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February 13, 2015

Want to Design Cooler Stuff? Make Collaborative Concepting a Habit.


“I hope you think everything I’m going to tell you is painfully obvious,” read one of Bill Welense’s first slides at the Feb. 9, 2015 Chicago Interactive Design & Development meeting. “The world would be a better place—and we could all ride unicorns into the rainbow sunset.”

Welense, Experience Design Lead at Isobar, knows there’s nothing obvious about unlocking group creativity. It only looks that way afterward.

He called his presentation Design Concepting: Habits for Collaborative Ideation, but it was much simpler than the title sounds. Essentially, it was about basic techniques and tools we can all use to come up with cooler ideas.

WTF is Conceptual Design?

Welense, also on the adjunct faculty at DePaul University, said “conceptual design” may sound hippy-dippy, but it’s actually “an effective way to collaborate, that bridges knowledge gaps and creates new insights.”

But—as his slide title asked—WTF is conceptual design?

He stressed that concepting is a team sport that needs to fit into your daily workflow—not just a way to pull ideas out of your own head, but a habitual practice that helps teammates “develop a sixth sense ability to sync up together and improve on each other’s ideas.”

And even though his job involves designing advanced processes for the US Air Force, his methods are amazingly simple and low-tech.

Walls, Stories and Notebook Paper

“Sticking sketches to a wall lets you point out ideas in a physical form,” said Welense, describing one of his favorite techniques, the project wall. “You can create a story out of a few sentences, and sort items according to what goes together.”

Some more easy, effective techniques:

  • Collages, moodboards and style tiles. The online equivalent of the project wall—grab stuff from anywhere and throw it together. Welense likes to use Pinterest.
  • Storyboards. Draw them up crude and quick on notebook paper to explain complex processes to developers—and clients. “The client sees it the way you see it as an outsider.”
  • Paper prototypes. Ever try to describe a multi-step interaction in an email? Welense likes to scribble steps on notebook paper and slide them through a frame taped to a desk. Shoot a short video and—voila!—instant demo.
  • Persona stories. Unlike the personas marketing teams commonly create to describe their target audiences, Welense likes to write complete narratives about how users will engage with the processes he creates.
  • Conceptual briefs. Like a slide deck of all of the above—perfect for sharing with clients, so they can share with whomever they need to.

5 Problems Solved by Habitual Concepting

Welense wrapped up his presentation by discussing five problems faced by almost every organization—and ways to overcome them by making conceptual design a habit:

  1. Jumping to Conclusions. Avoid the obvious answers by collaborating “fast, often and visually.”
  2. Experts. Marginalize those who already have all the answers by creating a culture of debate, and “GTFO of the office.”
  3. Silos. Schedule regular sync-ups with members of different teams, and make sure each meeting has an agenda.
  4. Uncertainty. Build bare-bones prototypes and enlist testers from outside your organization—Welense suggested finding them through TaskRabbit.
  5. Inappropriate Communication. “Email is the worst protocol for communications ever,” Welense said, “and it’s not going away.” He prefers video chats and, especially, screen sharing. “I don’t know how I ever worked without it!”

Check out Bill’s presentation below:

You can also view the entire presentation on YouTube here.

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