model man from Create 2009Earlier this month I opened CREATE 2009, a forum for academics and practitioners to share creative and innovative ideas for human computer interaction (HCI).

The conference’s theme was ‘Creative inventions and innovations for everyday HCI’ so to start things off I outlined my four step approach to help designers find more creative solutions to their problems

I have been interested in creativity since I was an academic at Loughborough in the seventies and even carried out some experiments on how to stimulate creativity.

At that time, HCI was focused on computers as business and technical tools, and major emphasis was placed on the efficiency and effectiveness of the interface and resulting interaction. Then, as now, the traditional computer industry had a rather narrow view of design and creativity.

My experiments suggested four steps which could help designers break out of their set views of the problem and potential solution.

Step 1. Research, research, research.

Although many people identify a ‘eureka’ moment when they make the conceptual breakthrough, it has to be based on solid groundwork and a detailed understanding of the problem.  Luck helps but in the words of the golfer Gary Player:

the more I practise, the luckier I get.

Step 2. Identify constraints and show stoppers.

How often have you been told to ‘think outside the box’? I don’t know about you but I find that very hard to do. It’s as helpful as saying, ‘now come up with a great idea’. So my approach involves ‘knowing the box’.

Identify all the constraints and limits you can. In most organisations you will have lots of people to help you with this, especially senior management. A day or so before the conference, the stock market jumped with the news that fifty four year-old Steve Jobs was back at Apple after illness. Although many senior managers are grey haired men, they are not all like Steve Jobs. Many of them suffer from an aging male disorder known as ‘hardening of the categories’. They will enjoy telling you in detail how it can’t be done.

Step 3. Pretend you have super powers.

This is the clever bit.

Now look at the constraints and pretend you could reverse or ignore them. There is an old management training warm-up trick of asking people how many things you can do with a brick. People vary in their creativity from the relatively obvious ideas (like holding up bookshelves) to the less obvious (grinding them down to make an abrasive paste).

Most people run out after about 30. But if you ask the question ‘what can’t you do with a brick?’ it’s also hard to come up with more than about 30 ideas, presumably leaving an almost infinite number of open possibilities.

What I found in my simple experiments was that deliberately breaking constraints sometimes revealed that the designers had assumed too much and that new possibilities suddenly opened up.

Step 4. Evaluate but not too early. 

Once you have started to explore new ideas, do not evaluate them too early. Another well known disorder of aging males is ‘premature evaluation’ and many people will be delighted to say ‘It won’t work’ or ‘we tried that before’. The danger is that such negativity crushes the great idea that is emerging.

Of course, running a user experience consultancy, I believe in evaluation, especially with users and even at quite early stages in design. But sometimes it helps to take the ‘crazy idea’ a bit further before exposing it to the harsh light of reality.

Sadly I never got very far with my research and never published it before I left academia. But I do use the approach and I do cringe every time I hear the exhortation ‘think outside the box’.