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Want better ideas? Go to Crazytown

I first published this post over on Medium, but I wanted to include it here too, for my own convenience, really. :)

The internet is tipping over with listicles about creativity, but they don’t really help that much in the busy, noisy, constrain-y environs of business and start-ups. Sometimes you just have to be brave, get a bit stupid, and go to Crazytown.

Oh joy! Brainstorming time…

There’s nothing like the word ‘brainstorming’ to bring on such feels of hope and promise in some people, and fear and loathing in others. It’s the word that makes introverts want to run and hide, and extroverts want to — well — go all extroverted on everyone. We want, nay crave, to reach that promised land of great ideas, but are often so confused about the path to get there.

I run a lot of workshops. Some are fairly serious affairs, like product strategy workshops. Others delve into customer empathy and insight using techniques like journey mapping and storytelling. Still others are just good clean fun, with activities like storyboarding, prototyping and role play.

They all typically involve some degree of ideation: brainstorming, going broad, blue-sky out-of-the-box thinking, that sort of thing. I’ve never met anyone who is happy with one or two lame ideas; everyone wants as many ideas as possible, and of course we’re all after that absolute disruptive cracker.

But time and time again I notice that people either seem satisfied with just having those one or two lame ideas, or they’re disappointed at the low yield, but aren’t willing to call it out. They’re not sure how to build their creativity muscle. Or they push a mediocre idea through, polishing the absolute snot out of it, hoping it’ll be okay.

Why is this?

No creativity with anxiety

Firstly, people often don’t actually want amazing ideas. They want feasibleideas. There’s a well-known triad of outcomes I’m fond of where you can think of any product, service or experience as being desirable (people will love it and recommend it), viable (you will make or save money from it) and feasible (you can build and service it). Most of the time we trap ourselves in the Feasibility Corner, fill our minds with Viability Language, and it weighs us down so that the desirable is beyond reach.

Getting a room of people to try to come up with ideas, or reach a break-through solution, with this sort of thinking is incredibly anxiety-inducing. And it’s hard to find a better way to squash creativity than anxiety.

It’s about stepping stones, not bridges

Secondly, I think people have a really narrow concept of what an idea even is, especially in the corporate “let’s make things for people to buy and use” context. There’s an unspoken expectation that a great idea will just birth itself out of someone’s mouth or whiteboard marker, fully-formed, resplendent in all its commercial world-changing power. I know, I’ve been guilty of this.

But it doesn’t happen that way. It just doesn’t. I could fill this post with loads of quotes about creativity and inspiration and hard work and so on, but I won’t. I’m sure you know a few of those already. Ideas happen as a fluid collection of connections, sparks, meanderings and questions. Ideas aren’t big bridges to cross a river, they’re a series of big and small stones to hop across.

So, the thing here is to change your approach to coming up with ideas in the first place. But how? Glad you asked. Here’s a couple of things that work for me.

Call out your constraints

The first thing I’d like you to do is to finish this sentence:

We need amazing ideas for our [insert product/service/campaign/experience] BUT…

Start by calling out what is silently hobbling your thinking. Is it a time limit? Is it something to do with resources and capabilities? A cranky stakeholder? What?

Do it as a team, even, and bring out all those silent anxieties, pre-conditions and constraints into the open.

Now take a good long hard look at those constraints, and think about whether they are indeed constraints, the scale of those constraints, and how you can come up with ideas to solve those things first. See it as a game where you get to knock down each of these pegs first, and probably come up with ideas for the main thing on the way. There now, didn’t that feel better already?

Can we go to Crazytown now?

Another thing I often do in creative workshops is to draw something that looks like this:

On the left is you and where you are now. A bit further along is where most of your ideas tend to be. Safe. Normal. Expected. Further along still is where things get bold and people start scratching their heads, wondering if it’s even possible. And then on the far right is Crazytown.

I love Crazytown! Crazytown is Willy Wonka territory, it’s where Unikitty lives, it’s where fish ride bicycles, where ice cream is wasabi flavour, where tattoos are animated, where a computer can fit on your wrist, where random connections are made, where dreams live.

Can you see it in your head? It’s a truly wonderful place.

But you don’t live there. You just visit.

You buy a return ticket, you get on that train, and you get off at Crazytown. You take in deep lungfuls of the air that smells vaguely of bubble-gum and western red cedar, you play their weird dancing-around-with-buckets-on-your-head dance, you joke with the locals, take photos.

And you see amazingly stupid ways of working with whatever problem or need that you actually want ideas for. Quick! Write those down, draw them, whatever. But capture those amazingly stupid things.

And then you get back on the train, and you come back invigorated, refreshed, and with a head and sketch-pad full of those amazingly stupid things.

Now, no-one would ever expect you or your team to present those ideas, let alone actually make and release them. But here’s the magic: you mine those ideas for what you could use. Break each one down, apply your business rules, user research insights, understanding and all the other serious grown-up things to those ideas.

Because what you’ve brought back from Crazytown is a whole host of new idea territories. You’ve stepped out of your regular environment, your regular thinking.

But how, Ben?

If you want to try this in a group, draw this diagram, and tell them this story. Make sure they know that whether they’re there to solve a problem, or there to come up with some cool innovative campaign, Crazytown still helps. Youcan solve boring problems with crazy ideas.

Show the way to Crazytown

Mark on the line where people tend to want ideas to be, and where they end up being. Show them that going all the way to Crazytown doesn’t mean just stopping with the Crazytown ideas, but using them as raw material. It helps lift the overall level and range of ideas. And make sure you’ve created a safe space where people will feel free to be a bit braver than they normally are.

Frame the challenge as a question

Next, frame whatever it is that you need ideas for as a question that people can get their teeth into. For example:

  • “How might we improve this [product/feature/etc] for our customers?”
  • “What would make [target market consumers] want to buy our [product/service/etc]?”

Welcome to Crazytown, population: you!

Now, here comes the fun part. Blow open that question by taking it toextremes. Pick an aspect of your question and ask it as if a Crazytown resident asked it. Take a ho-hum question and imagine you’re at the pub with Billy ConnollyRon Burgundy and Yoda, and play out the conversation. Turn it into a ‘What if…?” of a “How about…?” To wit:

  • “What would make people break in and steal our [product/service/etc] because it’s so good?”
  • “How could our service actually turn Sauron into a nice guy?”
  • “We need to speed up the journey of shopping at our supermarket. What if we just shot the food into bags for them?”
  • “Our product has 4 drawers. Why not 40? or 400? or 1 with a carousel inside it?”

Make sure you’re writing down and/or sketching all the random things that come up. As soon as you make those things visible, you’ll be amazed at how that triggers even more random things and connections.

I hear you. It’s crazy and stupid, even irrelevant. But that’s the point. Do it just so that you have some weird out-there ideas that you can then stealfrom, in ways that are relevant for your particular problem.

Get back on that train

Then get back on the train, go back to Ho-Hum Normaltown, and pick apart what you’ve generated. You should have some new idea territories to extend in more — ahem — rational ways. Examples:

  • “Well, obviously we wouldn’t have a space portal inside our wardrobe product… but mirrors inside it might make it appear larger. We should try prototyping that.”
  • “We can’t actually fit an entire espresso machine in a mobile phone…. but what if we partnered with a commercial espresso machine maker to include a feature where the machine can receive texts for what customers want?”

Go get a ticket to Crazytown

So give it a go, I’d be interested to hear if and how this approach works for you. And say hi to Unikitty for me.

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Pretty over truth, or why I don’t like Medium

Earlier today I was deep in a few posts on Medium. These were meant to be factual technical posts too, not the ‘this is my opinion’ sort of posts. I was aghast, not so much at the typographical errors, weak structure and mixed metaphors going on, but at the outright false information and ignorance in their content. How could these articles have had enough traction to become links in my Twitter feed? How could they have that many little white-on-green recommendation hearts? 

And more shockingly: what havoc will they wreak on unsuspecting readers, who will just happily consume, process and re-tell this spurious information? What bad decisions will be made in the world as a result of these falsities?

Then it hit me: Medium is such a gloriously diabolical example of the halo effect: the cognitive bias that kicks in when our favourable impression of one attractive attribute in someone influences our assessment of their whole character. And Medium had tricked me into thinking these posts were something that they were not.

The elegant river

The reading experience on Medium is, well, very impressive. Post by post, it brings the best of traditional print and editorial design to the browser: grand masthead, beautifully-proportioned type and line, pull-quotes, captions, and so on.

Added to this, there’s a lot of thought and care that has gone into designing the journey through Medium. It’s true, it barely needs a home page, and who cares; it’s a delightful river that you float along, in an elegant gondola. I myself continually fall victim to the strategically placed ‘Further reading’ link bait at the bottom of each article, leading me to the next post, and the next.

Being sold down that river

So what we’re presented with is a super pleasant reading experience, and we can’t help but then attribute credibility to the actual content, whatever it is.

Ev Williams, co-creator of this great platform, said back in 2012 when heralding the entry of Medium: “Medium is a beautiful space for reading and writing — and little else. The words are central.

Medium was right to rally against the noise and clutter of widgety blogs and conventional online publishing, and give us an experience that’s visually calmer to both publish on and read. But here’s the thing: it has put visual quality over reliability. Pretty over truth. It has taken mom-and-pop blogging, dressed it in an elegant gown, and tricked us into thinking it’s from the classy side of professional publishing town.

And we need to remind ourselves: it’s not.

It’s now 2 years on since Ev made that statement, and I think he and his very talented crew have been a catalyst for the calmer redesigns we now see on sites like Forbes and Huffington Post, and possibly for other curated publishing platforms like Flipboard. Me, I would rather it be clear whether I’m reading peer-reviewed professionally-curated articles, or someone’s 2 cents. Like this one. ;)



Close-up picture of one of my sketchnotes from UX Australia

Sketchnoting at UX Australia 2013

I’m just back from this year’s UX Australia, with that post-conference fatigue-y headbuzz. There were tonnes of insights and trends to grab hold of, as usual, plus I’ve got a load of sketchnotes to share (below).

We’re all learning UX from each other

First and foremost, I’m noticing that not only is lean UX and agile/UX pairing becoming well-embedded techniques in both agency- and client-side, there no longer seems to be a traditional know-how flow from thinker/author > agency side > client side. Great thinkers and doers are everywhere now, and the flow is multi-directional. We’re all learning from each other.

Practices are great, but we can’t forget the principles and theory

This year there seemed to be much more attention on the techniques and practice of UX, whereas previous years it seemed to be more about mobile/contextual UX. I’d be concerned if conferences only focused on processes and practices, because we can’t short-change ourselves on UX thinking and design thinking. Techniques – and terminology of techniques – will come and go, but it’s essential that we keep sharpening our thinking about the principles of the experiences we create. In short: we still need to stimulate each other with more concepts and more theory, not just the doing stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, the balance was still there, especially with blending strategies with results and outcomes of UX practice (especially Katja ForbesUniversal design for touch, and Gabriel White’s Design at the edges (plus here on slideshare)), but my stand-out fave talk by Andrea Resmini really blew my mind: Navigation as cross-channel sense making (sketchnote below).

A sketchnote of Andrea Resmini's talk: Navigation as cross-channel sense making

In future…?

In future years of UX Australia – in response to my low-level concern and anxiety above – I’d like to hear more about how UX thinking and customer experience (CX) thinking are becoming paired disciplines. There is also quiet rumbling out there about architecture rediscovering itself and its purpose: designing places and spaces for people and not just for architecture magazine covers. We’ve been standing on the shoulders of architects since Day 1 of UX, and we have much to share with each other. Let’s hear more of that exciting stuff.


And ah yes, sketchnoting! I’m a big fan of sketching to explain, to think and to reflect, and it was great to meet and see Rebecca Jackson talk about her sketchnoting experiences. Below is my sketchnote of her sketchnoting talk… a bit weird really… but hey. And as an aside, Rebecca has posted some really great and useful summaries of the conference’s talks; here’s part 1 and part 2.

Sketchnote of Rebecca Jackson talking... about sketchnotes


It was also bloody excellent to meet Matthew Magain. I’ve found his drawing-to-explain mastery pretty inspiring in the past, and not only did he and Luke Chambers bring UX to life through the brilliance of The Blues Brothers, but he’s also done a great wrap-up of UX Australia 2013 in his own sketchnotes over on their service to the UX community: UX Mastery.

I’ve put all my UX Australia 2013 sketchnotes together on Flickr, here. I set myself a challenge of pumping out sketchnotes from every session I attended. It was pretty gruelling, both mentally and physically*, but highly worth it. I also tried out some other ideas I’ve had: rather than just spraying drawings all over the page, I tried conforming them to letter-shapes. I even tried doing one as a comic strip…but… let’s just say that one needs more prep and practice!


*OK, not really physically. Knowing loads of people who enter marathons, pull all-nighters at hospitals saving lives, etc, I can’t EVER use the word ‘gruelling’ when it comes to sketching. ;)

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New portfolio website

Ben Crothers portfolio website

It’s been ages since I’ve shown anything I’ve been working on. Plus, there’s a growing amount of stuff like sketchnotes, storyboards and bits and pieces that don’t really have a home on this website. So I’ve done up a new portfolio site at

It was also a great opportunity to get my hands dirty with some HTML5/CSS/CSS3/responsive design coding. I’m a big believer in having a decent working knowledge of the platforms, frameworks and code that ultimately bring to life the digital experiences I design, so it made sense for my latest code project to include HTML5 and responsive design.

Take a look, see what you think. I’d also be interested to know what it’s like on your mobile device – feel free to let me know if anything looks kinda wrong…!

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Selling your UX approach with storyboarding

Example colour storyboard of someone wanting to book a holidayStoryboarding is one of those cross-disciplinary techniques that is catching on more and more in UX and service design.

I find storyboarding really effective, both as part of internal process and as a deliverable for clients. But the most potential I’ve seen it have is in winning clients and stakeholders over to a particular solution, idea or approach. People are naturally drawn to more visual means of communication, and there’s nothing like framing (pardon the pun) your UX or service design solution as – well – a comic.

I recently did some articles to show how this can be done, for Johnny Holland:

…and UXMatters:

Enjoy, and give it a go yourself!

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Happy first year in the igloo, Liam

Digital Eskimo do a great job on every client project – obviously! – but they also do a great job at looking after their staff and celebrating anything that can be celebrated.

Take Liam King for instance. Liam is a UX aficionado extraordinaire, with a particular passion for web content and content strategy. Last week marked Liam’s first year at Digital Eskimo. Cake was had by all, and I also marked the occasion with a drawing of him (below). Great working with you Liam, and looking forward to working with you on many more gigs!

Liam King - 1 year at Digital Eskimo

Liam King - 1 year at Digital Eskimo

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New UX wallpaper – walk in your client’s customers’ shoes

Sometimes you just need to step away from the wireframes, look up, look out, and remember those for whom you’re designing. I had one of those moments two Fridays ago, so I decided to make this desktop wallpaper:

UX wallpaper - Walk in your client's customers' shoes

UX wallpaper - Walk in your client's customers' shoes

You can use it too, if you like. I’ve even even gone to the trouble of doing it in several sizes. Golly I’m nice.



Making personas more useful with persona profile tables

The user experience camp seems a bit divided about using personas as part of user experience design. There are a couple of charges laid at personas’ feet that I think can be lifted by using profile tables together with the personas themselves.

When I talk about personas, I mean the archetypal constructs of characteristics, drivers, behaviours and goals that are designed to represent the main audiences at which a digital product is aimed. Personas were made popular by Alan Cooper, and given gravitas and discipline by industry minds such as Andrew Hinton and Jared Spool.

Pros and cons of personas

It’s true that personas are very useful for informing and validating user experience design. Here are my favourite advantages and benefits:

  • They’re a convenient combination of sensible scenarios and user requirements that are more understandable and accessible to people not familiar with (or prepared to read) copious volumes of technical documentation
  • Everyone – designers, project managers, project stakeholders and developers alike – can relate to personas (and if they don’t then the personas probably aren’t authentic enough), so they can act as a great unifier in project vision
  • They keep everyone honest and the design true to its purpose; by referring constantly to the personas, design and development is kept focused on what’s important for the target audiences and their tasks and situations
  • They are great argument enders; personas can often become the true arbitrator of discussions and debates about whether this feature should be included or not, or whether that phrase is the right tone or not

But personas are not without their criticisms. Some of the charges laid at their feet include:

  • They’re too abstract to be of useJason Fried describes them as artificial, abstract and fictitious, so they can’t provide authentic responses to designs, and be biased and unpredictable, just like real people
  • They’re just another part of the paperwork – many people across the project and client-side get documentation fatigue, and are not likely to absorb and learn from the personas
  • They can be seen as a bit of a luxury at best and time-waster at worst, where many people would rather just get on with designing and building

Persona profile tables: measuring significance of requirements against personas

Where personas can be a shorthand version of user requirements, profile tables provide a shorthand version of how significant the business- and functional requirements are to those personas. Profile tables have a list of features, functions and other contextually relevant aspects in the first column, then one column per persona displaying a measure of significance to each persona for each feature/function.

The‘significance’ bit will depend on your project, and profile charts are most effective when you are specific about the nature of this significance; it’s subtle but important. For example, it could be:

  • How likely it is that each persona would use that feature
  • How important that feature is to each persona
  • How often that persona would use that feature

The ‘measure’ bit shouldn’t be binary – like a tick or cross – because personas (just like us) are rarely black and white about these things. Use other measures that include ideally five points along a spectrum, such as:

  • Harvey ball notation – an array of circular ideograms, filled in by portions to indicate amount:
  • Set of Harvey Ball notation images with their corresponding amounts
    Harvey ball notation - none


    Harvey ball notation - 25%


    Harvey ball notation - 50%


    Harvey ball notation - 75%


    Harvey ball notation - 100%


  • Colour – shades of one area of the spectrum work well, such as white (none) to yellow (mid) to green (high). Avoid more than two colours, unless you want to include a negative aspect as well, such as red (persona would definitely not use that function) to yellow (ambivalent) to green (would definitely use)

I always use Harvey ball notation, because it’s the clearest to the most number of people, and there are never any colour blindness/colour printing variation/screen display issues.

I’ve used persona profile tables in several projects now, and they were really useful for guiding interface design decisions, and finding those sweet spots with works best for both business and user and for the scenarios where the website is being used.

How to draw up a persona profile table

This assumes that you have your personas are ready to go. Profile tables are best done in a workshop situation, either within your team or with client stakeholders. This not only keeps things from being ‘designed by designers’, but gets everyone embracing and using the personas.

1. List the features and functions

Start by making a list of all the features and functions of the product you are designing. As you make this list, you’ll probably find that some functions will need to be broken down into more specific actions, or ways of using that feature. Explore this, and list it all; you can always rationalise the list later depending on the context of your project.

Example: ‘Search for houses to buy’ would break down into‘search by location’,‘search by price range’, ‘search by house feature’ and so on. I bet there would be differences in each of these item’s significance for each persona.

The examples below are taken from work done on a website about environmental information and action.

Background information about the environment
Background information about sustainability
How to save money
Specific actions to live more sustainably
Ways to encourage others

2. Add the behaviours

Think about the ways that personas would approach and use these features and functions. This may uncover other elements that will have differences in significance for personas, like ‘comfortable with large amounts of detail’, ‘comfortable with entering personal information’.

Background information about the environment
Background information about sustainability
How to save money
Specific actions to live more sustainably
Ways to encourage others
Comfortable with technical detail
Comfortable with content detail
Sharing information
Commenting on information
Watching online videos

3. Fold in the personas

Add each persona you have as a column next to the first column of features, functions and behaviours. If there is a certain order that you are already using when referring to your personas, use the same order.

Background information about the environment
Background information about sustainability
How to save money
Specific actions to live more sustainably
Ways to encourage others
Comfortable with technical detail
Comfortable with content detail
Sharing information
Commenting on information
Watching online videos

4. Add the ratings and heat gently

Now comes the fun part. You, your team, and your client stakeholders discuss each appropriate rating in each column for each feature/function/behaviour, according to individuals’ knowledge of personas (and therefore of requirements). This groupthink should minimise subjectivity and invite scrutiny.

Background information about the environment
Background information about sustainability
How to save money
Specific actions to live more sustainably
Ways to encourage others
Comfortable with technical detail
Comfortable with content detail
Sharing information
Commenting on information
Watching online videos

5. Observe and exploit any trends and patterns

As you complete the ratings, you may see some trends and patterns where some personas rate very highly in some areas, low in others, or cluster together in some ways. These patterns may reveal lessons that you can take to your design.

Focus on clarity

As with most things, keep the persona profile tables simple, clear and concise. Once you get into doing profile tables, it’s easy to draw up loads and loads of them, but the intention should always be to summarise what already exists in other documentation, to give others an easy-to-reference asset for the design process, and the decisions that crop up all the time.

So if you decide to include profile tables in your set of design tools, set yourself a goal to keep them to one whiteboard in the case of a workshop, and to one page (or at least one page per functional ‘area’) in a report, so that whoever else you’re working with only needs to refer to one page at a time.