Data Driven Creativity

When crafting solutions for users we understand that relying on hard metrics, ecosystem contexts, engagement patterns etc. is something we must do to maximize impact and reduce risks. However, when it comes to designing processes through which we create, we pay little attention to how we schedule our own time and allocate our capacities. By solely focusing on estimating the actual design work (how long it takes us to code or draft something) we often underestimate or even omit accounting for research stage, time needed for meetings, feedback gathering etc. Once the budget (if you are freelancing) and/or amount of time is agreed upon, it can be hard and rather uncomfortable to renegotiate in the middle of the project when we realize time was spent on something not foreseen in the appraisal. This leaves us with a choice between lesser of two evils, either underprice and work extra or sacrifice time we allotted for design.

I don’t know about you but I don’t enjoy working for free very much and at the same time am passionate about pushing my designs to reach maximum quality. As a defensive strategy I have welcomed several tools and methodologies in my processes which I am sharing here to help optimize creation through tracking, productivity, prioritization as well as measurable goals so that we may better address both our designs and work habits.

Time Management & Tracking

To start using our time more effectively we first have to observe where the opportunities and redundancies are – we do so by time tracking. Tool I found invaluable for both tracking and managing time as well as productivity is RescueTime.
data trend illustrating productivity

It is a suite of web, desktop and mobile applications which tracks your activity (web sites you visit, applications you have running etc.) and assigns productivity levels (as illustrated above) and categorizes each activity:
most time spent by application
Ultimate goal is insight into when you are most productive, when least and where the biggest inefficiencies are. RescueTime enables us to quickly identify patterns accepting of tasks which require focus and also to address inefficiencies by setting up notifications for when you start slacking off or if you really want to get focused by blocking distracting sites and applications.

Project Cycle Pattern Management

Time tracking can be used as a skeleton to add on many other layers such as project time management. This is especially useful if you work on similar types of projects recurrently as gathering data allows us to more accurately estimate resources required next time a similar project comes along.

Two tools I would recommend in this category are Clockodo and Harvest. Harvest is more suited for teamwork and detailed analytic dives into things while Clockodo is in my opinion a rather humble tool perfect for quickly generating reports and delivering actionable overviews.

 

resource allocation dashboard

 

So next time a similar project comes along, you will be able to pull up the data from the previous one and say, ok I spent 15% of the time on research and 20% of the time on meetings with the client, leaving me with 65% for design and development.

Task Prioritization

Remaining flexible in our processes is essential to progress and prioritization viability, especially if there are simultaneous projects or clients in our queue. One of the best ways to ensure you can pivot quickly from one project to next if there is a bottleneck delaying the schedule or allocated resources are suddenly unavailable is micro tasking. Breaking your objectives into many smaller tasks allows you to do two things: one – attack on multiple fronts, and two – track efficiency through prioritization.

 

GoalScape progress, scope and allocation map

Working simultaneously on multiple projects and their numerous sub tasks can be complicated. Luckily there is Goalscape (illustrated above), an ingenious goal management tool that makes prioritization and tracking of tasks not only easy but also fun.

Gaining a clear overview of progress not only enables us to shift our attention to areas of project that are lagging behind but also to more quickly recognize interdependencies and plan accordingly to avoid any delays.

Focused Actions

An alternative and slightly more traditional approach can be found in the Action Methodology developed by Behance. It thrives on the principle of doing more with less.

Action method task prioritization

The key to Action Method is leaving every occasion (a meeting, an article you read, a conversation) with a clear set of tasks that need to be completed.

 

Limited space you are given for actions in either online or mobile or paper applications of the methodology forces you to clearly communicate to yourself or your team just what needs to be achieved and eliminate redundancy.

One of my favorite features of the methodology is the Focus Area, it is a shorthand list of 5 and only 5 tasks you may keep as your top priority. At first it may sound like plenty but once you fill it up for the first time and try adding one more task and realize you can’t, you really have to reevaluate what is more important right now. Limitations we set for ourselves are essential to effective prioritization and progress.

Adopting Benefits

Before raking in benefits you must establish a base for your metrics, so setting up any of the tools mentioned above to either run in the background or log and tweak manually for about a month should give you a solid understanding of where you’re at now and what the biggest opportunities for improvements are. Please note that using any tool is irrelevant in compassion to what you do with the resulting data.

It is also worth pointing out that none of the above mentioned tools are free or relatively cheap (free trials available for each) and I believe that is detrimental to their success in optimizing your process. If you pay for something you are more likely to use it and try and squeeze as much value out of it to justify the investment in both short and long run.

Learning more about how we conduct and manage our processes can’t be a bad thing so you should do that anyhow. However, how you use gathered data has incredible potential and each one of us may use it differently, I hope these suggestions assist or inspire you to create more successful project cycles for yourself and your teams.