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What is Externalization?

Externalization is a set of techniques for boosting creativity and is the process of expressing tacit ideas to identify and use them better. Designers use externalization to access their hidden knowledge and make it identifiable and useful for design work. It can involve activities such as sketching or writing.‍

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‍How Can Externalization Help You Design Better?

In user experience (UX) design, externalization is a process you can use to tap your hidden reserves of designer know-how. You can use it to reach deep into your mind and pull out many other concepts and ideas, too. Externalization is not new; nor is it restricted to designing products or services. The practice of transposing internal thoughts, ideas and knowledge into a tangible or visible form goes back to earlier times. It’s helpful in addressing real-world problems across many disciplines. However, externalization is especially valuable in user experience design and addressing user problems. That’s because you want to find innovative ways to enhance the interactivity and functionality of designs that will truly resonate with users. 

Externalization can take a wide range of forms on the path to user-friendly design and software development. These include sketching out interface designs and information architecture, creating user flow diagrams, and writing down design concepts. The objective is to make the abstract concrete. When you externalize things, you turn nebulous thoughts into something more explicit and tangible. This practice can help you crystallize high-quality ideas. It can also make collaboration easier with other design team members, stakeholders, and users. It lets team members visualize, critique, and build upon each other's thoughts.

Professor Alan Dix, a renowned computer scientist and human-computer interaction expert, emphasizes the significance of externalization as a way to enhance creativity. According to Dix, by externalizing your thoughts, you as a designer can gain a different perspective. You can also engage in a more dynamic interaction with your ideas. Externalization lets you not only explore but also refine your thoughts. It’s a process that can lead to new insights and innovative solutions. So, it’s a great tool to break away from conventional design patterns. With it, you can explore novel, uncharted territories of creativity and design thinking.

Image of person thinking and writing at a computer.

Unlock the sheer creative power you possess, with externalization!

© George Milton, Fair Use

What Are the Benefits of Externalization?

Externalization can help you since it can:

Enhance Cognitive Processing

The act of externalization aids cognitive processing. You can offload mental work onto the physical world and see what’s going on far more clearly. Meanwhile, you have more capacity to handle what’s going on in your mind. So, when you externalize your ideas, you free up cognitive resources. This lets you engage in deeper, more complex thinking. From there, you can try for more innovative solutions that you may not have been able to access through internal thought processes alone.

Facilitate Collaborative Problem-Solving

Externalization also promotes collaborative problem-solving. By making ideas visible, it empowers you to share your thoughts with others. Because of our unique personalities and ways of seeing the world, ideas can be difficult to define and voice. So, if you can get your thoughts out in the open and clearly defined, you can invite feedback for them. At the same time, you’ll foster a collaborative design process. This collective brainstorming can lead you and your design team to develop more comprehensive and creative solutions. Best of all, these can cater to diverse user needs and expectations.

Enable Iterative Design

Another critical advantage of externalization in UX design is how it helps pave the way for iterative design. The tangible representations created through externalization—e.g., sketches—can serve as a starting point for successive design iterations. From there, you can continually refine and improve your design ideas based on user feedback and testing.

How Can You Use Externalization?

Alan Dix proposes four uses of externalization:

Informational Use

Here, you use external representations to store and retrieve information, such as notes, diagrams, and graphs. For example, a student reading a book can suddenly have virtually the same knowledge as the interaction designer who wrote it. It will manifest in a slightly different way. That’s due to the student’s unique interpretation of the concepts, but the knowledge will be there.

Diagram of Informational Use of Externalization.

With informational use, you transmit ideas simply and directly.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Formational Use

You can use external representations to help create or develop new ideas. It could involve writing something down, brainstorming, sketching, or prototyping. The point is, when you represent your ideas like this, you can come to realize something you were not previously aware of.

Diagram of Formational Use of Externalization.

With formational use, you realize knowledge that you set down before you.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Transformational Use 

You use external representations to transform or modify information. This could be editing text, manipulating images, or reorganizing data. For example, you might print out a page full of slides, cut and re-sort them into different categories and annotate them.

Here, it’s good to consider external distributed cognition. When we think, our thoughts are part of the world outside. In design, you can offload your cognition. This could be, for example, thought processes—like solving a problem on paper. So, you can sift and sort concepts to great effect when you get them out in front of you like this.

Diagram of Transformational Use of Externalization.

With transformational use, you can come to realize things in new ways by re-sorting them.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Transcendental Use

This is when you use external representations to help you understand abstract concepts or phenomena. Essentially, our internal thoughts and ideas become objects. You become more aware in the process. For instance, it’s often hard to pin down why you might feel that a design is good or not so good. By bringing it out via externalization, you can name the issue and talk about it. For example, you can state the actual reason that you prefer one image to another is its balance.

Diagram of Transcendental Use of Externalization.

With transcendental use, you can become aware of the sharper reasoning behind, e.g., feelings about a design.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

How to Use Externalization: Best Practices and Tips

While externalization can significantly enhance creativity in UX design, its success hinges on how effectively you apply it. Here are some best practices and tips.

Start with Low-Fidelity Externalization

Begin with low-fidelity methods such as rough sketches. Doing this is easy and cheap. It can also help you overcome creative blocks. Even the scribbliest sketch might serve as the access road to help you explore and iterate on different possibilities. Soon, you might be well on the way towards a truly user-centered solution.

Image of person making a sketch.

For example, sketching is an easy way to get ideas out in the open.

.© Karolina Grabowska, Fair Use

Use Diverse Externalization Methods

Don't limit yourself to one form of externalization. Use a combination of sketches, diagrams, physical models, written descriptions, and other methods to represent your ideas. Diverse externalization methods can capture different aspects of a design, providing a more holistic view of the concept.

Here are some ways to uncover your tacit knowledge:

1. Direct Externalization: Express your tacit knowledge using verbal or written communication. When you articulate your thoughts, experiences, and expertise, you can make them accessible to others and yourself. Use techniques such as storytelling, journaling, or creating diagrams and sketches.

2. Reflection and Sense-Making: Reflect on your experiences and engage in sense-making activities. It can help you uncover previously hidden tacit knowledge. This could take the form of analyzing past situations, identifying patterns, and extracting valuable insights. Techniques like self-reflection, group discussions, or journaling can facilitate this process.

3. Collaboration and Dialogue: Share and discuss your tacit knowledge with others. It can lead to new perspectives and insights. Collaborative activities, such as brainstorming, workshops, or team projects, are chances to get your thoughts out of your head. Then you can exchange them with others and co-create new knowledge. When you have dialogue with others, you can all explore different viewpoints and uncover hidden knowledge.

4. Observation and Modeling: Observe experts and model their behavior; it can help externalize tacit knowledge. So, closely watch and analyze how experts perform certain tasks or solve problems. You can identify and mimic their tacit knowledge. Try techniques like shadowing or using visualization tools to capture and represent expert behavior.

Diagram showing how divergence and convergence work in the creative process.

Externalization can be a powerful tool in the creative engine, especially given all the possibilities that creative problem-solving can present.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Embrace Curiosity

Stay curious about the world around you and continuously seek knowledge to fuel your learning and creativity. Namely:

1. Emphasize understanding over memorization: Instead of just memorizing facts, focus on understanding the underlying concepts. This will help you apply your knowledge in different contexts.

2. Embrace failure: Failure is an essential part of the learning process. Don't let setbacks discourage you; use them as opportunities to learn and grow. Treat them as case studies you can use to find more fertile ground.

3. Practice active learning: Actively engage with the material you are learning. Take notes, ask questions, and participate in discussions. This will help you retain information better.

4. Seek diverse perspectives: Expose yourself to a variety of viewpoints and perspectives. This will broaden your thinking and help you develop a more well-rounded understanding of the world.

5. Foster a growth mindset: Believe in your ability to learn and improve. Cultivate a positive attitude towards challenges and see them as opportunities for growth.

6. Develop strong problem-solving skills: Problem-solving is a vital skill in any field. Practice breaking down complex problems into smaller, manageable tasks and develop strategies to solve them.

7. Collaborate and communicate effectively: Learn to work well with others and communicate your ideas clearly. Collaboration can lead to innovative solutions far more easily, and foster a supportive learning environment.

8. Stay organized: Develop good organizational habits to manage your time and resources effectively. This will help you stay focused and productive.

9. Reflect on your learning: Take time to reflect on what you have learned. Analyze your strengths and weaknesses, identify areas for improvement, and set goals for your future learning endeavors.

Image of person with hand to ear, listening out.

Staying open and attentive to the outside world is just as important as flexing your creative muscles via externalization.

© Andrea Piacquadio, Fair Use

Incorporate User Feedback and Iterate and Refine

To ensure you’re on the right track with your externalized design ideas, get your users on board in user testing. When you involve them early on and throughout the iterative design cycle, you can gain valuable insights. When you gather feedback like this, you’ll notice how different it is from what you might hear from your design team and stakeholders.

This iterative feedback loop helps refine and validate design concepts. That will help you achieve more user-centered and successful products. Also, in the long term, it can take the pressure off the customer support for your product or service once it’s launched. That’s because you’ll have included your target audience from the earliest days.

So, use each externalization as a stepping stone for further idea development. Continually refine your designs based on usability testing and user feedback. Do that until your externalized ideas align with user needs and expectations.

It might seem tricky to approach something as “organic” as creativity and externalization with such a clear set of tips and directions. Let Professor Dix give you some further helpful insights here!  

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Considerations and Risks of Externalization

While externalization can help supercharge creativity in UX design, it’s important to be aware of its challenges. Here are some potential drawbacks:

The risk of misinterpretation – as others may not fully understand your externalized representations. Remember, your way of seeing the world means you might express things in a way that won’t fit others’ view of the world. These idiosyncratic differences can cause confusion.

Becoming too attached to your ideas – This includes getting fixated on specific ideas so that you limit how you explore other potential solutions. It’s vital to stay open to other alternative concepts and approaches.

Avoid designing by committee. Strike a balance between collaboration and keeping a clear design direction – Too many opinions can dilute the design’s focus and coherence. It’s important to keep on a clear, user-focused design path. Don’t let the details of your “design council’s” visions bog you down.

Overall, externalization is a potent tool for supercharging you UX designer engines. Perhaps more importantly, it can help you as a life skill in general as well. With it,  you can recognize and articulate ideas and concepts that your mind had previously obscured. You can lift your knowledge base to a higher level. Likewise, you’ll be able to lift your design practice to a different, more relatable level too.

Learn More about Externalization

Take our course, Creativity: Methods to Design Better Products and Services.

See our piece, Externalization: 4 Ways and Methods to Uncover Your Tacit Knowledge, including a free template, for further insights.

Read Donald A. Schon’s book, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action for deep insights.

Read this highly insightful article, Make It A Habit to Externalize Your Design Work | Dan Shilov.

Literature on Externalization

Here’s the entire UX literature on Externalization by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Externalization

Take a deep dive into Externalization with our course Creativity: Methods to Design Better Products and Services .

The overall goal of this course is to help you design better products, services and experiences by helping you and your team develop innovative and useful solutions. You’ll learn a human-focused, creative design process.

We’re going to show you what creativity is as well as a wealth of ideation methods―both for generating new ideas and for developing your ideas further. You’ll learn skills and step-by-step methods you can use throughout the entire creative process. We’ll supply you with lots of templates and guides so by the end of the course you’ll have lots of hands-on methods you can use for your and your team’s ideation sessions. You’re also going to learn how to plan and time-manage a creative process effectively.

Most of us need to be creative in our work regardless of if we design user interfaces, write content for a website, work out appropriate workflows for an organization or program new algorithms for system backend. However, we all get those times when the creative step, which we so desperately need, simply does not come. That can seem scary—but trust us when we say that anyone can learn how to be creative­ on demand. This course will teach you ways to break the impasse of the empty page. We'll teach you methods which will help you find novel and useful solutions to a particular problem, be it in interaction design, graphics, code or something completely different. It’s not a magic creativity machine, but when you learn to put yourself in this creative mental state, new and exciting things will happen.

In the “Build Your Portfolio: Ideation Project”, you’ll find a series of practical exercises which together form a complete ideation project so you can get your hands dirty right away. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you will get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

Your instructor is Alan Dix. He’s a creativity expert, professor and co-author of the most popular and impactful textbook in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Alan has worked with creativity for the last 30+ years, and he’ll teach you his favorite techniques as well as show you how to make room for creativity in your everyday work and life.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you’ve completed the course. You can highlight it on your resume, your LinkedIn profile or your website.

All open-source articles on Externalization

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