December 7, 2010

Put design to your service


Good design is an integral part of our solution-seeking process because it helps you stay on top of your thinking and it helps convincing audiences. Use good design and you’ll benefit from it.

Use design to organize your thinking

Logic trees have two primary contributions: they help you think about all the possible answers to your problem and they help you spell out the details of each answer. As a result, they usually are extensive, especially if you also use them—as I do—to capture your analysis. Indeed, my trees usually extend over ten pages or more.

If you don’t pay attention, using trees can become counter-productive as you get lost in the material. That’s where good design can help you stay on top of your game. Here are a few tricks I use:

First, capture graphically similar elements in the same way. When you begin your tree, use same fonts, sizes, colors, and shapes for similar elements. Your tree is your roadmap; in the first place, your goal is to reduce clutter as much as possible. By graphically capturing in the same way similar elements, you reduce distractions, and ensure that your tree is a tool to help develop your logic.

Using colors in an issue tree is an effective way to organize the information.

Using colors in an issue tree is an effective way to organize the information.

Use colors to indicate the type of elements in your trees. Logic trees include at least five types of components: {1. The key question, its possible answers, and the detail of these answers}, {2. The hypotheses}, {3. The required analysis}, {4. The data sources}, and {5. The actual data}. In my trees, I use different background colors for each type, which helps me identify at a glance what sort of element I am looking at: in the attached, issues and sub-issues have a light-grey background, hypotheses are in blue, the data needed is on greenish boxes, the data sources are on lime rectangles, and the actual data has no background.

Using symbols, such as checks and crosses, is also a good way to make the most important information stick out in an issue tree.

Using symbols, such as checks and crosses, is also a good way to make the most important information stick out in an issue tree.

Use checks and crosses to capture your conclusions. I like to capture the analysis in my issue tree. That way, I have all the information about my project in one place. A tree helps you stay on target: by using hypotheses, you are not just researching about a topic but you are looking for the answer to a specific question. Therefore, ideally, all the evidence that you gather falls into two categories: either it supports your hypothesis or it contradicts it. (In practice, there’s a third case: inconclusive.) I like to reflect this graphically, by putting a red cross in front of arguments that contradict a hypothesis and a green check mark in front of the ones that support it. Of course, not all arguments have the same weight, so drawing conclusions is more than just a matter of counting if a hypothesis has more arguments in its favor rather than against it, but this technique helps me see at a glance where I stand.

Cross out irrelevant items (don’t delete them). You gather evidence so that you can make conclusions about your hypotheses. Obviously you will end up rejecting some and, as a consequence, you will be able to discard entire branches in your tree. Rather than eliminating these branches, just cross them out. That way they will be there for future reference.

An effective document design captures its "so what?" at various levels

Good design can help written reports

Use collapsable boxes. As your tree grows, you will want to look at the fine details of some of its branches at the same time as coarser elements of other branches. Using a package that allows you to collapse elements is helpful doing so.

Highlight your points of focus. Remember my first argument, above, about using an equal graphical treatment for similar objects? Well, don’t follow it blindly. Your tree is collectively exhaustive. That means that, if you are building a “how” tree, it has all the possible answers to your problem. Some will be highly effective, cheap and quick to implement. Others will be marginally useful at best, cost a fortune and rival with building a cathedral in terms of implementation. And all the others will fall in between. So as you start your analysis it is fine to treat every branch in the same way but as you find that a branch is more relevant than another, feel free to attract attention to it.

Use design as a tool to convince

Good design isn’t useful just for the analysis. It also helps convincing others.

Good design fosters clarity. In a written document, show explicitly your pyramid by summarizing your message in an abstract or executive summary. Then, summarize it again—with more detail—in the table of content. Further, in the body of the text, summarize paragraphs in the margin. Make sure you don’t provide just data, also capture your conclusion (the “so what“). Take UNESCO’s Water in a Changing World as a school-case example of how design can help convey the conclusions of a report.

Good slide design fosters clarity

Good design can also help presentations, for instance by improving clarity

Similarly, good design will improve the effectiveness of your slides. By presenting both data—in the body of the slide—and your conclusion—in the header—you make your message easier to follow (see the attached slide from a BCG presentation as an example).

Good design can help tell a compelling story. Good design is also a vehicle for generating emotions, one of the three pillars of Aristotelean persuasion (with logic and character). Photos, in particular, are strong emotions generators.

Good design can help tell a compelling story.

Good design can help tell a compelling story.

Indeed, if you are going to talk about sick children to generate empathy, it might be useful to show one.

Don’t overdo it

Up until recently, I thought you could not overdo design: good design was good, better design was better. That was until I showed an issue tree to a coworker that received it with a “oh, that’s so pretty”. I never thought of an issue tree as a pretty thing before, but why not? In fact, this was an eye opener for me and, and I’m happy to report that I haven’t changed my opinion: good design is good, better design is indeed better.

But in case someone discards your design as just a pretty thing just be prepared to answer: the look of it is really the tip of the iceberg, what is valuable is the content. As Philippe Starck points out, good design results from making an object not for the object but for its result and the person who will use it.

Just as the Millau Viaduct (also known as “that bridge in the south of France”) is a beautiful construction, it is before all a engineering accomplishment. That it is pretty adds to its character, sure, but it isn’t its character. Sure, it’s pretty; just don’t hold it against it.

To learn more about the importance of design even in highly analytical tasks, read Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind. Also, check Dan’s blog.