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Harnessing visual processing to think in vibrant technicolour

Harnessing visual processing to think in vibrant technicolour

There is a well–worn joke in rugby refereeing circles.

Frustrated player: “Ref, can you get sent off for thinking?”

Referee: “No, you can think what you like.”

Frustrated player: “Well I think you’re a ******!”

There is unimaginable power in critical thinking. More than any other single activity, the endeavour of thinking is the most important thing a designer will do.

Thinking. Processing. Contemplating. Deliberating. Cogitating. Reflecting. Determining. Decision–making.

Ultimately we garner inputs, then we think, then we produce outputs and outcomes.

The very best designers are distinguished from merely good designers by their ability to do the piece in the middle. And while some people naturally think more clearly than others, a considered reflection of how our brains work allows everyone to better connect inputs to appropriate outputs and outcomes through effective critical thinking.

Thinking in the context of design takes three main forms – remembering, collaborating and processing.  Across each form, we can get more from our brains to help them better retain information, cooperate with peers and make better decisions by being more deliberate about environment, media and format.

Get these right and we give ourselves the best chance of thinking in vibrant technicolours.

Remembering (ensuring that the designer considers everything which is relevant)

Edgar Dale was a Professor at Ohio State University, who had an interest in how his students remembered and engaged with the content he was lecturing.  He developed a model for his findings called The Cone of Experience, which explored how his students responded to hearing, reading, observing and participating with content.

His work was further expanded by Raymond Wiman and Wesley Meierhenry, who focused on putting metrics around his original observations.  Here are the recall rates for a lecture after three days:

Spoken – the student listens to the professor – 10%

Written – the student has read class notes and recommended texts – 10%

Visual – the student has observed relevant drawing and illustrations – 65%

Participatory – the student has explored case studies and conducted role play – 70%

Visual communication and participatory communications are better than spoken and written by a factor of seven.

Collaborating (ensuring the design team embrace the skills of all relevant parties)

Project teams are busy. Across disciplines such as project management, business analysis, sales, design, research, programming and production, individuals are accountable to a broad range of people who have different priorities and expectations.  One stakeholder might want a spreadsheet showing project margin, another might want an impactful visual document detailing brand guidelines, yet another will want a code library to assist with the implementation of a design pattern library.

In this occasionally chaotic environment, it can be very challenging to retain focus on the kernel of the problem being solved, and ensure solutions don’t deviate from it.  An affinity map provides a dynamic, lo–fidelity, inexpensive means by which a team of people can record everything which is relevant to the problem being solved.

As a visual artefact, it gets immediate and unfettered access to the centre of the brain, in fact 60,000 times faster than the equivalent information being represented as the written word. What’s more, contributing to the diagram with new insight or relevant observations is quicker than emailing, adding more slides to a deck or producing yet another one–page summary document for a project team.

At a human level, such tools also provide the project team with focus (only relevant information can go on the board), bonding (it is visible evidence of team effort) and decision–making (it provides the foundation for discussions around prioritisation and trade–offs).

Processing (make the best decisions available based on what is known)

All decision–making is flawed. There is no such thing as the right solution. There are only good solutions and better solutions.  When we take a deliberate approach to decision–making we are identifying the things which get in the way of designing better solutions and putting processes, culture and tools in place which give us the best chance of overcoming those things.

What I hear, I forget;
What I see, I remember;
What I do, I understand.
(Attributed to Confucius)

UX professionals rightly get teased for not being able to do anything without a whitewall, a box of stickies and sharpies. While we should never get married to any individual tool or approach, there is sound logic behind the power of these tools to help us all think better, by remembering what is relevant, engaging with colleagues and stakeholders, and ultimately leading to better outcomes.

So that’s why sticky notes do it for us and a sharpie is never too far away either.  An explanation of the industry’s over–indexing on hipster jeans, artisan coffee and tight and high hair will have to be tackled by a different author on a different blog.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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