Natural Planning: a practical approach to enhance productivity in UX Design


sually, when one starts talking productivity, the crowd of designers slowly moves away. “Let’s leave productivity and process to engineers and project managers…” we think. We, designers, don’t really need to care about those things. “Productivity interferes with creativity…” we think again. In this article, we’ll demonstrate that by increasing personal productivity, creativity is enhanced, problems are solved, design is improved.

The App and the Bug

Which Information Architect or Interaction Designer never find him/herself in a situation where the whole project seems blocked, entangled in endless discussions with the team about some weird requirements coming from the client at the last minute? Which client never tried to push into the project another of these “great functionalities he saw on the web last week-end” while discussing the final details of a transaction process?
Here are just two examples among many others of what regularly happens when productivity is not properly addressed:

— Your client: "Last week-end, my grand-son showed me this great website…"

— You: "…*!?:-/"

Situation #1: The App
The project is relatively simple: a corporate information website, mostly static, has to be redesigned. Budget is short. You’ve been working mostly on your own for about a month to come up with an elegant and usable architecture. On a weekly basis, you’ve been sharing your work with the client. Today, you’re presenting the final version of the wireframes during a meeting with the entire client’s team. Suddenly, one of their team member declares that all PDF documents must be displayed in full-screen PDF player, “like the one on Slideshare, with the chaptering system”. Your field of vision suddenly reduces, your jaws get locked, you stop breathing and you think: “Wait a minute! That’s a minimum of an additional five days of reorganization and redesign; plus that doesn’t make ANY sense for their website!”, while the rest of the team silently thinks YOU should have proposed the functionality first.

Situation #2: The Bug
You’ve been working for 2 months one a complex e-commerce platform which needs to be entirely redesigned. The existing website is unnecessarily complicated, especially the transaction process that would loose the most dedicated and stubborn user. Your solution works well. It’s simple, fast, flexible and attractive. You’ve been documenting the solution with a highly detailed process flow. You’re presenting the final version to the client’s technical consultant who sees it for the first time (he has been remarkably absent during the project…) Suddenly, the consultant declares that “allowing a check-out without making the account creation mandatory is not a best practice. Thus, the flow should be modified.” Your neck freezes, your mouth gets dry, your stomach feels like a stone and you think: “What!? How can he says something like that! He barely knows the details of the flow! The transaction process is going to lose all its fluidity!”

Let’s get organized!

What happened in these situations? And what we you going to do about it? The common aspect to these two examples is the lack of definition in one of the previous phases of the project. Goals and strategy haven’t been fully addressed, content mapping you’ve made has been partially ignored, functional framework is incomplete, nobody knows if enough ideas have been generated in the process…
Most of the time, you or somebody else will come up with a solution like “We have to get ORGANIZED!” Sure. But what does that really mean “to get organized ?” In fact, what really happens in these situations is that we naturally step back. We instinctively feel that the solution will only come by establishing a broader view of the problem. What are the user needs? What do the persona say about the usages? What is the communication strategy? What are the core objectives of the platform? Did we considered ALL the options, all the ideas beforehand? In these situations, we’re naturally looking for a higher view and that’s definitely the right thing to do.

The horizontal and the vertical views

Designers can develop a vertical practice of organization.

Information Architects are good at organizing things. That’s basically their job description: “Efficient and organized; Excellent at managing complex architectures…” We, IAs, love to get organized, just for the sake of it. In a common sense, organization means control. We use methods and tools to make sure we’re in control of our projects: planning, workflow, to-do lists, task managers, collaborative workspaces, etc. All these tools are great to get in control. We see things coming in advance, we are never late, we check all tasks and status, we plan phone calls and meetings for all the projects we have. We feel great doing that… until something gets stuck in the flow.
The practice of control can be compared to an horizontal line. Like a tennis player we swiftly move from left to right, forward and backward, in order to hit all the ball. However, a tennis player never has the chance to move upward, 100 feet above the ground, in order to get a “Big Picture” of the game. We, designers, can do that for our projects. We can develop a vertical practice of organization, a practice which naturally focus on building a higher perspective on actions, something that gets you far above the ground level, so you don’t get stuck in situations with your clients again.

The Natural Planning Model

"We’re already familiar with the most brilliant and creative planner in the world: our brain."

David Allen

For twenty years, David Allen, one of the world’s most influential thinkers on productivity and author of the bestseller “Getting Things Done”, has developed a method for stress-free performance at work and in life that has been introduced to tens of thousands of people across the world. David Allen states that “it’s possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.” For all the “Getting Things Done” practitioners, the method provides a major change. The discovery that emptying our head from all the endless thoughts — that otherwise never find proper answers — without loosing any potential useful ideas, immediately increases our effectiveness.
As a part of his global productivity method, Allen has created a model that enhances “vertical” focus, a productive way to think of projects and situations. By chance, it is also the way we naturally think and plan when we consciously start a project, may it be buying a new bike, designing a website or investing in a startup company. As Allen states, “we’re already familiar with the most brilliant and creative planner in the world: our brain.” Thus, the Natural Planning Model is based on the way we naturally function.

The Five Levels of the Natural Planning Techniques

Defining purpose and principles
Defining the purpose is answering to the question “Why?” Why are we redesigning this website? Why are we meeting today? At this level, is crucial to define the fundamental reasons of the actions that constitute the project and the principles that frame it.

This phase is supported by:

  • Audit report
  • Requirements (functional, technical, content…)
  • Persona

Outcome visioning
In order to advance with effectiveness in any project we commit to, we need to have a clear picture of the whole. This is the “What?” of the project. What is the general shape of the platform? What will the user be experiencing? This level requires speed and agility in order to create a vision in a short period of time.

This phase is supported by:

  • Sketching technics
  • Strategy / concept models
  • Concept design
  • Experience maps

Making a decision without having all the options in front of us usually generates frustration and uncertainty. This level is dedicated to generating as much ideas as possible. Only when you have determined all the underlying possibilities, you can make clear and solid decisions.

This phase is supported by:

  • Brainstorming technics
  • Workshops, focus groups…
  • Card sorting, mindmapping
  • Benchmarks

By generating enough ideas in the previous phase, you’ll see emerging an underlying organization. You’ll notice groups, relationships, categories and structures that were already there. This is the stage where you’ll have to communicate the organization to the clients, so it is crucial to come up with an organization that speaks for itself.

This phase is supported by:

  • Functional framework
  • Content strategy diagrams
  • Functional flows
  • Site map, wireframes…

Identifying next actions
This is the part where you’ll have to decide “who does what and when” for every moving parts of the project. This is a reality check of the previous phases. If some pending questions remain, it is probably necessary to step back to one the phases in the natural planning model.

This phase is supported by:

  • List of actionable items / Process actions
  • Delegating actions
  • Scrum meetings

The Flow of the Natural Planning

The Natural Planning is a flow, a combination of bottom-up and top-down thinking. When you’ll meet another complex situation (some unformulated requirements from a client, a unclear organization in the content, a fuzzy strategy…), you’ll naturally move upward or downward in the flow in order to get either a broader view (defining purpose, outcome visioning) or to verify your options in details (organizing, identifying next actions). The Natural Planning is a practice, like yoga. The more you do it, the better you are at it. It’s a way to become more flexible, agile, and quicker at finding creative solutions: defining a better framework (purpose, principles and vision), generating more options (ideating), being more convincing with your team and your client (organizing) and moving quicker into production (next actions).

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