A Concrete Example of How to “Really” Think “Out-of-the-Box”

A Concrete Example of How To “Really” Think “Out-of-the-Box”

(Note: This is a Sample Editing by Kim Schmidt of David J. Kelley’s blog post http://hackingsilverlight.blogspot.com/2010/09/its-ok-to-think-out-of-box.html)

A common axiom that both educators and employers are currently encouraging is to “think out-of-the-box”. Frankly, this axiom is also used to measure intelligence: not monkey see, monkey do, but rather challenge the norm and think differently, unconventionally, and from a new perspective. History has proven with geniuses’ of the past such as Einstein, Thomas Edison, and a copious list of other innovators of current truisms and creators of ingenious inventions or theories that most “out-of-the-box” thinkers were ridiculed in their day; yet, they are the fathers of innovation that have literally changed our world forever.

Consequently, you might often be asked to do this in your job as a developer or designer. You’re often asked to “push the envelope” and create something that’s never been done before. The great majority of the time what you end up doing is pushing your comfort zone only enough to find another comfort zone. Is that “really” thinking out-of-the-box? Do you really feel comfortable forging ahead and blazing new trails?

Let me give you a concrete example of out-of-the-box thinking by explaining how my team at my company approached a project recently. The project requirements were to build a touch wall for Nike Basketball to be presented at The World Basketball Festival in New York City. One of the key requirements was to assist the target demographic (i.e. males, ages 14 to 35) connect with the history of basketball.

First of all, the notion of “history” of any kind in most ideation processes is going to include a timeline. Timelines, however, are inherently boring. It was unambiguous that my team had to think out-of-the-box and conceive a more intriguing version of a timeline, without copying some other overly-used design metaphor like the carousel. The conundrum my team faced was how do we “really” abandon all conventions ever used and create a user interface so unique and engaging that it would give the targeted demographic the “wow-factor”. Below I will describe three points that enabled my team to build a really sexy User Experience (in this case, all about the history of basketball).

Emotional Connections

One of the biggest problems most User Experience professionals have is understanding their users. Most of the time, although you’ve been told who the target demographic is, you don’t try to get into their heads to then create what they would think is awesome. Recognizing the fact that you might not, as a team, given sufficient consideration to this is a real good start to out-of-the-box thinking.

The dilemma this now poses is once you think you understand them, how do you know that’s true? I would proclaim that once you think you understand them, know that you don’t; a group people are diverse, and each individual is always changing. Therefore, don’t stop getting to know them.

A good analogy is an actor studying a character for a movie. Although the actor is studying one individual, this methodology can be applied to groups as well. An actor “becomes” the character; he knows the characters personality, quirks, likes and dislikes. It’s then that the actor can know and understand the character at the deepest level.

Once you connect with your target demographic like an actor studying his character, continue to connect emotionally to them so you can better cater to them. This gives User Experience designers the basis for building a UX that takes that experience to the next level. You can then authenticate how well you understand your users and then gage how well your out-of-the-box ideas will be appreciated. The user then is the judge of your ideas and not your preconceived notions about them.

When you are building User Experiences it’s vitally important to keep this process of creating emotional connections with your users, because how well you connect will be the foundation upon which your ideas will pass or fail. I cannot emphasize this point enough: to really get out-of-the-box thinking, this emotional connection is critical. Once you’ve accomplished this first objective with success, it will help you with the next two points I’m going to talk about.

Communication, Communication, Communication

It’s crucial to confirm that when building an awesome UX, that you are not the only participant. With my team, it helps for us to think of ourselves as a single unit. It’s definitely not the developers vs. the designers. This single unit is comprised of the designers, the developers, the information architects, the UX architects, the project manager(s), as well as the customer and target demographic representatives. It’s all of us working together. Anyone familiar with group or team dynamics knows the bottom line of success is always communication. It’s important that this communication allows ideas to flow freely, in a positive, non-critical way. No idea is a bad idea – it’s the degree of awesomeness that matters. The outcome of this type of brainstorming always results in superior and extraordinary ideas. This type of communication coupled with understanding the business goal, the return on investment (ROI), the technology, the information and the content with a group of people who are truly passionate about their jobs results in perfect team synergy that produces exceptional results.

In regard to the Nike touch wall project I mentioned earlier, the type of brainstorming previously described was key to this project’s success. In connecting emotionally with our target demographic, our team knew they were passionate about many different aspects of basketball. These aspects fit into two separate categories for us to present. One category is the history of basketball, which included the history of shoes, stories, etc. and the other category included the athletes and their signature moves. During one of our brainstorming sessions, someone in the room (not a developer or designer) suggested “Why don’t we use two timelines, one for each category?” Initially, most of the team scoffed at the idea, but ultimately it turned out to be the most unique idea – there was no reason not to at least try it.

We created a prototype application using the dual timeline which would expand and enhance depending on which elements were of interest to the user. When we tested this application by putting it in front of the target demographic, we were surprised at how well this concept worked! When we made the final application, we added a slight bit of gratuitous movement which made it easier for users to understand the content and the way the dual timeline worked, making an element of interest to the user easier to discover.

Let the Users Decide

Putting the Nike touch wall prototype in front of the users was pivotal in the applications success. Oftentimes, developers and designers jump to conclusions about the users; however, nothing works better than putting the User Interface (UI) in front of your target demographic and let them decide how cool the UI/UX is, or not.

One reason for putting your UI ideas in front of your users is for your team to verify that they’ve emotionally connected to the target user successfully. One fundamental tool my team finds efficacious is to have virtual people that personify your typical user. This method makes it easier to help your team understand the target user and subsequently assists in finding a real life version of the user. Even informal UX testing with the user helps tremendously; in fact, with our project we used informal UX testing initially and then additionally used more formal UX testing at all phases of the project to let the user guide our creativity and thinking. This allowed us to focus on what worked best and ultimately discover that our out-of-the-box idea really worked.


In summary, letting ideas flow and putting at least the most unique ideas – if not all – in front of users can help expedite out-of-the-box thinking. Involving your entire team to brainstorm and leaving no idea untested by your users facilitates success.

The reason thinking out-of-the-box is essential is that this is how you’ll find “the next best idea”, and through that idea and the emotional connection with your user, the more likely your UX will be a masterpiece.

Indeed, getting your team well versed in “communication” and “brainstorming”, as well as getting their enthusiastic involvement will take time, like any new technique. However, don’t let that deter you, for this methodology is proven to accomplish “real” out-of-the-box ideas, which is vital in creating compelling and exciting user experiences.

Go forth and think out-of-the-box! I hope to see your next hot and sexy User Experience!

Thank You to David J. Kelley & Wirestone for Creating Such a Compelling User Experience by “Thinking Out of the Box”!

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