for recording the quick-and-dirty, barely legible first iteration of a site map or screen layout. For about $10, you can get one of these books. I have many of them lying around my office, tucked away in random places.

Figure 1—Moleskine graph paper notebook
Moleskine graph paper notebook

Writing Underwater

In dry conditions and environments, sketching is great, but if you like to think and create when you’re in the shower, swimming, or even hiking in inclement weather, you’re going to need a way to capture ideas when wet. High-tech tools are certainly not well suited to such circumstances and are subject to significant risk of damage. Similarly, a damp notepad or sketchbook is difficult to write on. So, while a Panasonic Toughbook could probably resist just about any amount of abuse, a good choice for significantly less money is the waterproof Rite in the Rain All-Weather Notebook, shown in Figure 2, which was created for the construction and building trades.

The paper in the Rite in the Rain Notebook has a special coating that makes water run right off. The company recommends a special all-weather pen for writing on their water-resistant paper. This pen functions in extreme heat and cold. So, no matter your environment, you’ll be able to capture your brilliant ideas.

Figure 2—Rite in the Rain All-Weather Notebook
Rite in the Rain Notebook

High-Tech Helpers

Now, let’s look at some high-tech tools that can help you capture your creativity—from voice recording using a digital recorder or Google Voice to Keynote to digital video recording.

Converting Paper to Digital Format

Capturing an idea is not really complete until you have your idea in a format to which you can easily refer—that is, a format that lets you work with it on your computer. One downside to recording your ideas in notebooks is that you have to find a way to catalog them. Bridging the gap between paper sketches and the digital workflows most UX professionals create can be difficult and tedious. Scanning paper documents to PDF is still the best solution for this problem. Once you’ve scanned your sketches, you can import them into Photoshop or OmniGraffle. However, until handwriting recognition makes advances similar to those Optical Character Recognition (OCR) has already achieved for printed text, you may need to retype your handwritten notes to get them into a useful digital format.

Voice Recording

Besides sketching on paper, another way in which creatives play with ideas is by talking about them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I’d recorded a particularly good conversation I’ve had on the phone, at lunch, or at a bar.

To capture your thoughts by recording your voice, you can use the digital equivalent of the reporter’s old-style tape recorder. There are small, relatively inexpensive MP3 recording devices, which you can carry in your pocket or purse and use for dictation. For example, the Sony ICDSX68DR9 Digital Voice Recorder, shown in Figure 3, has a list price of about $200, but you can find it for far less.

Figure 3—Sony Digital Voice Recorder
Sony Digital Voice Recorder

However, if you don’t want to buy yet another gadget, there are cheaper alternatives. A number of companies have released dictaphone-style voice recording applications for the iPhone, Blackberry, and other smartphones that let you record memos on the go, then sync them to your computer. Perhaps the cheapest method of all is to simply leave yourself a voicemail message, then play it back at your leisure. Some VoIP services like Vonage send audio files of voicemails to you as email attachments, making storage and retrieval much more convenient.

If you have a free Google Voice account, you can experiment with its transcription feature. In my own experience, calling from a cell phone to leave a detailed audio note on Google Voice didn’t result in useful material, mostly because its transcription feature was unable to understand certain parts of the message.

For example, I left myself this message:

“Hi. This is a test to see if Google Voice can transcribe a long message. This is a test for the UXmatters column I’m writing to see if Google Voice can be used to capture creative ideas. Thanks. Bye.”

As interpreted by Google Voice, my message became this:

“Hi nick this is a test to see if google voicemail transcribes it long message this is a test for the you X matters calling i’m writing to see if google voice convenience to capture creative ideas thanks bye.”

Figure 4 shows a screen shot of Google Voice.

Figure 4—Google Voice
Google Voice

Sparking Creativity

Creativity, of course, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It requires inspiration and research to effectively harness your imagination.

Aside from any industry-specific research you may conduct or potential user groups you may interview and observe to understand a particular problem, UX professionals often require other creative stimuli as inspiration for designing digital products. Such stimuli may be completely separate from the project at hand—for example, artwork, movies, architecture, and books. When starting new projects, I like to collect a clippings file of designs, layouts, colors, and typography that I think are useful for reference purposes.

When cataloging these kinds of resources, I find that Keynote—a Mac software product for presentation design that is a PowerPoint competitor—can serve as a great tool for capturing digital reference material.

Even though the expressed purpose of Keynote is creating slide show presentations, its most powerful feature, in my opinion, is the ability it gives you to drag and drop images directly from your Web browser onto a slide. Indeed, you can drag almost any media file or document that might lend creative insight into Keynote—including images in most formats, video, audio, PDFs—even Photoshop files. Once they’re in Keynote, it’s easy enough to sort and annotate them as necessary, then export the inspiration book to PDF to share it with your team. Figure 5 shows an example of how I’ve used Keynote to capture inspirations.

Figure 5—Keynote with some font inspirations
Keynote with font inspirations

Of course, for capturing inspiration when you’re on the move, nothing beats carrying a small digital camera—or better yet, a Flip digital video recorder like that shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6—Flip digital video camera
Flip digital video camera

As creative professionals practicing in the diverse fields that make up user experience, we’re bombarded with input from so many sources—users, technologists, business people—and we’ve developed well-documented, codified techniques for dealing with all of it. This data provides a fine starting point for stimulating the engineering side of our craft, but for the artistic, aesthetic, and humanistic elements of user experience, we may want to seek other inspirations.

To sort through and use all of this information—to mold it, and ultimately, to devise creative solutions that become compelling digital products and services—we must harness our creative thinking. As we get better at capturing our thinking, whether it be through sketching, audio recording, digital photography, or video, we’ll be better able to develop and advance the craft of user experience. 

Principal at GoInvo

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Jonathan FollettAt GoInvo, a healthcare design and innovation firm, Jon leads the company’s emerging technologies practice, working with clients such as Partners HealthCare, the Personal Genome Project, and Walgreens. Articles in The Atlantic, Forbes, The Huffington Post, and WIRED have featured his work. Jon has written or contributed to half a dozen non-fiction books on design, technology, and popular culture. He was the editor for O’Reilly Media’s Designing for Emerging Technologies, which came out in 2014. One of the first UX books of its kind, the work offers a glimpse into what future interactions and user experiences may be for rapidly developing technologies such as genomics, nano printers, or workforce robotics. Jon’s articles on UX and information design have been translated into Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese. Jon has also coauthored a series of alt-culture books on UFOs and millennial madness and coauthored a science-fiction novel for young readers with New York Times bestselling author Matthew Holm, Marvin and the Moths, which Scholastic published in 2016. Jon holds a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising, with an English Minor, from Boston University.  Read More

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