What to do when you’re stuck on a design

Things to try when you’re out of ideas

Here’s an incomplete list of ways I untangle myself from hairy design problems:

  1. Ask yourself what you’re really trying to accomplish. Sometimes it’s just a matter of reframing around a user outcome.
  2. 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.
  3. Look at how your competitors do it (competitive analysis)
  4. 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.
  5. Search Product Hunt for more products that might have similar patterns
  6. Search Dribbble for visual design and layout ideas
  7. Search inspiration sites like Panda, Sidebar, Muzli*, and Behance*
  8. Ask UX/design Q&A sites like UX Stack Exchange or Reddit for ideas (rarely useful in my experience, but you never know)
  9. Search the Nielsen Norman group website to see what the grumpy grandpas of UX have to say about best practices
  10. Search pattern libraries like pttrns
  11. Search design systems from other companies for ideas
  12. Search Google Images
  13. Look at weird design/art sites like butdoesitfloat and It’s Nice That*
  14. Look at products in the real, physical world (a.k.a. meatspace) like cities, physical products, and experience designs
  15. Look at how other countries and cultures do it
  16. Try to find some examples in nature
  17. Look at the apps on your phone and see what they do
  18. Check your marketing materials and see how they describe it
  19. Read the design brief carefully to see what it’s asking you for
  20. Ask an engineer how they think it should work
  21. Ask a product manager how they think it should work
  22. Ask marketing how they think it should work
  23. Ask customer support how they think it should work
  24. Ask the CEO how they think it should work (sometimes stakeholders have really good ideas!)
  25. Ask the intern how they think it should work (sometimes interns have the best ideas!)
  26. Call an actual customer and ask them how they think it should work — this technique is CRIMINALLY UNDERUSED (see also “participatory design”)
  27. Call another customer and ask them how they think it should work (sometimes it takes a few tries before you strike gold)
  28. Bring a customer into your office and just have them draw what they want you to build
  29. Look at the pictures you took of the whiteboard during the project kickoff
  30. Look at your early paper sketches
  31. Look back at your early pages/artboards
  32. Look at your past versions in version control (if you use something like Abstract or Figma)
  33. Pull up your designs from old projects
  34. Look at how your own app used to do it
  35. Invite other designers to a brainstorm sketch meeting to draw ideas with you
  36. Ask another designer to pair with you as you work
  37. 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.
  38. Make two (or more) versions and choose which one to ship later (or ship both, each for different users)
  39. Give yourself permission to start from scratch (you don’t have to delete your old designs, just try a fresh version)
  40. Just pick the best bad idea you have so far and worry about it later
  41. Do the first thing you thought of at the start of the project but abandoned
  42. Design what you wanted in the first place before some new requirements made that idea infeasible (and hope people warm up to it)
  43. Do the head-smackingly obvious thing
  44. Do what you were doing but less
  45. Do nothing at all (i.e., leave it the way it is and go do something else)
  46. Do something completely different, strange, and unexpected (if only to warm up and have some fun)
  47. Cut out all the bells and whistles and design whatever’s left
  48. Just use a regular old form, list, or table and call it a day
  49. 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!

*suggestions from Kelsey Cavitt — thank you :)

The books I recommend to designers 
Design is mostly about emphasis Coming soon
Engineering concepts every designer should know Coming soon