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Boosting creativity with Design Jams

September 16, 2020

More often than not, product design teams spend too little time enhancing their skills.

They get into a rut of always focusing on their product's industry and never have time to look around at new technologies or trends. This is not a bad thing per se; it is just the way it is. They want to make their product better so they but all their energy into it.

But this approach introduces a big problem; the team can start to lack creativity and designers don't get to flex their creative muscles. It can become mundane and boring. And in this environment, it is challenging for teams to be pioneering and coming up with solutions that push the product (and the team) forward.

That is why teams need to spend creative time working on new things. Developers (and sometimes designers) do this through hack days, but designers should have a dedicated time to be creative.

I want to share how we stay creative through Design Jams.

Introducing... The Design Jam

The design jam is a quick workshop where our design team gets together, and we each work on completing a task within a specific time. And the main goal is that we either work on polishing up our skills or learning something new.

For each design jam, we are given a topic to research such as "Conversational Design", and then on the day of the workshop, we each have 2 hours to complete a task related to that topic. For instance, the task might be to create a conversational user experience for sports fans.

We keep the timeline short so that we can easily get sign-off for two hours, and no one will miss two hours of our time. And secondly, we use it as a way to see what we can do while we're under a tight constraint.

The goal of design jam is to spark creativity, do something different, get out of the mundane, and most of all, have fun while experimenting. 

You cannot innovate without experimenting

And in my experience, if you don't have dedicated time set aside for workshops like this, then you'll push things off, and blame being busy for not doing it, which is just BS!

In the past, we've designed user experiences for wearables devices and even conversational apps. All of which we would never be asked to create for the business. It is a way of showing the stakeholders what we can do. Below is an example of the output from one of our Design Jams.

The Format

We keep the format as simple as possible so that it takes little or no effort to organise it. We book just over two hours for the whole thing which is broken down as follows:

  1. We spend the first 90 minutes thrashing something together based on the topic and task - and we literally mean thrashing.
  2. After that, we each have 5 minutes to present what we created.
  3. And lastly, we spend the rest of the time talking about what we learned, and what we could do in the future.

The schedule is extremely tight, which is a good thing since it helps us all get better at working under tight timelines. And since the time is scarce, it also allows us to better focus on the task we need to perform. 

You might want to extend the amount of time available (if you can) but don't increase it by so much that people procrastinate for the first part of the session.

The Steps To Run A Design Jam

By keeping the format simple and the time allocated low, then it will make it even easier to run a design jam and to get the thumbs up from stakeholders. All teams have at least 2 or 3 hours to perform it at least once a quarter, if not a month.

Once you decided how long it will be then all you need to do is the following:

  1. Block off time in your schedule weeks in advance by creating a meeting. It is essential to do this early so that you can give others visibility. Make sure to do the same for the rest of the team.
  2. If you're performing the design jam in person, book a room with plenty of space. If you're doing it remotely - which most of us are thanks to COVID - then create a ZOOM meeting or Google Hangout or whatever tool you use. And share the details with the team.
  3. We broadly define the topic a few weeks before the jam so that people can get familiar with it before the day. The earlier you do this, the better and encourage the team to share material on the topic.
  4. A week before the jam, share the topic again with the team. A friendly reminder always helps.
  5. The day before the jam, you'll want to decide on the task. Keep the tasks pretty simple but do add some requirements. For example, a task might be to "design a wearables user experience for car buyers" or "create a conversational user experience for sports fans". You might want to keep it somewhat related to your industry, but you don't have to.
  6. Just before the jam, share the task with the team. You might want to do this earlier, but by keeping it to the last minute, it will ensure that everyone has the same time on the task. We want to see what we can do under pressure.
  7. Pump up that jam! Just do it, and have fun. Remember not to take things too seriously and that this is only a bit of fun for the team.

And don't forget to share what you've created with the broader team. It is always good to celebrate what we achieve.

The Do's & Don'ts

Here are a few do's and don'ts that you might want to keep in mind.

  • Do schedule it as early in advance as you can. Try to aim for a month in advance and block book people's calendars.
  • Do let the team come up with the topics. Get everyone to add their ideas to a poll and let the team vote on what they want to do.
  • Do use tools that will help you complete the task quicker. So-called "no-code tools" can be used and should be encouraged.
  • Do play music, eat pizza, and have fun. It should be fun.
  • Do stick to the timeframe.
  • Do share what you created during the design jam.
  • Don't reschedule it or cancel it. Just don't. You should be able to book 2 hours a month and not have to cancel it. That is only 2 hours from a possible 200 or more hours.
  • Don't focus too heavily on work-related topics; expand your horizon on it. It doesn't have to be the newest technology. You could spend the time designing a brutalist poster for an office party.
  • Don't judge other people's ideas; this is not about who created the best idea. It is about having fun and being creative. Nothing will be gained from slating another person's idea, that is just a sure-fire way to make someone feel lousy!

That is all you need to know to run your design jam. Try it out and please let me know what your team created by commenting on this post.

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