Step 1 — Loosen up by stoking
Before starting Gen Synth, we warm up with a stoking exercise. You may be asking yourself, what in the world is “stoking?” Stoking means to encourage or excite, and also, to add fuel to a fire. IDEO describes it as a short, playful activity you can do as a team to ‘stoke’ creativity and vulnerability.
Some examples include playing catch with an imaginary object, or passing a drawing back and forth. Doing activities like this is the perfect icebreaker — you loosen up, you laugh at yourself, and you get in sync with your “other half.”
Especially if you’re the Generator, you can start warming up your ideation muscles. As the Synthesizer, you learn how to anticipate and respond to your partner’s ideas.
Step 2 — Decide roles
Next is to decide who plays the part of Generator and Synthesizer, although the goal is to design like you’re “one brain.”
The Generator is the one whose job is to churn out ideas without judgement. She or he is usually the first to draw or write on the whiteboard. She writes lists, draws personas, diagrams, flows. She’s unstoppable!
The Synthesizer is the one who harnesses the power of the Generator into a usable idea. She or he asks challenging questions that tries to distill, improve or strengthen the design against business constraints or possible edge cases. She’s a master conductor!
It’s lucky that Chrysan leans towards Synth and Maggie lean towards Gen, because we can combine our strengths into a pretty awesome design force. But any designer uses both skills when they work, so we experiment with both roles when we pair design at WW. A helpful tip is to swap roles when you feel stuck, for example — when the generator is out of ideas, or the synthesizer can’t find the right words to strengthen the design.
Step 3 — Start with the problem
Like any other design process — we start with the problem we’re solving. But the Gen/Synth framework helps us define this faster. The generator will start sharing user problems from research, and the synth starts guiding the conversation to arrive at the most relevant problem for both the user and business goals.
Write the problem on the whiteboard/paper/design file — so you can refer back to it later. Depending on the scope of the problem, decide on a timeframe for pair-designing. Start a timer, and jump to the next step.
Step 4 — Let the ideas flow
Now, time for the ideas! If you’re the synthesizer, you should give the generator a head start and room to breathe at the whiteboard (maybe 3–5 mins). Stand back and absorb.
The goal of this step is to just come up with as many ideas as possible. As a Gen, sometimes you want to start critiquing your ideas as they come out of your brain. Keep reminding yourself that that’s what your Synth is for — don’t stop the ideation flow! You can draw quick concept sketches, write a list, or just think aloud with your Synth.
Step 5 — Narrow down and decide
Now that you have a bucketload of concepts, the Synth helps to narrow down the ideas to the best one. She starts thinking out loud, critiquing the ideas and concepts as the Gen writes or draws, reminding her of the user goals and research insights along the way.
As a synthesizer, this is the part where you can really shine and have fun. Although most people think Gen is the “fun” role, Chrysan actually loves the process of synthesizing. It’s where the ideas start to pick up traction, and you can see which ones stir up the most excitement and could possibly take on life. As the Synth, throw the best ideas up against feasibility, business goals, time constraints, and the very important “gut feeling” to decide on the ultimate design to pursue.
Step 6 — Sketch a flow
Once the Synth has guided the pair towards the strongest concept — it’s time to pair-design a user flow. The Gen starts to come up with ideas for each step, and the Synth questions, critiques, and guides.
For example, the Synth starts asking questions like… “What if …. ?” “What happens next…?” “How does the user decide… ?”
Don’t forget to think aloud, no matter which role you’re playing. When you pair design, you are not an island, so don’t assume your partner can read minds.
Step 7 — Refine
With a solid user flow on the whiteboard/paper/Sketch, it’s time to think through edge cases, transitions, user extremes, and any of those details that make your engineers swoon.
The Synth will look through the flow and start trying to break the design with challenging questions (“What happens when she has 10,000 photos? No photos? She hasn’t given us permission to use the camera?”) The Gen will draw several solutions, while the Synth guides the team to the strongest one (Synth: “would that be a new pattern?”)
Step 8 — Document and reflect
Woohoo! You have a solid concept to share with engineers and PMs. Now it’s time to take pictures of all your work, or if you’ve been pair designing on a computer, save your Sketch files and title the pages.
To wrap things up, reflect on what worked and what didn’t work. For example, maybe you both realized ideation went on too long. Or perhaps, it would have been better to work through the user flow before stepping into UI.
After one of our retros, we decided to not pair design at the end of the day, since it’s best to collaborate when we have fresh minds and more energy.
Step 9 — CELEBRATE!
Pair designing, though exhilarating, can also be totally draining. So take a moment to celebrate after all your hard work!
It’s funny how “getting stuck” is a such a normal part of the design process… Yet we still seem to encounter it with exasperation and feelings of betrayal. (“This shouldn’t be happening!! Maybe I’ll just read a Medium post and get another latte! Hrmph!” *Storms off*)
At WW, we’ve found the Gen Synth process not only helps “unstick” us, it makes our work stronger, and makes the old trope of the lonely, isolated designer working in her cave a thing of the past.
We get asked a lot “When or for what type of problem should you use Gen Synth for?” We feel that the beauty of Gen Synth is that it’s adaptable for any type of problem. We have used it for a variety of design challenges — so tweak the approach to what works for you.