The process of design: Gross to Subtle
Experience design is as complex as any other kind of design and follows to some degree the same processes. We look at problems that sometimes can be solved through logic and attention to detail, but the most interesting and far reaching challenges we take on cannot be solved in that way. They require highly divergent thinking, an excellent filter to narrow those possibilities down, and a fearless resolve. The work must be done, there are no epiphanies.
We often begin with introducing ourselves to the challenge, understanding the breadth of it, seeking any foothold onto that colossal and perplexing wall of ice. Have others been here before, and what paths did they take? What tools will help? What is within reach? Have I climbed something similar before?
You walk around this thing, playing through your head a million scenarios, remembering hundreds of things you've done before and pooling all your energy into understanding the problem. At some point, you'll exhaust yourself as you reach yet another dead end, yet another hurdle. Your solutions are not solutions at all, they're investigations that end in frustation. At some point you have to stop investigating and explore.
Exploration should be free of what has been, the knowledge you have accumulated and the things that you know. This is a new problem, and learning can only be experienced in the now, not in the past of your thoughts and ideas. You need to look at everything with beginner eyes, and have a sense of naive appreciation for the wild landscape around you. Stilling your mind from the noise of the inner monologue will allow you to experience all facets of the problem as it stands, not how you imagine that it is. You'll notice small things that look new to you now that see them, and you'll relax and stop to judge yourself and the situation. Where there is conflict there can be no freedom. Creativity can only exist in freedom.
Finally you'll be still long enough to hear the solution. It has been there for longer than you know, just you needed to slow down and quieten down to hear it through the chaos that is a mind in agony over a problem. The first thing you will do is draw or jot down some words, lo-fi, easy and tactile. The more you try and think, the harder it is to hear it clearly, so experiencing is the only way forwards. By prototyping and playing with the thing, you craft something that makes you smile. Something that makes you feel that vibration of joy that only comes from reaching this point on this kind of journey. It's only just begun though.
You are at the gross end of the spectrum. You are moulding your solution from fresh discovery as you experience it. It has rough edges, it is ugly, it is incomplete and raw. Yet it is full of promise, and insight. It's likely that its hard for others to understand it, without you taking them on the journey you have been on, so they also can share in its awkward awesomeness. It is probably but a few lines of sharpie on the back of a napkin after all.
After many many rounds of refinement, it will be a sophisticated, mature and fully thought through, original solution. It is subtle. Those who use it as a final product will feel the intensity of it, although they may not understand that vibration they get from it. They will break into a smile, be filled with passion using your product, and never really know how far you had to go to retrieve it. You sweated the details down to the last one. That's part of the beauty. When the work is not done, when the journey from gross to subtle is not travelled, you can tell. You feel the shallowness of it, you feel the immaturity in the work.
Either they failed reaching exploration because they pressured themselves to design a solution immediately, fearing the great unknown. Or they having never been on the journey, they never knew it was there, taking a bludgeon to the wall of ice instead of failing to se the possibilities.
In the gross end of the spectrum live sketching, brainstorms, and mappings. How does it work and does it fulfil their need? At the subtlest end of the journey there is look and feel, colour, texture...does it delight and consume them? This is a long journey for products, with many iterations in between, on the spectrum. It requires everything you have: left and right hemispheres, all your time, all your energy and all your courage.
This is the work of design. Although led by individuals, it is successful only in teams, for you will need the richness that different perspectives offer. For many, it is their first journey, and as the designer it is up to you to guide them through it to the other side and give them heart in the steep mountains.