When Should I Do Some ‘Blue Sky’ Design Thinking?
We sometimes find ourselves with the opportunity to do some ‘blue sky’ thinking in our work – a chance to validate design ideas that are not limited to current notions of what is practical or feasible. This allows us to really stretch our creative thinking and study how different industries approach similar situations in user experience (UX) design.
A great time to do this sort of thinking is when you want to investigate whether or not changing something drastically in your product, service, or system might work to improve the UX, or if incremental steps would be better.
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How Would I Go About Doing This?
An example to illustrate an approach we took recently involved a client with multiple electronic health records (EHRs). The project team wanted to begin the long-term unification of the EHRs by undergoing a deep-dive redesign of one portion of them. Focusing on one portion, as a pilot test, allowed the team to bite off a chewable piece of the applications and begin acquiring direct user feedback on the redesigns.
Our client encouraged us in the early stages of redesigning to really think outside the box about the UX, and to investigate other solutions to current end user pain points in their EHRs. This encouraged us to explore if there were drastically different ways of presenting the data to end users (e.g. physicians and nurses) that might work from both usability and usefulness perspectives.
Our UX team set out to research multiple ways of presenting the data and discussed and validated them during internal design critiques. We were focused on data visualization, so explored industries such as finance, energy, and other healthcare applications such as patient portals. When we had reasonable ideas flushed out enough to evaluate with end users, they incorporated both enhancements to the current design and some very new ‘blue sky’ ideas as well.
Some of the blue sky solutions were unique to this healthcare problem space because they summarized and synthesized data for users that is not typically done. For example, having a patient’s lab results visualized to show the frequency of each result and what the patient’s typical range is for that result, in comparison to the reference range. The design team hypothesized that presenting information like this would be beneficial to users so they could quickly understand how their patients were doing, in comparison to their ‘normal’.
After conducting formative usability testing, users found the summarized and synthesized data produced from our blue sky thinking usable but not useful. Instead, the data from the test identified small tweaks to the enhanced current design that would improve the UX and patient care drastically. This resonated with the project team because products, systems, or services can suffer from the “death of a thousand cuts”. Now we knew what elements of design we needed to focus on.
We discovered that in this context, the devil was in the details. These design details can provide the ‘wow’ factor that healthcare end users are looking for by better meeting user needs and expectations. Typically, healthcare applications and devices are not “walk-up-and-use” applications because of their complexity and end users’ satisfaction does not rely heavily on aesthetics. Instead, a healthcare application’s ‘wow’ factor lies in its ease of use, efficiency, and its ability to support patient safety. The impact of this ‘wow’ should be measured upon usage as opposed to whether or not users find it visually appealing.
Examples of the type of details we had to focus on include:
- Supporting both users with many years of clinical knowledge and those who are new to the industry through controls such as showing/ hiding reference content.
- Providing users with flexibility based on patient condition and preferences through controls such as saved, customized, and ad-hoc filters.
- Bringing forward information from historical lab results to show the change between current and previous results, so as to provide an indication of a possible trend.
- Enhancing the visual design to better show related groupings of information such as sub-department and panels of lab results.
It also turned out that our users preferred some elements of the solution’s design which, typically, would violate design best practices. For example, information-dense pages were preferred so that more could be seen on a screen at once in order to make clinical decisions based on many pieces of data. Users were willing to stay and stare at one page to get a better understanding of the data rather than navigating through multiple levels of the application.
The Key Takeaway: The ‘wow’ factor in some professional applications, like EHRs, needs to be appealing in ways that are different than for consumers.
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Why Explore the ‘Blue Sky’?
Despite that we did not move forward with some of the ideas from our recent ‘blue sky’ thinking, the exercise was still worthwhile. A design process that includes ‘blue sky’ thinking is great because it allows teams to do more within these activities:
- Checking in on other industries and evaluate and compare their approaches and solutions.
- Validating whether or not a drastic change would provide the desired user experience and be worth implementing.
- Reimagining an experience.
- Identifying inefficiencies and ineffective design elements.
- Challenging current processe and policies.
Proceeding with a blue sky idea can be daunting, or even challenging, but usually results in a successfully implemented creative idea, or yields some sort of valuable insight.
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A Failed Experiment Has Value Too
Don’t underestimate the value of a disproved hypothesis; it also allows design teams to learn, move forward, and be better informed. If you have a blue sky design idea of your own, but aren’t sure how to implement it or if you need some out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to user experience, we’d love to chat about how we can help!
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