This week in my classroom, my UX design intensive students started working on their second project, a web site redesign. This is the second week of the program, and we have given them several different new UX methods for ideation and discovery, as well as a list of deliverables and a process to follow. After a few days of workshop time and student questions, I noticed a common thread: although they had been asked to generate sketches and user flows and sitemap drafts, many, if not most of them, found themselves staring at one or two blank or sparsely-populated pages, not knowing where to go next, and feeling very frustrated.

When I dug into it with each of them, I heard a similar story. Millions of ideas swirled around in their heads, and they struggled to find the right one and harness it. Kind of like the “flying skeleton keys” scene in the first Harry Potter film. When I asked them about those ideas, their faces lit up -- they were able to tell me about each one, what had inspired them, and why they had talked themselves out of it. When I asked if I could see how they had made these conclusions, however, I was met with blank stares. All the editing and ruling out had happened in their heads, before they allowed themselves to create anything. So they were left empty-handed and frustrated, feeling as though all the spark-flying, new-synapse-firing work they had done during the course of the week had been all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

After about the sixth of these conversations, the proverbial light bulb went off in my head. I went to the front of the classroom, took a marker, and wrote in giant letters on the board:


I got all their attention, got them to take this in, think about it, and have a quick discussion about it. Why not, I asked them? Show your thinking process, one said. Allow yourself to get messy, said another, quoting a treatise against perfectionism I had given a few days earlier. How about being able to get anything done in the first place?

It’s the very same block that writers find ourselves facing -- that Anne Lamott addresses head-on in Bird By Bird. Allowing ourselves to be imperfect, to write “shitty first drafts,” is the only way to write anything at all. Getting the ideas out into some form one can see and touch is the precursor to being able to effectively assess and hone those ideas.

I encouraged all the students to slow down, get all the ideas captured in some form or other, along with the hypotheses that inspired each idea and whatever questions arose in their heads that inclined them to rule the ideas out. Then they could look across all the ideas and edit, cross out, combine, build on, or otherwise use their ideation as a foundation. Their shoulders collectively dropped from their ears, and they heaved a collective sigh of relief.

What we learned: Every finished creation, every journey, can only begin when we take the first step. Even when that step is off the cliff’s edge, unsure of whether you’re wearing a parachute.