How to Work with Tension in Design

The ultimate purpose of a design project is to change something. It might be kickstarting sales, making stuff more findable, or addressing a competitive challenge. Whatever it is, the project exists because someone wants something to be different.

Changes reveal tensions. Often, teams are invested in the status quo. For example, sales may want product to introduce new features, while product wants a simpler experience. More capabilities increase complexity, so the two are in tension.

Projects are rife with such tensions — and they often go unacknowledged. Not surprising, since dealing with tensions can be uncomfortable. If you’ve ever been in a meeting with a surly stakeholder, you know how awkward these situations can be.

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How Designers Can Help Bust Silos

When I talk with folks in large organizations, I often hear a familiar lament: “We’re very siloed here.” By this, they mean the organization is divided into​ groups that don’t play well with others. Each group functions like an isolated “silo” that acts independently from the rest. They each have their own internal goals, incentives, processes, etc. which make it difficult for them to collaborate.

Siloing impedes the organization’s ability to respond effectively (and in a timely manner) to changing contextual conditions. Because it involves organizational cultures and incentives, it can be a tough challenge to overcome. People in silos have an especially hard time seeing things from others’ perspectives — especially their colleagues.

A big part of the problem is that people in these situations​ tend to communicate in abstract terms. Often they’re unaware of using language that reinforces the distinctions between them. With our emphasis on making things tangible, designers can help them bust through these barriers.

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The Value of Design Consulting

I saw a news item a few weeks ago about an old Atari 2600 game called Extra Terrestrials, which just went on the market for $90,000.

Ninety thousand dollars.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Surely you mean E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, that godawful game that heralded the end of the Atari boom and which the company had to literally bury in a landfill. How can one cartridge of that turd be worth that much money?” (Well, that’s what you’re thinking if you’re a video game nerd.)

Well, that’s not the E.T. this story refers to. Towards the tail end of the Atari craze in the early 1980s, a family decided to self-produce a (derivative​ and by all appearances crappy) game called Extra Terrestrials. The market for video games tanked, but the family pushed through regardless, selling around 100 copies door-to-door. In other words, the game’s a rarity. (Here’s the full story.)

Is something like Extra Terrestrials worth $90,000? Well, it’s worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. The broader question is, how do we determine the value of things? That is, how do we arrive at the price people will be willing to pay? Economists have models for this. (Feel free to point me to some you know.) My intuitive model looks like this:

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Goldilocks Workshop Spaces

Successful design workshops call for various things. For one, you must pick the right focus: select problems to work on that are relevant to participants and at the right level. Speaking of which, successful workshops also include the right participants: a good mix of folks at different levels of the organization, degrees of expertise, etc. Another important component to successful workshops is the space in which they happen. That’s what I’ll focus on here.

The space the workshop happens will matter a lot, especially if people will have to be there for more than one day. The space will literally frame the work; it’ll be the context around which all thinking evolves. What characteristics do successful spaces share? I’ve noticed a few:

  • Ample wall space (especially walls you can write and/or put stickies on)
  • Reduced distractions (away from open office spaces, if possible)
  • Natural light (often hard to get, but it makes a big difference)
  • Adjacent spaces to take breaks (including restroom and refreshment facilities)
  • Just enough horizontal surfaces
  • The right amount of chairs
  • The right size

These last three are somewhat relative, and I want to expand on them. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced when facilitating workshops is rooms that are mismatched to the size of the group of participants. I’ve used rooms that were too small and sine that were too big. Both were challenging.

Too-small rooms are crowded and stuffy. People can grow uncomfortable sitting so close together for long periods of time. Small rooms also have less space to move around, which is awkward if you’re drawing on a whiteboard or putting stickies up on the walls. Small rooms tend to have smaller tables, which means people end up with laptops on their laps. And of course, smaller rooms have fewer walls. (The required wall space is often directly proportional to the number of people in the workshop and the number of days it takes.)

You’d think huge rooms would be the answer, and certainly a too-big room is better than a too-small room. But bigger rooms come with challenges of their own. For one thing, people may be tempted to peel off into sub-groups. I find bigger rooms lend themselves more to allowing some folks to disconnect themselves from the proceedings to focus on their laptops. For another, people will invariably sit further away from each other. In-person workshops give teams the possibility of gelling, and too-big rooms can chill that dynamic.

What’s the right size for a room? If I could have my way, I’d be in a space where there are only a couple of more chairs than people needing chairs. (The converse, where a couple of chairs must be brought in, can also work.) If the number of empty chairs is more than double that of participants, the room is too big. (Conversely, if you have to double the amount of chairs, the room is too small.)

One argument in favor of conducting workshops in rooms that are bigger than needed is that larger rooms have more wall space. This is often true, but not always. I’ve noticed that many “fancy” conference rooms don’t have serviceable walls. (That is, you can’t write or stick things on them.) And there are solutions for expanding practical vertical surfaces that don’t require larger rooms. (E.g. rolling whiteboards, large foamcore boards, etc.)

As a workshop facilitator, it may not be ultimately up to you to decide what room the workshop happens in. But if you do have some sway on the matter, aim for a room that is the right size for the group. And if you find yourself operating in a room that is too big or too small, make accommodations to help people feel more comfortable; it can make a big difference on the quality of the work that happens there.