The ‘what if’ of Design

One of Design’s greatest super powers is to ask “what if” and produce concepts that visualize this quandary.

When we require Design to justify its work with the Big 3 — business priorities, roadmap scope, and data — we marginalize this super power and relegate Design to a reactive role. Yes, the Big 3 should drive most of Design’s work but not all of it. The most magical outputs sometimes come from the most unjustified inputs.

Here are a few ways you can create space for What Ifs.

1. Set aside time once or twice a year for the entire team to gather and explore What Ifs together. A week is usually sufficient. To some extent you will need to leverage the Big 3 to justify the “time off” with your peers, but with enough notice it can be received as well as a hackathon (which is essentially an engineering What If).

2. Don’t use the word “sprint”. Come up with another term to describe What If time. With my previous team I asked them to use “Design Jam” for divergent exploration with an unknown outcome and “Design Sprint” for convergent acceleration toward a known outcome.

3. Challenge your team to spend time on What Ifs as a more routine part of their job. It doesn’t need to be a ton of time. It might be as simple as asking in design critique “hey have you explored how you might design this for the user if X constraint were removed?”

4. If you are a Design leader it is your privilege and responsibility to help your leadership peers understand this super power. You are at a disadvantage as a business if you’re not leveraging it.

Because EVERYONE is designing with the Big 3 as their rationale. And the companies where What Ifs are actively being explored? That’s where the real innovation is happening.