Synthesising Design Deliverables: Borrowing from Jazz Improvisation Luis Rodriguez, UX Designer, asks, “Design studio… now what?”

design synthesis jazzFollowing the buzz around design thinking methods, consumer and consulting companies are buying design agencies with service design practices, trained consultants and in-house resources.  On the other hand, companies like IBM and Pinterest have already become design-first enterprises.

Both scenarios—being either early or late to the design thinking party—present the same potential drawback.

After the initial thrill of the design sessions is gone,  hesitant teams lose momentum dealing with leftovers—like hand-drawn sketches, walls with Post-Its and the lack of guidance re what to do next.

This lack of ROI or immediate impact on products can discourage stakeholders from investing and participating in future sessions. They seek tangible results—i.e. that the ideas result in at least a prototype with measurable usability.

So, how can teams avoid ending up with these piles of unproductive deliverables?

Synthesising UI sketches and ideas, generated during design studio sessions

The typical components of any user interface are familiar, repeating patterns:

  • Inputs

  • Navigation

  • Informational elements

  • Containers

Generally, these are the result of product decisions aimed at aligning business goals and usability tests. However, to enhance user experiences further, decisions must be made. Here is where we can draw from jazz improvisation. Spontaneously, melodies emerge over a stable, repeating cycle of chords that serves as a platform for taking creative chances.

Think of the common semantic UI patterns expected by people, as the repeating chord cycle. Like jazz musicians, we can spontaneously (but not haphazardly) improvise interface design elements and additional patterns that accentuate solutions.

Audio visual equaliser

When improvising, jazz musicians create melodies by stretching the limits of the original harmony and baseline chords. As a design technique, improvisation can also help designers and product owners synthesise ideas generated into common UI patterns and innovative ideas.

The perfect time to find commonalities between sketches is after a design ideation or discovery session.  Arrange UI elements, collections, views and modules over a basic template—these common areas are more than just layout or visual design… they’re functional areas and micro-interactions.

Like a jazz musician, we can  creatively layer commonalities across different sketches and ideas onto existing layouts and templates. We can then test, refine, animate and present to stakeholders for feedback. An added benefit is that design studio sessions generate and maintain enthusiasm about a project.

One design studio example

In a recent design studio workshop, a team of writers, editors, designers and executives sought to combine weak artificial intelligence and user experience to keep users consuming website content—for as long and as frequently as possible. The user data available to them included interactions, transactions and profile information. Once the team aligned human behaviours with content needs, it broke into smaller groups to begin sketching ideas—such as how the potential technology could look, and for whom and where it would be used.

design studio template

Design template distributed to smaller groups to begin sketching


After about 15 minutes, the ideas generated were collected and put on the wall for a group critique:


design studio sketches

Wall with group sketches after design studio

When there are many ideas flowing freely, it can be overwhelming to figure out where to go next. If no progress is discernible, and all the rest of the organisation sees is stickies and drawings on the walls (with no clear outcomes), the UX design discipline can be severely discredited.

Here is where identifying a baseline user interface, similar to a repeating jazz chord pattern, becomes helpful as a starting point for creative design synthesis. Now, there is a different school of thought that suggests the entire team should have an open and sometimes heated debate to converge all drawings. And it seems this approach works  in environments where such exchanges are endorsed. However, our client was still experiencing the growing pains of digital transformation.

The client also typified organisations where the design synthesis process can bring value, because it discreetly accounts for everyone’s input and turns this into concrete next steps. In this case, all the sketches were analysed in a friendly design critique and common areas were identified. These eventually led to a bot user interface comprising the commonalities discovered:

  • User avatars

  • Dialogue

  • Link bubbles

  • Primary and secondary user input containers

  • Cards and tiles design

Our team leads took these different elements and worked with designers to lay down the following template—which formed a basis for further refinement and iteration:

UI design synthesis

Sketch UI elements (credit: HIMVAIS)

This is how borrowing techniques from jazz improvisation can help you narrow different points of view, artefacts and UI sketches into a specific direction for a project—with the ultimate goal of creating a prototype and running usability tests.

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Luis Rodriguez
Luis Daniel Rodriguez is co-founder of Teknolog IO.

He is based out of the Washington DC Metro area and always endeavours to be involved in meaningful projects that have a global reach—whether they are in IoT, design or education. He combines training in design and screenwriting with experience across many industries, while keeping up with emerging technologies.

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