If You Don’t Start Quickly and Fail Early You’re Not Innovating


person writing on a whiteboard

At MetroStar we believe collaboration is the foundation for innovation. One of the ways we instill collaboration and innovation into our culture is through our Digital Ignite sessions. The Ignite sessions are used as an open forum where team members can discuss best practices, trending topics, share work to elicit feedback, conduct an experiment or test a new technique. We have covered topics that span new trends in user experience and visual design from Google’s Material Design to emerging JavaScript frameworks and SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) integration to conducting guerrilla usability testing. During one of our recent Ignite sessions, I conducted an experiment to help the team get past a very common challenge when beginning a new project—making the first mark.

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Life lessons from a figure drawing class

I had the fortune of having a figure drawing class in college that proved to be formative in my thinking and has helped me tremendously over the course of my career. During the class, we would spend the first 30 minutes doing what are called gesture drawings. Gesture drawings are used as a warm-up before longer drawings. They lasted between 30 seconds and 5 minutes with the purpose of teaching you to make large movements using your whole arm (not just your wrist) to quickly capture the overall composition and shapes of your subject matter. At the end of each class, we crumpled and threw all the drawings we just created away. While this may sound like cruel and unusual punishment to some (and it was pretty traumatic at first), it instilled in me the practice of exactly that–practice. Without repetition and exploration, we can not excel at our craft. In our field of web and mobile development, there are a number of skills we need to regularly practice to remain relevant and competitive. They range from soft skills like problem solving and communication to technical skills including fluency in various applications, drawing, visual design, and programming languages. Warming up with gesture drawings every day for a year was enough to instill the idea of starting quickly so you are ready-to-go for the drawing that mattered. This is also the same approach athletes take. When you compete at the pro level (and that’s where we are in our respective field), the difference between winning and losing is how prepared you are at game time which happens through regular practice.

Sharpen your pencils

I have found that it takes sketching anywhere between 50 to 100 ideas before you come up with a concept that is original and worth exploring further. To allow yourself time for this level of exploration before exhausting your timeframe and settling on “good enough”, you need to start quickly and expect to throw a good bit of your initial work away understanding that it is simply part of the process, a way to get to your brilliant ideas.

woman writing with a purple marker on a whiteboard

You have 2 minutes, start!

During the latest Ignite session, I provided the team with a common task, in this case, creating a website for an alien race of MetroStarians that were looking to buy a new spaceship along with just enough context to get started but still make them uncomfortable that they did not know enough. The context consisted of a brief overview of the various spaceship lines, models, and target audiences for each with the ultimate goal of being able to purchase a shiny new rocketship they can blast around the galaxy in. Everyone was given a drawing utensil of choice and a stack of paper (that’s right no computer, or applications yet) and had two minutes per sketch. Every two minutes for 30 minutes the team created a new user interface sketch that could depict whatever aspect of the proposed website they wanted. The goal wasn’t the actual output of the sketches (since there is no actual MetroStarian race looking for spaceships) but rather experiencing the process first-hand and understanding what can be accomplished by getting over the many fears associated with getting started. You may feel you don’t have enough context, you still want to talk to more users, you have too many ideas in your head trying to get out, you are afraid it may not be good enough, another company just launched something similar, no matter your fear the only way to overcome it is to make that first mark and get started—quickly. During the experiment, pretty much across the board, the 10th concept was where I started to see the team’s sketches get more confident with more deliberate lines, the ideas were more refined and tailored to the goal of the website and not simply rehashing the latest trends. After this, the team quickly encountered the next common challenge, which is having to overcome creative blocks. Coming up with new original ideas is hard work, if it wasn’t we would be out of a job. Luckily the more you practice these techniques, the easier the process gets and the quicker you will confidently get started and overcome creative blocks.

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Users deserve a great user experience

So go forth and start quickly, fail early and discover those ideas that are unique and yours. This is how we create great products for ourselves, our clients and ultimately the people that use the products we create.

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