The first step of the design process is always the most alluring. That beautiful blank canvas--a blue ocean of possibility and hope. "This is the project, this is where I truly make my mark," you think to yourself.

As you embark on a project, hundreds of ideas compete for your attention and eventual placement on that canvas. Rolling them over in your mind can be sweet and comforting, but you're just wasting time. Those hundreds of ideas are cheap. The value of design isn't in a single brilliant or rare idea, it's in the distillation and refinement of a good one.

We tend to safeguard ideas in our heads, away from prying eyes. But the faster you commit an idea to paper, the sooner you can explore or validate it and begin to refine it into something truly valuable.

Here's how to do it:

1. Always carry a sketchbook or notebook.

Sketching is the most universal way to get a complex idea out of your head and into the physical world. Don't worry if you're not an artist, or if you can't create perfectly organized diagrams on the fly.

Half of the challenge is overcoming the fear of criticism or commitment and putting your idea on paper. Once you have something down, there are dozens of cool mobile apps that can help take your ugly handwriting and convert it into a useful UX flow. Invision,  Framer, and Pop are among those easiest to use. 

I recently used PoP (Prototyping on Paper) for this purpose and am pleased to report the process is useful and easy. One of the many excuses designers use to defend not sharing their ideas is that "they're still too rough." With the ecosystem of simple WYSIWYG design apps, you're never more than a few clicks or the snap of a phone camera away from refining a rough idea.

2. Find real critics.

Share your newly presentable ideas with a mix of your design peers and other professionals. Getting their feedback, everything from early impressions to more granular tweaks, is an essential part of refining your idea.

Not all feedback is immediately valuable, but each piece of feedback should deliver some sort of insight that you, the author, can interpret and use. Don't settle for friendly suggestions--find real critics. We all know how easy it is to fall into an echo chamber of niceties and thumbs up, so go out of your way to share your idea with someone who you think is likely to trash it.

Lastly, don't write off non-designers' suggestions. Designers have a nasty habit of saying things like "he didn't like that font, but he doesn't know anything about typography." So what if your audience doesn't understand the intentionality at the core of some part of a design? If they fit into a category of people who might be use it, you have to hear them out.

Diversity of opinion is critical. Don't pass up the deep insight the world can offer when you make your idea available.

3. Overvalue your time.

Most failed projects suffer from some sort of fatal time management flaw: too much time spent on a particular step, not enough time spent on another one. There's no shortage of advice for how to better manage your design workflow.

Some advice comes in the form of unique project methodologies, like Agile, or going streamlined and developing only a minimally viable product. Though useful, these are too complicated to work universally. Here's a simpler rule: Overvalue your time.

Start giving a serious evaluation to the amount of time you spend at every step. In most cases, this will keep you moving slightly faster than you're comfortable with, which is a good thing.

Recently, my company was working with Statasys on a new print preparation software. We found ourselves in a lengthy debate about the purpose of a single checkbox next to a UI element. After several hours of going back and forth on options, we solved the problem with some simple internal user testing--the correct path became clear after a few initial untainted reactions.

The risk of rushing through a step too quickly is far less than the risk of stalling on a step indefinitely. But like all creative processes, it's about balance, and the more practice you have in placing a high value on your time, the better you'll get at it.

Published on: Jan 18, 2018
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