Divergence and convergence

A few years ago, Leo Postovoit, shared a concept with me. While we were chatting I remember being surprised and not having a mental model for applying the ideas to my work. It’s not that I’d never done it, but I hadn’t consciously thought of it the way he described. The concept was divergence and convergence within design, or really within anything that requires gathering of information. Divergence means going wide, and convergence means coming back to a narrow point.

As a product designer, it’s my job to help solve a lot of problems for my clients, the products, the wonderful teams I work with, and ultimately the folks who get to use what I make. There are quite a few mental models I’ve developed over the years for doing my work, and this one stands as an important pillar.

When I start a project, I try to keep things wide open for divergence. Practically, that means taking in all sources of information about the thing I’m working on. I collect data via scraps of paper, typing things into Bear notes, capturing to-dos in Things 3, Google docs, JIRA tickets, Github issues, screenshots with Droplr, Miro boards, Figma boards, and more. I love this, taking crazy chaos from everywhere and trying to make sense of it all.

This divergent, collective part of the project is messy, and can take a lot of time if I don’t put a constraint on it. Going wide, receiving new ideas, is necessarily an unlimited task. You open up to all the things that could apply to your work, and follow rabbit trails across the digital and analog spaces. This is beautiful, a lot of fun, and often immensely frustrating. Often you’re digging around in areas that don’t even feel tangentially related to the project in front of you, hoping for some kind of parallel example to bring back to the problem at hand.

Sometimes I’ll go on a walk and stew over the problem. Other times I just need to take a break and sleep through it, coming back fresh in the morning.

If that was the only part of a project, I’d likely finish nothing, and it’s caused problems at times in my work. My sense of perfectionism can kick in here and I’ll think that I need more research, more time, more data.

However, and this is where convergence comes in, at some point I have to switch mental modes and start culling the information, sorting the signals from the noise, and pulling out the relevant parts. This part looks a bit less messy from the outside. It’s the part where I cross items off on my digital boards, start checking to-dos in my task managers, and begin striking out text in areas. I take all that data and sort through the pieces in my mind.

After that point, I’m often ready for feedback; whether from my team or from customers in the real world. I’ve now taken in a bunch of stuff, sorted it, and spit out an editorial opinion on that stuff. This is where unique creativity comes in. There’s not really anything new in the world in terms of ideas. I can just hope to bring my own spin to something, taking inspiration from all those who came before. It’s a lot of fun, and it doesn’t require true originality, rather it takes wisdom to sort through what applies to the project and what I can toss.

This convergent phase can, in theory, be the end of a project. However, in reality, it’s often just the middle part. Going back to the client, the rest of the team, or our customers, and showing this convergence of information, often reveals flaws in the thinking. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to embrace those flaws. I get excited when someone points out an error in my mental model, or a misstep in where I’ve landed. These are opportunities to correct and improve and continue to editorialize the information.

Sometimes minor tweaks are enough. I can change my direction and iterate a bit and ship to the world. Other times, though, my approach to thinking is off, or the direction we took had a flaw from the beginning. This happened recently with a small project. We planned a specific direction based on the design brief, and I went divergent, thinking up ideas and trying to understand the brief. I went back to the team with my insights in a Google doc and shared some concerns about the design direction. That gave us a quick opportunity to pivot and switch things up, to try something new. From that meeting I dove back out, continued to spread out and look for things, then came back to earth and converged on a new direction.

This continual process of divergence and convergence, when appropriately timed, can help to move a project forward, and often conveys the pulse, or heartbeat, of the team. Anxiety, happiness, concern, euphoria, and a dozen other emotions all get bound up through the rhythm of the work. I love it, and this is a tiny piece of what gets me up each day and inspires me to continue to learn and grow.

Instead of being worried about this process, about being wrong about things, I embrace it, enjoying the natural flow of things, and use this opening and closing as a tool. As with any tool, there are limitations. You can spend too much time going wide, or focus too narrowly on a problem and stay stuck in that rut. With experience comes understanding of when to apply each, and therein lies the rub. That’s a thing I’m still learning and tweaking on every single project; trying to find that balance and understand where I am in the cycle. There’s more than this, of course, to being a great product designer, but it’s a start, and when uncertainty abounds, I can come back to this model and find a reset point.

Thanks Jonathan for inspiring me to write this, and for those following along this counted as my 1,000 words for the day.