It seems odd to bother to remind people that imagination is a tool of thought. I have four kids and twelve grandkids and they all use their imaginations. I also worked as a camp counselor, Y leader, child care worker in a psychiatric hospital, and a sixth grade science teacher. Kids use their imaginations! In many cases, they do this for “fun” but they also are constantly using their imagination to do creative problem solving.
When I did therapy with adults however, I found that many had convinced themselves that they had no imagination. This is rather sad as well as being completely inaccurate. Furthermore, in the very ways that such adults exhibited neurotic symptoms, they were using their imaginations. But instead of using their imagination to further their enjoyment or to solve problems creatively, they mainly seemed to use their imaginations for one main purpose: to make themselves miserable.
For example, few of us enjoy being stuck in stop and go traffic. As it turns out, you can actually impact the traffic flow around you by driving differently. You can read about how in this link, but you can come to much the same conclusion by using your imagination to empathize with the drivers around you. Instead, the neurotic train of thought goes something like this: “WHY oh WHY are all these people out on the road?! MOVE! Oh, crap, I am going to be late. My boss is going to scream at me. Probably fire me. CRAP! MOVE! I’m going to be late. I’m getting fired. Damn! It’s not my fault. My boss doesn’t care. He hates people who are late. I should have left earlier. Where will I get another job at my age? I’m sunk. Once I lose my job, my spouse will leave me too. Crap. He won’t write a good letter of recommendation. Should I get off the highway and take surface roads? That might make me later. Damn! I’m sunk. Life sucks!”
That train of thought certainly uses imagination!
But in all the wrong ways! That person is not using imagination to enjoy the moment, but using imagination to quite literally make themselves miserable. And it isn’t just the commuter. Plenty of people use their imagination to “awfulize” about situations. They think of the worst possible outcome and then imagine that that worst possible outcome is bound to happen.
Instead, if you are in a situation that you can’t change, you could use your imagination to have some fun. So you’re stuck in traffic. There are literally a million things you could do instead of writing a tragic screenplay in your mind’s eye. I won’t list all million, but here are a few. You could design a better transportation system. You could construct a joke to put your boss in a better mood. You could turn on the radio or listen to a podcast or a book on tape. You could look at the scenery. You could make up a rather salacious spy thriller about the people around you who are also stuck in traffic. And so on.
So too, in solving problems….hold on… someone’s at the door. I’ll be right back.
Well, that was weird! Two of the characters from my last blog series came to the door! They wanted me to hurry up and finish this series on tools of thought so they can come back to life. I had to explain to them that my translator is on vacation and that there’s nothing else to write until more of the myths can be decoded. Right now, there is growing interest in recent, though mythological, archeological digs that will give us further clues about the Veritas. My own command of the mythical Veritas language is extremely rudimentary and I’m not even absolutely sure I understood correctly what they were asking. But I am sure it was She-of-Many-Paths and Shadow-Walker. It was definitely them, more or less as I pictured them, but taller, and more ripped than I had imagined. It’s also clear that the two of them are more than friends. Anyway, they seem to be of the opinion that I need to write their myths so that we real humans can avoid making the same errors that people made in their mythical universe. I don’t quite see how that’s possible, but I will use my imagination to try to understand how it might be done. I hope they don’t bother my neighbors.
Meanwhile, back to the catalog of thinking tools in general and to the use of imagination in particular. Under some circumstances, of course, it is a useful skill to use imagination to think of what can go wrong. I use imagination in this vein for example, when asked to evaluate something from a user perspective. I try to imagine how various icons, words, transitions and so on can be problematic for users. Even though I am pretty good at that, when users are actually observed in real life, they still manage to demonstrate problems that neither I nor anyone else on the design team had thought of!
Even in UX work, it is also important to use your imagination to think of additional opportunities. “You know, we’ve been thinking about this calendar application as a passive recipient of the user’s information. But some users might also like seeing a weekly summary of their activity in different categories.” Or, you might think, “Suppose we tie the calendar in with the message system. The system knows where the user is; we could send a reminder when it’s time for them to leave for an appointment.” Or, you might think, “In some places the time to drive somewhere depends on traffic and weather. We could tie this calendar and reminder in with the map and weather apps to give better estimates of when to send a reminder.” Such musings could result in a better product. Of course, timing is important as well. Your colleagues will tend to appreciate these thoughts a lot more if you are not currently in beta test but instead at the conceptual design phase!
Even knowing that, your imagination might be more likely to kick in later in the project because the application seems more real. You can imagine the reactions of your colleagues and frame your response this way, “Trying this app makes me realize that we can make a number of enhancements in version 2.0, 3.0 etc. I’m going to start this shared file of potential additions, changes, and enhancements that we can all contribute to. We should take a look at this when we are doing 2.0 brainstorming.”
More generally, there are many possible triggers for using your imagination and you may find that some kinds of triggers are more fun for you. For example, you might read fiction and you enjoy following along with the story being presented. This requires a lot of imagination work.
You can also start with a goal or even desire and work outward from this internal state to imagine ways you might accomplish your goal or fulfill your desire. But you can also work inward. You look at what is before you; e.g., a computer screen like the one I am looking at now and ask yourself how it might be different in the future.
Such musings can follow a thread based on the characteristics. The screen is flat, for instance. What if it were curved, or dynamically reconfigurable, or foldable or moldable? What if I could shrink the actual screen depending on circumstances? You can inject your screen (and possibly yourself) into a different and unusual situation. What if I had the screen available on the tennis court? Well, I could project things on my glasses; e.g., as I walk over to retrieve a ball, I could be reminded of how to hit a kick serve. What if I had special lenses that I could pass over any word or icon on the screen? One might give me the history of any given word. Another might give me the definition. Another might give me alternatives that are more esoteric or are easier to understand; more general or more specific; more positive or negative in tone. Another tool might enable you to select a sentence, a paragraph or an entire article and ask, “Who has written similar things before?” Even without AI, a purely statistical approach might lead you find out about people with similar interests.
Another way to practice using your imagination is to pose a question or see how two things are or could be related. On the table beside me are a number of objects: a set of keys, an iPhone, a coffee cup, a checkbook, two of the books I wrote, copies of some papers that I reviewed for a recent conference, a quarter, some business cards. How could these be combined? It doesn’t necessarily matter at this point that the combination is feasible. Let’s just try it.
Putting together a set of keys and an iPhone suggests to me having an app wherein I could photograph all my keys and then, if I lost any (or all!) of the keys, I could have one 3-D printed at a local store or my home 3-D printer. I can also imagine that for another layer of security (at a cost of inconvenience) my iPhone would not turn on unless I took a picture of a particular physical key. A coffee cup and a checkbook seem to belong to different worlds indeed, but that only makes it more of a fun challenge! I like coffee. I don’t particularly like writing bills. On the day before the bills are due, perhaps the coffee machine might not deliver coffee till I wrote the bills. This strikes me as too controlling. For me, it might work better to have an ironic message delivered on the coffee cup such as, “Have a nice day! And save the insane interest rates for paying $25 a day late by paying your bill on time! Or, make some rich banker even richer. The choice is yours!” This approach would not be everyone’s “cup of tea” but that doesn’t matter. The point is to reawaken your imagination.
What about a quarter and two books I wrote? I could offer a 25 cent rebate. I could write about about the history of the quarter. I could mail people books with a quarter inside. I could make an advertisement about The Winning Weekend Warrior that is aimed at tennis players and suggest that every time they lose a set, they put a quarter in a piggy bank. When they get to 40 quarters they can buy my book. I can design strategy and tactics sheets for different sports that are sold separately. The reader/user places quarters on the sheet to reinforce strategy. In tennis, for instance, such a sheet might be static and the user could use four quarters for the positions of the four players on the court. They could be asked to select smart shots, given the positions. Similarly, I might have 4 or even 18 sheets for golf and on these sheets I would show the slope and terrain and ask people to put the quarter on for their target. Eventually, I imagine, there is a way to capture the data of how the player actually hits the golf ball on real courses and that could be incorporated into what the best shot is for that particular player. This data could also be used as input to computer golf games so that a player might use the game to help select better clubs and targets. We are no longer necessarily talking about my book or about quarters. That doesn’t matter! All that really matters is that I have used these arbitrary objects to trigger my imagination. And you can do the same!
I’m done. Hold on. Doorbell. II see that it’s the Veritas power couple again. I’m inviting them in for coffee. I wonder if they’ve ever had coffee before….