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Building Out Ideas

Using Collections of References for Ideation

As design teams begin to ideate, they start to create collections of references, often called Reference Decks, to help show their ideas. By accompanying these collections of references with words, whether written or verbal, the team can more easily understand what it collectively is thinking or what an individual teammate is thinking, keep a record of that thinking, and edit the idea.

Because design teams evolve or create new products, services, or systems, there's no exact photo or sketch or recording of it that exists. For this reason, it’s essential to develop a collection of references that are like the product, service, or system you’re envisioning in order to express all your thoughts on how a design might look, feel, and function. The purpose of using references, whether drawn, photographed, recorded, et cetera, is to meet four primary goals:

  • To explore nuances in a proposal, system, or idea.
  • To understand those nuances.
  • To clarify those nuances, especially if they act within a complex system.
  • To communicate the steps above to others who may or may not be present in design meetings.

When to Use References

Design team members can use references to aid in communication with their teammates at any point in the design process. However, since references inform the direction of an idea's designed form, and not the details of that form itself, they are most frequently used early in the process of making a prototype design solution. If the team finds itself still leaning on references as they approach a low-fidelity prototype that's testable in the field, that can be a marker of a team that is not coalescing around a design direction, and thusly the team needs to back up and start the design process from the idea again.

Specific practice on the form and cadence of using referencs will be provided in the upcoming Design Phase Operations Guide.

Exploring Happiness

Returning to the references for "happiness", as seen in the Envisioning Design section, how might they each inform an overall idea of a product or service?

basic outline of two people's heads with open mouths indicating talking

This line drawing shows two people talking. They seem to be facing each other, and their little, line-drawing eyes communicate pleasure. This seems to indicate that the idea of happiness in this product, service, or system has to do with human connection and communication as a form or components of happiness.

sunny logo

The flag in this graphic seems to indicate that the product, service, or system will be related to the United States of America, while the graphic sun conveys optimism and hope. This item also introduces the ideas that the expression of happiness in this product, service, or system is modern, clean, and minimal.

text reading I'm walking on sunshine in a font that is squishy like toothpaste.

This bouncy text not only communicates the idea of movement and joy, but also, like the logo, informs the form of the idea through the use of a distinct typeface.

sunny beach

The image of the beach conveys ideas of happiness associated with being outside in the natural world, serenity, and peace.


If these four images were a teammate's reference deck, what might be a few ideas to take from it? One might be that the product, service, or system that the teammate envisions has to do with happiness as a social connection, away from work, in a light-hearted environment such as community engagement or outdoor exercise opportunities for veterans or school children. Because this is only an example, one might take away many ideas from it. For a more precise understanding of the idea, the reference deck would need to be built out more fully, preferably accompanied by verbal or written cues as well.

Example Reference Deck

Telehealth Toolkit

The Telehealth Toolkit is a prototype knowledge-sharing repository designed for the Office of Telehealth in the Veterans Health Administration. This reference deck uses examples from several well-known, well-organized sites that share knowledge in different ways. Multiple ideas for the Toolkit are described by the aspects of each site that is highlighted.

This deck is from the very beginning of the design team's design phase for this digital product. At the beginning of the design process, the deck refers to the product as the “Genius Bar”; however, the final name is the Telehealth Toolkit. This change is typical of reference decks. Because they’re begun so early in the design process, they’re often called by different names from the final name iteration, since the information and references that decks contain are simply the starting point for the iterated design process.

One of the members of the design team made this deck so that they could communicate their ideas for the toolkit (or Genius Bar) to other team members. Making this deck has nothing to do with a knowledge of user experience coding or layouts; it has to do with understanding the synthesis of research that the team had performed during the Discovery Phase. The design team member searched the internet for examples of what they thought should be built to solve for the participants' needs, then compiled those examples into this deck.

Telehealth Toolkit reference deck page 1. Text reads: Genius Bar: What: an informational asset comprising FAQs and guidance for Telehealth options. Who: FCTs, MyHealthEVet Coordinators, Preceptors, Master Preceptors, Champions, Leads, other Telehealth super users. Why: to ease and systematize the conversation about options for caregiving via telehealth and provide a reference for providers considering the use of Telehealth. Keywords: web-based modular updateable modern beautiful utilitarian Click to enlarge the above image Telehealth Toolkit reference deck page 2.Text reads: inspiration: FAQs, Medium https://help.medium.com/hc/en-us/sections/203019068-FAQ Arrow pointing to Medium website's breadcrumb is labeled: clearly delineated user path. Arrows pointing to Medium's FAQ main page as well as to one of the FAQ answer pages are labeled: Simple question to answer flow. Additional text on the deck's page reads: Considered: typography white space plain language Click to enlarge the above image Telehealth Toolkit reference deck page 3.Text reads:inspiration: Welcome, Medium. https://help.medium.com/hc/en-us: modern, simple, clean, modular. Arrow labeled Additional concept:end of guidance path prompts action points to a button labeled Get Started at the end of the welcome page. Click to enlarge the above image Telehealth Toolkit reference deck page 4. Text reads: Additional inspiration: Airtable https://support.airtable.com/hc/en-us. Includes screen shots of Airtable's Guide to Airtable, Airtable Overview, Airtable Support page, and Airtable templates page to show the flat illustration style and tile-based layouts used by Airtable in their support pages. Click to enlarge the above image Telehealth Toolkit reference deck page 5. Text reads: Additional inspiration: Airbnb https://www.airbnb.com/help/getting-started/how-it-works. Images are of various Airtable How To pages. The screenshots show a minimal side navigation bar with child pages dropping down below parent topics. Click to enlarge the above image