Steven Johnson discusses the slow hunch in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. A summary of his thoughts about innovation from the book is found in this TED Talk video. The main premise behind the slow hunch is that innovative ideas are not developed in some definable “a-ha moment” but instead evolve over time.
As I listened to Steven talk about his book this morning at a conference I’m attending, it reminded me of what one of my mentors at Carnegie Mellon University imparted: “Trust the process.” The user-centered design process is inherently iterative and relies on testing and refining hunches.
Let’s face it: the design process itself is scary. As researchers and designers, we must be comfortable with confusion, ambiguity, and the unknown. We live for hunches that we develop on the fly listening to customers and immersing ourselves in the experience of those we design for. A mixture of careful listening (to both words and behaviors), empathy, and relating complex processes to ones we are familiar with allow us to create hunches about what the underlying problems – not just the symptoms – are. Iterative design allows us to vet a large quantity of hunches early and fast. By failing fast, we refine and discard our hunches. Eventually, our hunches start to accurately encapsulate the design challenge, and we can move from hunches to implications and eventually action. But it doesn’t happen overnight.
As user experience experts and designers, we must trust the process. We must be comfortable with slow hunches. We must be comfortable working with hand-drawn sketches and not refined digital interfaces. We have to let go of our pride in our ideas and suspend judgment. We can’t be afraid of being wrong – but must be led by the desire to fully understand needs. If we try to shortcut the slow hunch, we will end up with unfulfilling solutions.
I’ll close with this quote from one of my favorite books, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho:
“When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.”
Following the design process is like diving into a strong current – our hunches can lead us to designs and experiences we never dreamed of. Dive in!