Seven Tips For Keeping Creative While on Deadline

Creativity is for hippies… and well everyone else as well.

In my previous post (“Ode to the Art of Product Development.”), I waxed on the artsiness of product and UX development.  Still these professions are not always treated so.  Often there is a trap that even I fall into, where we expect that anyone can plan/layout a site as long as they understand user experience concepts or the product goals. And that when the site moves to the graphic designers, that’s when the real artsy magic happens.


But it takes some serious problem solving, inspiration and creativity to lay out a site in a logical, readable, attractive manner that supports the product goals and suits the target market’s needs.  This especially can get difficult with more “tool” like websites that must be easy to use for a variety of different workflows.  Or for those in product development, discovering that perfect product or “tool” for your market.

Glad I never worked in a place like this...


Knock Knock. Mr. Deadline who?


But we don’t have time!  Deadlines press on us and the world turns!  And often we try to set a time limit on the product and UX design process.

Sometimes an hour is not enough...

Marty Cagan speaks about this in his book Inpired: How to Create Products Users Love (a must read for web professionals even if you are not a product manager recommended to me by the awesome Mr. Tim Rosenblatt).  I feel that this conundrum of needing to meet deadlines but allowing time for creativity  effects all areas of the web development process including UX design, marketing and software development.


Following are some tips that help me when on deadline and needing to work quickly and creatively… Applicable to all though I may tend to write from a product/ux/consultant point of view.

1.  Research Should Not Be Sacrificed

No matter how snap the decisions have to be made: do not let it snap your necks.  As in, take the time to do SOME research, even if you have to timebox it to a short period of time.  This research can be as simple as searching the internet for inspiration.  All your decisions need to be informed, and being more informed will in the end give you more ideas, helping with your creativity. Best yet, giving you informed ideas! 

2.  Keep Open


While working under pressure do not let that limit you (easy to say, huh?).  Maybe you won’t have time to wireframe out all your pearls.  But atleast start by listing or sketching out all your ideas before pursuing one.  As with research, to ensure you stay on deadline be sure to timebox your brainstorm session.

What is key is to not judge these ideas right away.  The biggest poison to creativity is closing yourself off by judging prematurely.  SURE the idea may be stupid at first, but if you have a little time to follow the thought process out you may arrive at a golden solution. And if you train your brain to judge your ideas immediately, you shut yourself off from fully utilizing its creativity.  Meaning, less ideas come out when you blockoff pathways.  Also, when you move on to picking the key ideas you will pursue, you still have a list of ideas to fall back on.

3.  Keep Focused Via the POWER OF LISTS


 I. Love. Lists. As anyone that knows me… well, knows.  YES keep open but at a certain point you need to hone in (or clear the clutter of your frantic mind).  The best way to keep your priorities straight is to have lists. Make a list at least of your top product goals (or other goals if you are not a product manager).  Also a clear list of feedback is good, when reviewing your solution for a 1st,  2nd or 3rd time.  Try to keep these lists short though… even with feedback, try to boil it down to key points.

Now you have these lists, use them.  When you get lost, refer back to them and center yourself.  Another reason why for product manager’s personas (<– click there to read all about the magic of personas) are key!


4.  Digitally Brainstorm, Save Trees, Save Time


For the first three tips you could do this on paper.  And for sketching that is often the fastest unless you have a tablet and software skills.  But for the rest, try to do this using google docs, a word processor program or a awesome list software like WorkFlowy.

Why? Because when the time comes to present your ideas, spec your ideas, etc, you already have them typed up.  Clean them up and VOILA.  Saves you time from parsing your scribbles on paper and transcribing them for that power point. Yay, for copy and paste!  In addition, those brainstormed ideas are digitally saved for later.

5.  Feedback early and often

No one likes to waste their time (or your client’s, colleagues, etc).  You will find when you are working close with your client (maybe even in the same room) you will move faster.  Or if this is not a client situation, your teammates, test user, etc. Like in a game of Marco Polo, you need to get feedback often or you may hit into the wall of the pool opposite from your target.

For those who have not played Marco Polo. Basically you close your eyes and flail around in a pool trying to tag your friends. When you call "Marco", they must respond "Polo", helping you find them.

Do not do get feedback via email – if possible.  Even if you have to arrange an impromptu, walk over to your client/boss/colleague’s desk for advice or video skype meeting, be sure not to waste your time writing up some big email just to get quick feedback.  Also that way you can see their reaction first hand and quell any worries on their behalf.

6.  Feedback as Inspiration


To continue the last tip’s line of thought, you need to strike a balance between showing people your product too early and shutting them off from you following that train of thought and getting the feedback you need.  This is especially true for consulting… and I could write a whole novel on this. So while I encourage early feedback, do take some time to fully explain your idea and make it clear this is just the beginning of the baby’s life.  Depending on the client, you will have to find the sweet spot, where early is not too soon.

What is important is, do not let feedback/judgement stymy your creativity.  Take it as a challenge/new aspect to design around and not necessarily a reason to move on immediately.  Feedback is not a final deathtoll and is is just a reason to reflect and adapt your idea.  At points you do need to give up the ghost on an idea, but the first negative feedback should not be the death rattle.  And starting over should be avoided especially when on deadline, unless with more feedback you realize its a deadend.  Even then parts and main concepts learned for your idea should be salvaged (thank you Mr. lists).

7.  Take a break


When especially frustrated… take a walk!  Bounce a ball against the wall!  Or if you cannot rip yourself from the computer, just peruse the internet for inspiration.  Something as simple as searching for your key goal words in google images, to see what comes up.  Work smarter, not harder.







So in summary, the above tips are for creativity when in a pinch.  There are of course more tips necessary just to ensure you MEET your deadline. Such as avoiding the dreaded feature creep beast.  But that is a post for another time..


Let’s end with a laugh shall we?  This is what I think about every time I cannot figure out where to place an item while wireframing:

You too good for your home? – S