What Is The Role Of Creativity In UX Design?

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Susan has a Ph.D.in Psychology and over 30 years of experience as a behavioral scientist. She speaks, consults, teaches, and writes about applying behavioral … More about Susan ↬

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Did you know that there are three brain networks that are involved in creativity? In this article, Susan Weinschenk explores what creativity is, the recent brain science on what is happening in your brain when you are being creative, and the role of creativity in UX design.  Is creativity something you can just turn on? Are some people just creative and others aren’t? And if so, which one are you? Let’s explore.

(This article is kindly sponsored by Adobe.) You are working on a project for your client, designing the interface for a new application. There have been lots of meetings about the new product, and now it’s time for you to start working on sketching and prototyping a design.

The screens, pages, and forms you are about to create have to fit within the desires and constraints of several players — the marketing department, the developers, the business owner. Some questions start to form as you work on the interface:

“How creative should I be/am I expected to be with this design? Is my role to implement the vision that someone else has come up with? Should I be taking the ideas and constraints and creating my own vision? How much can I stray from the ideas I’ve been given?”

You speak to your main contact on the project and she says:

“Go for it, be creative. Let’s see what you come up with.”

You’re excited to be given a free hand, but now you have to figure out what does it mean to be creative with UX design and how do you go about “being creative”? Is creativity something you can just turn on? Is it a process you go do? Are some people just creative and others aren’t? And if so, which one are you?

Let’s explore.

What Is Creativity?

Creativity can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. The definition I find the most useful is:

“Creativity is a process that results in outcomes that are original and of value.”

This definition has several implications:

  • Process
    It’s not just the end result that defines whether someone is creative. In order to be creative the assumption is that you have followed a particular process. We’ll discuss the process a little later in this post.
  • Outcomes
    Although process is important, process alone is not enough. In order to claim creativity, you have to have something at the end of the process. You have to have an outcome.
  • Original and of value
    The outcome that you have at the end of the process has to be unique and be of some value to someone.

So what is this creative process? In order to know what process would result in creativity, you first have to understand how the brain works in terms of solving problems or coming up with new ideas.

The Brain Science Of Creativity

A popular idea about creativity is that creativity happens in the “right brain”. That’s actually not accurate. There is new and interesting research on what happens in the brain when people are being creative.

Both the left and right half of the brain are involved in creativity. In fact, there is no one area of the brain where creativity happens. Instead, there are three brain “networks” that are involved in creativity. A network is a collection of different parts of the brain that work together.

Both the left and right half of the brain are involved in creativity.
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The Executive Attention Network

The Executive Attention Network refers to brain activity when you are focused on identifying and solving a problem, or deciding what you need to be creative about.

“What is the best way to design this form so that people who just want the default selections aren’t distracted, but also so that when someone needs one of the exceptions they can find what they need to fill out the form?”

When you stare at your screen and think of the above, you are using the Executive Attention Network. Once you have focused on the problem you want to solve, or the creative idea you want to work on, the next network that gets to work is called the Imagination Network.

The Imagination Network

The Imagination Network works in a mostly unconscious way. It reviews your knowledge and memories, and then runs simulations of possible ways to create what it is you set your intention to create with the executive attention network.

The Salience Network

Lastly there is the Salience Network. This is also a largely unconscious process. The Salience Network monitors the activity in the Imagination Network, and decides what to pick out and bring to your conscious awareness. This is when you have an “Ah-ha!” moment and say to yourself, “Oh, I know, I could try...”

According to Scott Barry Kaufman, these three networks (all working together) is how our brains normally work to solve problems or create (art, music, screens, writing, and so on).

Putting Your Creativity To Work

Given the way the brain works there are things you can do that help it be more creative. Here’s a list of four practical ideas that may sound like common sense, but actually go further than just common sense. They actually help you work with the three networks.

1. Clearly Identify Your Intention

Whether it is a problem you want to solve or a creative idea you want to work on, state and/or write down exactly what you are working on. For example:

  • How should I organize the data on this screen so that people can easily find what they need?
  • What would be a good color to use for the hover on this navigation bar?
  • Is there a container object I should consider so that the conceptual model of this design is clear?
  • Is there a way to show this data visually rather than just having it in a table?

By stating clearly what you are wanting to be creative about, you effectively engage the Executive Attention Network.

2. Take A Break

You’ve clearly stated your intention and your Imagination Network is ready to go to work. The next thing you should do is take some time off from that question/issue. In fact, you should take some time off from any intense mental activity.

If your Executive Attention Network is constantly engaged then it is hard for your Imagination Network to do its work. If possible, go do something that doesn’t require much thought. Go to lunch, go for a walk, return some phone calls; anything that will free up your brain is a good idea. Ideally, you would actually take a nap or go to sleep for the night.

Take  break
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3. Record Your Ah-ha! Ideas

Your Salience Network will eventually start sending ideas to your conscious brain, and you need to be ready. Inspiration may arrive at any time, so be sure to be ready. Keep a pen and paper handy everywhere you go, or a phone near you with your voice recording app easy to access.

There is even waterproof paper and pencils that you can buy to keep in your shower (I do). When you get an idea, write it down. Don’t assume that good ideas will come around again. Capture them when they appear.

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4. Switch Between The High Level And The Detail

Research shows that one of the hallmarks of a creative person is their ability to zoom in and out, from the high level to the detail. I have found that to be true of UX Designers as well.

The best and most creative UX Designers that I know are able to think at a conceptual level about a design and then start sketching a detail screen level the next moment. Then they think about the high-level implication of what they just sketched, and then they swoop back down to the detail level.

If you are not used to doing this, then practice. Let’s say you are going to work on a design for an hour. Set a timer for ten minutes and start with some planning and thinking about the problem/solution at hand on a high level.

When the ten minutes are up, do some detail sketching of one detailed part of what you were thinking about. After ten more minutes, stop working on the details and pull back and think about how what you just worked on fits with the larger structure.

Go back and forth every ten minutes. If you are not used to working this way, it may be hard at first, but try it and see if you find that it actually helps your creativity.

I’ve talked to some UX designers that think that this means that they are disorganized, or that they haven’t done enough high-level work upfront. Upfront high-level work can be very important, but you need to allow yourself the freedom to zoom from high level to detail through the creative design process.

Some designers think that the “right” way to design is to go through the design process in a step-by-step way, going from the large picture (macro-design) to the micro-level. But the best designs are the ones that allow you to go back and forth between macro and micro as you need to.

Practice moving back and forth from a high-level macro view to a low-level micro view. The practice will help you to see the relationships between macro and micro and will also help you improve as a designer.

Encouraging A Creative Mindset

Two more ideas that to encourage a creative mindset are:

  1. Don’t be fooled into thinking that following a process is not being creative.
    A good process helps you be creative. A good process takes care of details, helps you think things through, and helps you set your intention. Most creative UX people follow a process.
  2. Don’t worry about constraints.
    Some people think that having constraints means they can’t be creative. The research shows that people are more creative when there are constraints. There is a lot of research on this topic, but an example study is one by Brent Rosso who concludes from the research that:
“Teams experiencing the right kinds of constraints in the right environments, and which saw opportunity in constraints, benefitted creatively from them. The results of this research challenge the assumption that constraints kill creativity, demonstrating instead that for teams able to accept and embrace them, there is freedom in constraint.”

Source: Creativity and Constraints: Exploring the Role of Constraints in the Creative Processes of Research and Development Teams (Organization Studies, 2014, Vol. 35(4) 551–585)

Of course, being too tightly constrained can stifle creativity, but most of the time the constraints we have (colors we can or can’t use, standards and guidelines we need to follow, fonts we have to use, technology considerations we have to align with, deadlines about when we have to have the prototype done) can actually help us be more creative because they engage the brain networks.

The best thing to do with constraints is to be very clear with them when you are setting your intention with the Executive Attention Network. For example, let’s say you have to come up with a prototype for an app, but you only have three days. When you set your intention with the Executive Attention Network, don’t forget to explicitly remind yourself you only have three days. Other constraints might have to do with the technology you can or can’t use, the size of the screen, the number of pages or screens, and so on.

I hope these ideas have sparked some creativity for you. The next time you start on a new project, set an intention for the next part of your project, then go for a walk, and bring a small pad of paper and a pen with you. You will be amazed at what happens next.

This article is part of the UX design series sponsored by Adobe. Adobe XD tool is made for a fast and fluid UX design process, as it lets you go from idea to prototype faster. Design, prototype and share — all in one app. You can check out more inspiring projects created with Adobe XD on Behance, and also sign up for the Adobe experience design newsletter to stay updated and informed on the latest trends and insights for UX/UI design.

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (cm, ms, yk, il, mrn)