Inevitably Biasing Creativity Outcomes

When we facilitate, we often think of ourselves as opening up new spaces of ideas. We empower people to think divergently, then only converge when the time is right. Our creativity techniques only raise horizons, blow away constraints, remove barriers.

Or do they?

I am increasingly convinced that the creativity techniques and artefacts that we give to people to use bias the creative outcomes that they produce in significant ways – sometimes very significantly.

Now I am not saying that this is a bad thing. But we need to be honest and recognize biases.

This semester I am teaching creativity in service design thinking. The students are combining different creativity techniques and design artefacts. Watching them, it is clear that their ideas and designs are heavily influenced by what they’re given to work with. For example:

  • Giving them creativity triggers from James Robertson [] led to them to design new touchpoints with the qualities that each trigger seeks
  • Giving them an analogy leads them to focus on solution ideas that can be transferred from the analogical domain, at the expense of those that cannot
  • And giving them physical artefacts during desktop walkthroughs led to more physical rather than logical touchpoints.

None of this might be a surprise to you, but the extent to which these biases occur might be.

Some students reflected that a desktop walkthrough for a dementia care service constructed from Lego was influenced by the availability and shape of the bricks – indeed larger bricks led to more abstraction whilst moulding more literal representations from Plasticine led them to be more concrete.

Creative biases provide us with opportunities and risks. If we can deal with the risks, we can enhance our creative capabilities.


Anatomy of a Creativity Technique

Image by Simon James - Menage a Moi

Why are Jokes Funny?

I’ve always been fascinated by why some jokes are funny, and others are not. Great jokes are deceptively simple. They are often just one or two sentences long. And yet, a simple joke can have multiple layers of humour and truth.

Whilst most of us are able to tell a joke to elicit a reaction, we find it more difficult to explain why the joke works. Comedy writer Jan McInnis thinks that a good joke involves a set-up with the subject and facts, and a punch line that highlights the irony, twists the joke in another direction, or gives an outrageous result (

But this description does not necessarily explain why some jokes work better than others, why some are regarded as classics, while others are forgotten immediately. We seem happy to tell jokes and laugh at them, but not to dissect them and understand their inner workings.

I think that it is similar with creativity techniques. Some work well, others do not. Great creativity techniques are also deceptively simple. They often involve just one or two steps, and yet can unleash considerable creative power. And whilst I know how to make it happen, I do not always understand how or why it happens. And I’m not alone in this.

This gap in our knowledge bothers me. I think that we could deliver creativity support more effectively if we understood how different techniques work. So what to do?

My proposal is to investigate the inner workings of different creativity techniques – theoretically, logically and empirically. I am sure what we learn about the anatomies of creativity techniques will be fascinating.

Who wants to join us in this creativity dissection?

Visualising Data Narratives

Guardian Narrative Data Visualization
Example of narrative data visualization from The Guardian

To say that we are living in The Information Age and that we suffer from information overload has become something of a truism. However, it is true to say that for many of us there is a growing requirement that we make sense and use of complex data. This is partly due to advances in personal and mobile computing power, allied to faster broadband speeds, which mean we are collecting, processing and distributing datasets that are far larger than was previously practical. In addition, there are also new factors such as social networking, social media, the successes of the open data movement and the growth of companies such as Google whose whole business is data. Furthermore, these trends look like they will only continue as personal health monitors, smart energy meters and such like come into common use.

One response to this has been the growth in data journalism in which interactive data visualization techniques are incorporated into the story telling process. These narrative visualizations offer the reader the opportunity to gain insight into the story’s subject through guided exploration of the data, which may be enhanced by enabling the reader to personalise the data to varying degrees, thus making the story more relevant to their own perspective. Many excellent examples of this can be found on the websites of The Guardian and New York Times newspapers. Another response has been the idea of social data analysis using online resources such as ManyEyes, where data is visualised publicly and the resulting insights discussed and shared.

Such developments point to ways in which people can engage with complex data in a creative manner and make positive use of it. They also highlight the influence of the different perspectives that groups or individuals may bring to the original data and how their points of view and expertise can be shared productively. This shows that the purpose of visualising data is not simply to provide an accurate representation of it, but also to act as a platform for argument and discussion, for storytelling and scenario testing. This is creative analysis in which individual narratives can be constructed and compared, and it is likely to play an increasingly important role in making important decisions.

Take for instance the process of designing and launching a new car. This is not simply a matter of engineering improvements in aerodynamics and power to weight ratio followed by a clever advertising campaign, important though these are. It also involves appreciating trends in taxation and petrol prices or the availability of electricity charging points; understanding population migration patterns between country, city and suburbs; tracking changes in family size, demographics and the number of cars per family; and following social attitudes to factors such as safety and status. This is all before the arguably more subjective and emotive elements of styling come into play, reactions to which are also collected, collated and visualised. Each of these is a data story that represents the perspective of one or more domain expert and the success of the project is likely to depend on how well they can be combined.

My work as a PhD research student in the Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice involves developing and studying tools that will help support people as they construct and share data stories that reflect their personal or professional perspective. The aim here is not to promote a situation where all decisions are made by compromise or committee, but to give people the tools with which they can effectively argue their point of view and also to better take on board the implications of issues raised by experts from other domains. This, I hope, will eventually lead to better, more informed decisions and a more effective design process for both products and services.

Reflections on Reflection



I was asked recently to prepare and deliver a talk for Business Studies undergrads at Cass Business School on the topic of Reflective Practice.  Pulling strands together from my current academic endeavours, my career to-date and my busy family life, I realised just how important it is to being a fully rounded human being!  How I wish someone had introduced me to Reflective Practise as an undergraduate or even earlier in my education.  It seems to me to be a life skill we should all learn early so that it becomes second nature.

I started my own blog a few months ago to help with my own personal reflection.  During our recent Technologies for Creativity and Innovation module, we were required to write reflective tweets and I’ve carried on doing it (@AlisonDuffyMICL).  I’m also putting together a reflective journal for assessment as part of our Creative Industries module.  I’m finding all of this activity fascinating, energising and really helpful.  I’m discovering who I am and what I’m capable of and I’m listening to my ‘inner voice’. 

Looking back on something to examine what went well and what didn’t is so important in all aspects of our lives.  Recognising feelings, behaviour patterns and mental models is relevant to relationships, team working, leadership, creativity, innovation, self-awareness, confidence, motivation…

Why is it then, that very few organisations seem to encourage it? 

Reflection requires time, space and a desire to discover how things really are.  And it’s personal.

Have I just answered my own question?!


Microblogging in a Care Home Context

Can microblogging be used to improve the richness and quality of care notes made by care staff?

Screenshot showing test data – not real data.

In our research project MIRROR we are working with the Registered Nursing Homes Association (RNHA) to support the capture of more reflective observations by care staff through the use of microblogging tool to improve sharing of work relevant information and collaborative work as well as improving the data capture processes for information about a residents daily activities, health, mental health and needs.

Carers already make notes about the care they deliver, the health and the mental status of the residents in their care. This is often still done entirely on paper. Only a minority of care homes currently use digital care plans, and where these are implemented there are usually only one or two computers available for carers to use to enter their notes – resulting in a queue to type up their notes at the end of each shift. Not exactly ideal for encouraging rich care notes. Also, in their current form, the care notes are not easy to review and it can be difficult to identify a very gradual change in a resident’s condition which may occur over a longer period.

So in MIRROR, we are planning to use mobile devices running apps that enable care staff to record information about care in situ at the time that it is generated. As a proof of concept we ran a 3 day trial using protected Twitter accounts and the free Twitter App running on an Apple iPod Touch locked to provide only the capabilities needed by care staff during a shift.

Unlike regular tweets that can be followed by members of the public, the observations captured could only be accessed by the other devices being used by care staff and the shift supervisor who monitored the tweets throughout the shift. And unlike the current process with paper notes, each observation was shared in real-time, which increased communication between the care staff in the residential home.

For the next phase we are implementing an enterprise microblogging tool called Yammer. Unlike Twitter, which is designed to be a tool to broadcast public posts that can be accessed by anyone on the web, Yammer is designed to be used internally within an organisation and is accessible only to members of that organisation. This provides a closed, encrypted network where carers can post observations and care notes for their residents. These posts will be monitored by the shift supervisor for patterns in resident behaviour and changes in mental or physical condition. The posts will also be incorporated into a daily or weekly summary for each resident, which the nurses and senior carers can use to track changes over time and to input into revisions of care plan for each resident.

We’ll be trialling this later this year, and we’ll keep you posted. We’d love to hear from you about your experience using micro-blogging tools in an organisational context.

Author: Kristine Pitts

Creativity to Design and Support Care for People with Dementia

Can we design creativity tools to support residential care staff?

On the 31st January 2012 – Professor Neil Maiden gave a talk on the mobile apps we have developed as part of the MIRROR project. His slides have been made available here (through Slideshare).

Creativity techniques and software support tools have the potential to be applied successfully to a wide range of problems. In the EU-funded FP7 MIRROR project we are working with the UK Registered Nursing Home Association to apply creativity to the design and delivery of new tools to improve the care for people with dementia. Our focus has been to support the care staff in residential homes.

Neil talked about two uses of creativity in this domain. The first was the use of creativity techniques such as improvisation and role play to engage and empower care staff in the design of new mobile technologies and apps that can improve their care of residents. The second was the design and implementation of a new mobile app intended to support care staff to think creatively to overcome challenging situations. Care staff can use the app to generate more novel, person-centred resolutions to these situations based on different creativity techniques that it supports. Neil also described how this creativity support app can be used along side other tools also under development, such as a life history app and digital rummage box running on portable tablets.

We’re interested in hearing from anyone working with similar solutions or with technology & care. Do get in touch.

Author: Kristine Pitts