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Members' activity alpha: the design part

This is part two of the people team’s recent alpha on members' activity. I'm a designer and I want to share how to turn research findings into real, tangible ideas.

Many people have written about why coming up with ideas collaboratively is a good thing. However, the way to do it isn’t one size fits all. All teams are different, and have different goals, people, and pressures. For example, our goal during alpha isn’t to test the usability of a thing. It’s to learn more about what broad approaches could help our users.

Magpie-like, I’ve stolen bits of this from many other places. Some of this is par for the course, and some bits go against conventional wisdom. It seems to have been working for what we need, so hopefully there’s something here you can steal too.

Getting from research to challenge

A line of post-its shows ideas being plotted from small to big
Plotting ideas from small to big

At this point, the team should know the last round of research inside out. We’ll have prioritised the findings and insights which emerged. However, the most potent trigger for ideas is a challenge.

So the first thing we do is turn the top two or three insights into challenges. Any more than three is definitely too much for a team to handle in a day, and the ideas will suffer. The only hard rule is no laptops. Be prepared to spend about an hour per insight.

To do this Marttiina Gilchrist, our user researcher, reminded us of the top insight and where it comes from. After checking everyone understands it, we’ll take five minutes to individually write challenges for it. These start with ‘how might we’ and we do one per post-it note. Usually each person will write between two and five, but more or less is completely fine.

A challenge that’s the right size makes the next bit much easier. For this reason we lay them out from big (blue sky) to small (green grass). They get plotted on a line as each person comes up in turn and reads their challenges to everyone.

Usually the rest of the team will help plot these (deciding whether it’s a bigger or smaller challenge). It can be done fairly loosely, as it’s just a tool to help the team pick an appropriate challenge. Duplicates are then grouped together.

We then use dot stickers to vote on which challenge we think we should tackle as a team. If there’s a tie, we discuss it until we agree on a single challenge. Consensus usually emerges quickly.

For example, from the insight:

People want to know what is important to the MP in terms of interests and issues, because it helps them to understand the MP as a person and check whether what they say they care about matches what they do

We came up with the challenge:

How might we show the relationship between what MPs say they do and what they actually do in Parliament

From the challenge to the idea

Coming up with ideas is usually the part of the day when people are pushed furthest out of their comfort zone. I’ve evolved a way of running it which is more about supporting each other than competitiveness, to reduce the risk of people feeling uncomfortable.

Some common stumbling blocks I’ve encountered:

  • paralysis: having trouble getting started generating ideas and sketching
  • scoping: ending up with ideas which are too small or too big for the team to effectively learn from
  • sharing: reluctance to share your ideas and the thought process

The rest of the day is engineered to overcome these stumbling blocks. For each challenge we do the following:

  • warm up
  • idea generation
  • idea development
  • sharing
  • heat mapping

It should take about an hour and a half per challenge.

Warm up

Shows the result of a colleague drawing another by only looking at their face
Getting people using their hands

It’s hard to jump straight to coming up with ideas, so this bit is important. Its purpose is to get everyone used to *doing* rather than *over-thinking*.

The team's clay sculptures of their team members
The team's masterpieces

One method that’s worked well for us is to break into pairs and draw your partner without looking at your piece of paper, in 30 seconds. Another time we sculpted each other in three minutes. The best approach is to get people using their hands, with some kind of time pressure, and a little time at the end for admiring each other’s masterpieces.

Idea generation

The team writing down their ideas
Doing the crazy 8 challenge

Now that everyone’s a bit more relaxed, we recap on the challenge we’re tackling. Then we do one round of 'Crazy 8' about that challenge. This is a fairly well known technique where everyone comes up with eight ideas in five minutes individually, in silence.

It works because the time pressure stops people over-thinking their work and getting wrapped up in one approach. Any technique which values quantity more than quality would be perfect at this point.

Idea development

And relax. At this point, we regroup into the pairs from the warm up. Each pair shares their crazy 8s with each other, and is then tasked with coming up with one idea to tackle the challenge.

There’ll be obvious common ground from the crazy 8s to start with, but more often than not the discussion between pairs will lead to some new ideas.

One concern I had with paired design was that it’d make the ideas more conservative, but luckily I’ve found the opposite to be true. It was inspired by pair programming, and the pleasure of tackling a problem together through discussion. This bit is all about building on each others ideas.

Sharing and prioritisation

The team discussing their ideas
The team sharing ideas

Each pair will then share their idea. This is the time as a facilitator to ask lots of questions (and encourage everyone else to do so too), to uncover people's thought process, intentions, and origins of their ideas.

Once each pair has shared, we pin the ideas to the wall and heatmap them. This is sort of like dot voting, but everyone has as many dots as they want, and puts the dots next to specific bits of the idea that they like. The purpose of this is to give me an idea of the things that the team collectively believe will help our users achieve their goals.

What now?

The team in a room of post-its on the wall
The team at the end of the process

After the day wrapped up, I worked with Marttiina to come up with a testing plan, using the challenges and ideas as the foundation. When mocking up journeys from the team’s ideas, it’s really important to resist the designer’s urge here to ‘perfect’ them.

It’s something I’ve fallen into in the past, but it just means you learn less when you put them in front of people, and the team are less engaged in the next round as less of their idea is in the mix.

Just remember: this process is about learning, not finessing.

Coming up with and running these days has been one of the most rewarding bits about being a designer at Parliament. Getting everyone involved, especially those who don’t necessarily think of themselves as creative, is great fun. And ultimately it leads to more diverse, better ideas, which means better experiences for users.

Read more about the work we're doing to improve

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