You're about halfway through your project. You've done everything right. The project plan is going swimmingly and you've entered the design phase. Fast forward a few weeks later and you are slowly losing interest. Creativity is ebbing. Your attention span starts to wane. The wind has left your sails—you've hit the project doldrums.
I've worked on some looooong projects, some with one- or two-year long cycles. Anyone who's worked on an operating system would probably put the smackdown on my definition of long, but you can hit the wall on any project, no matter how much time it spans. For me, there is always one surefire method for breaking through—Do more work. Yes, more. Just not on this project. Take on something totally new and unrelated.
A palate cleanser project
You need something that will get the creative juices flowing again, that will leave you hungry to continue with what you were doing. It's the thyme sorbet or pickled ginger of the 9-course tasting menu—the thing that resets your taste buds when you've had enough foie gras already.
Filmmakers sometimes take this approach. The results are often brilliant.
- In 1991, the Coen brothers ran headfirst into a severe bout of writer's block as they worked on Miller's Crossing. Taking a three-week break from this impasse resulted in Barton Fink, which, funnily enough, is about a writer suffering from extreme writer's block.
- Sometimes the palate cleanser becomes the big project. When the director Paul Thomas Anderson was facing writer's block, he picked up a copy of Upton Sinclair's Oil! in a bookstore, attracted to its cover art. (Don't ever say you can't judge a book by its cover.) He was so fascinated that he started writing a screenplay based on the first 150 pages of the book. This screenplay eventually became There Will Be Blood.
- When Wong Kar Wai was editing his epic film Ashes of Time, he took a two-month break to make a quick little movie: “I decided to make Chungking Express following my instincts.” It's just as beautiful a movie in a completely different way: quirky, character-driven, small and hypnotic.
- Sofia Coppola wrote Lost in Translation, her Oscar-winning screenplay, to “give herself time” before tackling the script for Marie Antoinette (which was originally intended to become her second feature film).
So, this is all good for filmmakers, but how does one apply this method to UX design? I've done everything from leading workshops to a day or two of independent research, all whilst in the middle of a hairy drawn-out project.
Ways to get a palate cleanser project going
Find out what other members of your team are working on, and ask if they need help. I guarantee that somebody will always need help. And chances are, they are in the same situation as you. But whatever they are doing will probably be more interesting to you, simply because it's shiny and new. I've been invited to one-day ideation workshops, design critiques, and feature team meetings, just within the confines of the organization in which I worked.
Invent a short project within your organization. I once did a one-week brand audit on a piece of vendor software at a former company. This went on to become a template for future audits and functional specifications. Sounds boring, but I actually learned quite a bit.
Go speak somewhere. Anywhere. Last year I did a presentation for the local chapter of Quantified Self. The preparation took very little time, but it gave me a chance to collaborate with a friend and former colleague, and to synthesize ideas from a former project. There is always a Pecha Kucha or Ignite or Girl Geek Dinner going on somewhere. Preparing a presentation may push forward some ideas that are likely to apply to the very project that has your creativity stuck in the mud.
Do a quick independent project. One of my favourite projects was our cargo bike proposal for Living Labs. A colleague and I worked on this project mostly while en route to a presentation for a bigger project. Thinking about and working on the cargo bike proposal helped take some of the pressure off the big presentation and got us problem-solving in a way that actually helped us prepare.
Write! Busy doesn't mean you can't write blog posts. Right?
The main benefit to your project is that collaborating with fresh minds will always give you fresh ideas. It's the new person who may say, “Oh, I worked on something like that before…” or “What if you tried this?”