I love starting new projects. There’s something so thrilling and about an empty canvas.
“This design is going to be amazing,” I always think before I start.
Cut to two weeks later, and I’m banging my head against my desk.
At least, that's how I used to feel.
I still get stuck sometimes, but I don’t stay stuck for long. As I grew up in design, I learned ways to get myself back on track.
Here’s an incomplete list of ways I untangle myself from hairy design problems:
- Ask yourself what you’re really trying to accomplish. Sometimes it’s just a matter of reframing around a user outcome.
- Divide and conquer. Take it one piece at a time — you don’t have to solve everything all at once. Break things up into user stories, pick the most critical one, and put the others on ice for now.
- Look at how your competitors do it (competitive analysis)
- Look at other well-known companies who aren’t exactly competitors but have similar UIs (comparative analysis). For ex, if you’re building a support widget, look at how iMessage does chat.
- Search Product Hunt for more products that might have similar patterns
- Search Dribbble for visual design and layout ideas
- Search inspiration sites like Panda, Sidebar, Muzli*, and Behance*
- Ask UX/design Q&A sites like UX Stack Exchange or Reddit for ideas (rarely useful in my experience, but you never know)
- Search the Nielsen Norman group website to see what the grumpy grandpas of UX have to say about best practices
- Search pattern libraries like pttrns
- Search design systems from other companies for ideas
- Search Google Images
- Look at weird design/art sites like butdoesitfloat and It’s Nice That*
- Look at products in the real, physical world (a.k.a. meatspace) like cities, physical products, and experience designs
- Look at how other countries and cultures do it
- Try to find some examples in nature
- Look at the apps on your phone and see what they do
- Check your marketing materials and see how they describe it
- Read the design brief carefully to see what it’s asking you for
- Ask an engineer how they think it should work
- Ask a product manager how they think it should work
- Ask marketing how they think it should work
- Ask customer support how they think it should work
- Ask the CEO how they think it should work (sometimes stakeholders have really good ideas!)
- Ask the intern how they think it should work (sometimes interns have the best ideas!)
- Call an actual customer and ask them how they think it should work — this technique is CRIMINALLY UNDERUSED (see also “participatory design”)
- Call another customer and ask them how they think it should work (sometimes it takes a few tries before you strike gold)
- Bring a customer into your office and just have them draw what they want you to build
- Look at the pictures you took of the whiteboard during the project kickoff
- Look at your early paper sketches
- Look back at your early pages/artboards
- Look at your past versions in version control (if you use something like Abstract or Figma)
- Pull up your designs from old projects
- Look at how your own app used to do it
- Invite other designers to a brainstorm sketch meeting to draw ideas with you
- Ask another designer to pair with you as you work
- See if another designer can just do it for you. This is not always as terrible an idea as it sounds, especially if they have specialized skills or subject matter expertise. Sometimes a fresh brain can untangle the mess easier.
- Make two (or more) versions and choose which one to ship later (or ship both, each for different users)
- Give yourself permission to start from scratch (you don't have to delete your old designs, just try a fresh version)
- Just pick the best bad idea you have so far and worry about it later
- Do the first thing you thought of at the start of the project but abandoned
- Design what you wanted in the first place before some new requirements made that idea infeasible (and hope people warm up to it)
- Do the head-smackingly obvious thing
- Do what you were doing but less
- Do nothing at all (i.e., leave it the way it is and go do something else)
- Do something completely different, strange, and unexpected (if only to warm up and have some fun)
- Cut out all the bells and whistles and design whatever’s left
- Just use a regular old form, list, or table and call it a day
- Close your computer, go home early, relax, go for a run, eat a healthy meal, get a lot of sleep, wake up, come back to work, and see what pops in your head. Remember, if you’re designing at the “end of your rope,” you're not serving your customers.
There are a million ways to solve every problem. You can always take a break, take a step back, and get help!
What am I missing? Email me if you think of anything 🙂