How to consolidate ideas

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In any creative process, once you have enough ideas someone has to look at the possibilities and divide them into useful piles. This makes it possible to understand the different viable design directions and to begin to see their differences. (As a rule, 4 or 5 piles of things are easier to work with than 30, 50, or 150 individual things. This is true for ideas, specifications, hyperactive children, small animals, pieces of candy, annoying writers that make silly lists for no reason, etc.) It's fine if some ideas are represented in prototypes and others in scribbles, notes, or unexplored thoughts. The goal isn't to eliminate or refine individual ideas, it's to put some shape and structure around them all.

There are many techniques(3) for doing this, but the simplest one I know is an affinity diagram (a.k.a. KJ diagrams, after the anthropologist Kawkita Jiro). This approach requires four things: ideas, a wall, Post-it notes, and the team (although good beer and tasty food help). In an affinity diagram, each idea is represented as a note, described in just a few words and placed on the wall. These ideas can be the output of brainstorming sessions or a list refined by one or more people on the team. There can be anywhere from 20 to 100 or more ideas. The scope of the problem you're trying to solve, and how creative people have been, can make for wild swings in the size of ideas from project to project.

With an affinity diagram, you'll see a broader view of all of the ideas. It should look something like Figure 6-4. Some ideas are similar, and you want to position them together so that they are easier to identify. Working visually allows people to focus on relationships and not on how much information they can keep in their head. Affinity diagrams also have the benefit of making discussions with others about ideas natural. A small group of people can stand together at the wall and make comments about the relationships they see, changing the positions of the Post-it notes as they come to new conclusions. Affinity diagrams use Post-it notes because they can be moved around on a wall and organized into different arrangements easily.

Figure 6-4. Lots of ideas (yay), but they are hard to manage (boo).

The goal of the affinity diagram is to reach something like what is shown in Figure 6-5. The same raw list of ideas is now grouped into five buckets that represent most of the available ideas. The way to do this is easy. Someone goes to the wall and starts moving ideas around. The lead designer, the project manager, or a small team should be the first to take a stab at organizing the ideas. After someone has taken a first cut, it becomes easier for others to move ideas around between groups, change the names of the groupings, or recognize that some ideas are duplicates of each other and can be removed. As people on the team stop by and make changes, the diagram will change in shape in many interesting ways. (One tip: consider taking digital photos periodically if you want to preserve the different groupings people come up with.) Eventually, the affinity diagram settles down and groupings emerge that can be used in the next steps.

In case I'm being too abstract in describing how affinity diagrams work, here's an example that explains Figure 6-5 in another way. Let's say that one of the project goals was to make search results on the intranet web site easier to use. We met, brainstormed, had some beers, and came up with a long list of ideas. The next morning, people had a few more to add, so we included them. We reviewed that list, eliminated duplicates, laughed as we crossed off ideas no one could explain, and had this basic list of ideas to work with:

• Remove advanced options that no one ever uses.

Figure 6-5. Grouping ideas is a good idea.

Figure 6-5. Grouping ideas is a good idea.

• Improve the layout of the search results page.

• Use the superior HyperX search engine.

• Reduce the number of results shown.

• Allow users to set preferences for how the page should look.

• Open the results in a new window.

• Fix the performance bugs in our search engine.

• Make the query engine work properly (support Boolean searches).

After reviewing the list and using Post-it notes or some other method to group the ideas, we spent a half-hour organizing them. We moved them around, tried different arrangements, and finally arrived at a list we thought was most useful:

Allow users to set preferences for how the page should look Open the results in a new window

• Remodel architecture

Make the query engine work properly (support Boolean searches) Fix the performance bugs in our search engine Use the superior HyperX search engine

The groupings here are very simple, and because there are only a total of eight ideas, it works fine. However, if there were 40 or 50 ideas, a list wouldn't work as well. Lists promote linear and hierarchical thinking, and they become hard to manage when they get too large. Later on in development, lists are a great way to push the process forward, but while still in the early stages, affinity diagrams are more powerful. They help people see ideas as fluid and tangible things that can be moved around and easily reorganized. This fluidity helps people to question their assumptions, see new perspectives, and follow other people's thoughts. For teams new to creative thinking (especially as a group), an affinity diagram is a great way to go. Use lists for your own purposes as a project manager afterward, but give the team an affinity. I'm convinced that it helps find more good ideas and brings people into the process.

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