Be a cultivator of ideas because you are more likely to achieve design excellence when you include ideas from a diverse group of people.
One of the UX Designer‘s primary roles is to not generate all the ideas but to cultivate ideas from the various stakeholders in a project. Early on in my career, I thought I had to be the source of all the design ideas. As I matured, I learned that this was an incorrect assumption because great ideas come from everyone. Users are also a great source of ideas. But this article is primarily focused on discussing how to cultivate ideas from within your organization. Testing those ideas with users is crucial and it should always be part of your design process.
The goal of this article is for UX Designers to learn how to become better designers by cultivating ideas from the diverse people within their organizations.
The lone designer
Traditionally, we designers would disappear off on our own, look through our inspirations and ideas and then work all day and night to create the most beautiful design anyone has ever seen. At least that’s what we were hoping for. Unfortunately, usually, after all that work, at our grand reveal everyone in attendance picks apart our design. They point out everything we did wrong and what doesn’t “feel” right. Afterward, we feel frustrated, hurt, and confused as to why they don’t like our ideas. They don’t seem to trust us and let us designers do our jobs. After all, we don’t tell people how to code, how to do accounting, how to sell, etc. Why do they tell us how to do our jobs?
The reason for that is not understood by most designers. Our stakeholders seem to know something we don’t about the design process. What they inherently understand is this, designers are representatives of everyone’s vision of the product we are designing
As Robert Sutton points out in his Harvard Business Review article, Building an Innovation Factory, “The image of the lone genius inventing ideas from scratch is romantic and engaging, but it’s a dangerous fiction.”
When we go to build wireframes and/or hi-fidelity prototypes, we are visually creating the sum of everyone’s vision of the product. At least we should be doing that. Being a UX designer is a unique job. It requires a lot of trust and patience. We also must be comfortable with knowing that it’s never only about our personal vision. It’s when we design only for our own vision, that we experience pushback, frustration, and disappointment. By listening to the ideas of other people we will have more clarity on the purpose of our design and therefore more success.
Almost everyone has ideas about what the product should be
No single discipline or job role has all the answers. Therefore, know for certain that just because you are the Product or UX designer, you do not have all the answers. Nor does anyone else. Most of the products we design will impact many different people within the organization in one way or another.
If you talk to people from all over your organization you will quickly discover that almost everyone has ideas on how to improve your products and services. Including them in your design process will give you a large pool of ideas to draw from. This is the fundamental idea of what it means to be a cultivator of ideas. A survey conducted by Sideways 6 in 2018 with 1,000 employees around the world revealed that up to 82% of employees have ideas on ways to make their company better.
As you talk to the people around your organization you will see that people generally love sharing their ideas. The more you listen to them the more you will build trust. To do this well, you must always be curious to discover the ideas people have. Ask them their thoughts about specific things. Invite them to brainstorming sessions. Be a cultivator of ideas by seeking out to learn their ideas and including them in your design process. When you do this you will not only create better designs you will also establish yourself as a design leader in your company. Before you know it, people will start going to you more and more to share their ideas.
This is a photo of Snow falling at night that looks like a universe of stars. This is how I view ideas.
There’s an endless resource of ideas from those around us. We, the UX/Product designers, search, listen for and cultivate ideas from everyone. We provide the fertile environment that allows the best ideas to spring forth and transform our products.
Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden in their book, Lean UX, say “Diverse teams create better solutions because each problem is seen from many different points of view.”
Be A Cultivator Of Ideas by doing the following:
- Include stakeholders in brainstorming and design feedback sessions – When conducting brainstorming sessions include a variety of stakeholders from around the organization. A developer, a salesperson, a customer success person. Including more people will help the brainstorming session be even more fruitful and gain unique insights. Look for people outside of the design team to be a part of design feedback sessions. You will be surprised at the insight a lot of people have.
- Talk about the design often and casually with as many people as possible – Sit at lunch tables you don’t usually sit at and talk to people. Bring up the projects you’re working on and ask them for their thoughts. Maybe even ask them if you could set up meetings with them so you can show them a few things. Encourage them to invite some of their coworkers.
- Intentionally seek out ideas from people who are very different from you – This applies to any aspect. Of course seek out ideas from ethnicities, genders, ages, and abilities different from your own. But also, look for personality differences, introverts, and extroverts, bold and timid, funny and serious. I would even challenge you to include those you don’t easily get along with, and be relentless in including people you would otherwise not speak to. Force yourself to learn to listen to and include people you find difficult. Be humble in knowing that everyone has great ideas.
- Create a contact list of people who enjoy giving design feedback – As you talk to people you will discover that some people enjoy being a part of the design process more than others. I suggest you make a contact list of people who love giving feedback and reach out to them regularly to get ideas or quick feedback on designs. But don’t rely exclusively on them. Have your regulars but also regularly reach out to others to make sure you consistently get a nice variety of ideas.
The Results of Being A Cultivator of Ideas
When you become a cultivator of ideas you will discover that it will result in many unexpected positive outcomes. Here are some of the outcomes I have noticed in my career when I’m including others around my organization in my design process:
I end up sharing the burden of success and failure. When you include more people’s ideas the success and failure of the design no longer rest only on your shoulders. You end up sharing that burden and people are willing to share it if you let them. It also helps others have a deeper sense of pride and ownership over the solutions that are created.
I gained early buy-in and support from stakeholders. Stakeholders start to love and support your results from the beginning. You no longer have to hope and pray that they like it at your grand reveal. You will know all along the way whether they like it or not.
My design process become more inclusive. By including people from around your company your product or feature will by virtue be more inclusive. To truly have an inclusive design process and therefore inclusive results you must include a variety of people in your design process. Microsoft’s Inclusive Toolkit Manual states, “Inclusive design puts people in the center from the very start of the process. You need fresh, diverse perspectives to make it work.”
And best of all, I had designed a more excellent product overall. Your final outcome will be much better when it includes the ideas from many people than if you only rely on yourself. Just know for certain that you do not have all the good ideas. That you must go out and cultivate all the great ideas that the people from all over your organization have.
As product and UX designers we should view ourselves as people who build great things by cultivating ideas from everyone around us. We are tasked with articulating much more than our own vision. Instead, we are tasked with articulating the vision of all those around us.
We also gain a shared understanding of the problems and solutions. When you include a variety of people in your design process you create a shared understanding of the problems our products face and a shared understanding of the proposed solutions. You are no longer trying to carry all the weight of the design on your own. It’s a team effort.
Ultimately, success comes when everyone around us trusts us with their ideas. When people start going to you for their ideas because they know they will be heard, considered, and valued, know that you are a cultivator of ideas. You have become someone who is a design leader. And your organization will be on board and proud of your excellent product designs.
This article is based on a talk I did for The Big Design Conference titled Be A Cultivator Of Ideas.