Feeling Stuck? Seek Ignorance.

I was reviewing a wireframe of mine the other day with my team and we felt a little stumped by one particular part of the design.  It felt like it was a good design but I couldn’t put into words why I preferred it over the alternate I had proposed.  The team also struggled with giving a name to why it was a better design – until our newest member spoke up.  With her “fresh eyes” she stated simply that the design was better because it made it clear to her what the results of her actions would be and what she was limited from doing in the interface.  The rest of the team gasped and sighed in relief, as though we had been holding our breath until someone put to words what our guts were telling us.  A comment was made that resonated with me – there is often great value in having a fresh pair of eyes when it comes to evaluating a design.

This is true though in many situations in our lives.  Oftentimes we are simply too close to the problem to be able to evaluate it effectively anymore.  At times this can become so strong that we can be blind to an optimal solution even when it is right in front of us.  We can spend a lot of time, money, and energy trying to solve a problem simply because we see no other option when in reality, a fresh perspective could point out a simple, elegant, and achievable solution.

Here’s another example – I really like to go for bike rides when the weather permits.  Here in Vancouver the weather doesn’t really permit all that often, so I’ve taken to wearing a couple of layers for my rides: one to wick sweat and the other to block wind.  In order to avoid overheating I wear a wind-blocking vest.  The combination works for the most part, but it usually results in really cold hands and arms.  Earlier in the spring I would wear gloves that quickly became too hot.  I persisted with this “imperfect solution” as I enjoyed the outdoor ride much more than a stationary bike inside – something was better than nothing.  I wanted to solve this problem though.  How could I continue to ride in cold weather wearing multiple layers, without overheating or becoming too uncomfortable?  I was certain that if I could just find the right gear I could figure this out: some kind of fancy wicking wind-proof top that could keep my arms warm but not too warm …  I was stumped though.  Everything felt like a compromise and not a solution.

Then my wife said something that stopped me in my tracks.  She and I were taking the kids out for the first ride as a family and she was considering wearing a long-sleeved shirt.  Wait – what?  A long sleeved shirt … that wicks … and covers my arms … and that can be rolled up if my arms get too hot … that blocks the wind … of course!  And the very next time I went out riding in the cold wind I wore an old long-sleeved shirt.  And it worked perfectly.

So my wife’s “fresh perspective” proved invaluable – it solved a problem that I, in my blindness, felt was unsolvable.  I was too close to the problem, had too much invested in it.

The trick is to open yourself up to your “external expert voices” – these points of view that have no background in the problem, no history, no knowledge of the blood, sweat and tears that have been shed in arriving at this point.   If you are stumped with a problem, find someone who hasn’t the faintest idea about what you’ve been going through and ask for their advice.  At worst you will get advice that you can ignore, but at best you will find you’ve been blinded by proximity, and a solution will come to light.  As any good BA knows – ignorance can be powerful.

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