If you’re a product designer or product manager, you likely rely on methodologies that can help you and your team “think outside the box”. We’re often told that outside the box is where we can find new and exciting ideas that will meet people’s needs while making your company a ton of money.

As great as “outside the box” methodologies like design thinking are, I see the tendency to ignore the time component of the box we’re supposed to be thinking outside of. By focusing too much on the present and current needs, we tend to limit our understanding of the problems and the longevity of proposed solutions. Both can keep us chasing after elusive user needs like hamsters on an agile wheel.

I understand the desire to not venture too far outside the box. When designing a product within the context of a company – whether an established one or a startup – you are usually constrained by budgets and deadlines, and urged to prioritize short-term economic viability. In other words, your solutions need to make money for the company, fast. Preferably yesterday. Definitely before your next performance review.

Even within these constraints, it’s possible to carve out a bit more space for creativity by thinking outside the present and time traveling further into the past and future. And best of all: you don’t need an expensive time machine to get started, just your imagination and some research skills. In this case, ChatGPT and other LLM-powered chat folk can be valuable travel companions, as long as you remember to check the claims they make.

So, whether you’re practicing design thinking, running a design sprint, sprinting through the lean startup loop, or writing user stories for your backlog, thinking outside the present can help you discover new opportunities. You might not be able to think outside the present at every step of your process, but thinking on different time scales can be a handy asset in your product toolbox. Especially when you’re feeling stuck or are able to dig deeper.

Let’s explore what thinking outside the present might look like in practice!

Deepen your understanding of people by listening to echoes of the past

Whether you call it the empathy, analysis or learning phase, an important part of product design and development is understanding your context: the problem space in which you’re operating and the so-called user needs. (Which I prefer to call people’s needs, as I think it really is time to retire the term “user”.)

No matter how fast you’re being asked to sprint or think, at some point you need to take the time to understand who it is that you are designing or building for. What are their needs, preferences? And how might these needs change over time?

You might use a tool like an empathy map to map what the people you are designing for say, do, think, or feel, and use these insights to synthesize their needs. However, most tools fail to remind you that people’s needs and how people seek to meet them are shaped by their context: the environment and culture in which people live.

In turn, cultures are shaped by their environment over the course of time. This means you can learn more about people’s current needs by being curious about how the meaning and role of specific needs emerged over time.

In my design practice, I always start by getting curious about words, symbols, metaphors, and stories people use in the problem space. What is the origin of the words they use? Are they telling the right story? What assumptions are they hiding in plain sight?

You’ll have to look into the past to fully understand what lies behind the words and other symbols people use to describe their pains and needs, and how metaphors and stories color people’s current thinking and feeling. You might even adapt a tool like the journey map to map the journey beyond a single product as you attempt to understand how the relation to the need evolved over time.

Let’s say you are trying to design better collaborative online tools. In addition to understanding how people currently collaborate online, you might get curious about the history of online collaboration tools, and what collaboration means to different people. What metaphors do people use, what stories do we tell about the way we collaborate? How did people collaborate before the internet, what are the commonalities to how we currently collaborate?

(As an example of this approach, you can read my exploration of stories that are hidden in digital workplaces like Slack. This turned out to be an important part of product discovery for a product I designed later.)

Perhaps you don’t have time to ask and explore all these questions in detail. That’s ok. You can just dedicate a couple of minutes to being curious about the conditions that contributed to the emergence of specific needs – and how those conditions might change in the future and affect the desirability of your solutions. Instead of capturing just a snapshot of current desires and needs, you can then build a deeper understanding of people by having some awareness of what shaped and continues to shape the needs you’re currently observing.

In other words, by exploring the history and origins of a problem space, you can challenge your assumptions and biases about the way things are. By doing this, you train your imagination to expand your possibility space beyond what you are currently familiar with, which can turn into a superpower when you start looking for new solutions.

Add a time component to problem statements by noticing seasons and cycles

Another trap of focusing too much on the present is that you might forget to question how people’s needs change with seasons or other cycles that affect humans. Think about whether the needs you identified might be seasonal, cyclical, or influenced by other circumstances and thus temporary.

If you’re writing a problem statement to capture your learnings, consider adding a when to the statement. For instance, the need for a car in the city might be related to outdoor temperatures and weather conditions that are likely tied to a certain season. (Or personal circumstances.) It can be easy to make wrong assumptions about the viability of a solution if you don’t define how the desirability of the product might change over time. This is especially true if you later fail to test those assumptions over longer time scales.

Looking at past data points and experiences can help you uncover seasonal or other patterns. All parts of nature – including people – are in a constant state of movement and change, so don’t assume what you observe today and test this week will remain unchanged. (A lesson many startups that thrived during the unique circumstances of COVID lockdowns learned the hard way.)

The key to remember is that learning about people and defining their needs is a journey, not a checkbox exercise you can tick off and forget. Biases and assumptions are often revealed over time if we make the habit of listening to the echoes of the past and the rhythms of cycles.

Brainstorm or sketch with past and future perspectives

When brainstorming or sketching new ideas, you can look for inspiration in the past, the speculative future, or a different now to expand your definition of what’s possible. Explore what has worked in the past in different times and contexts, and how it might be adapted to current needs. Use futures thinking tools to ideate with future goals and destinations in mind. Embrace the divergence of the ideation phases by embracing time travel in all possible directions.

In a business context, we are constrained by a narrow definition of viability that focuses on the short-term profitability of the proposed solution. But we can challenge our thinking by seeking inspiration in approaches that have stood the test of time and exploring ideas that expand the definition of viability to a planetary scale. If you’re looking to stretch your creativity, there’s no better way than to challenge yourself to play with what might be possible beyond business as usual. (Given how fast we’re exceeding planetary boundaries, this shift in thinking will soon become a necessity.)

For instance, if you’re using an ideation method like Crazy 8’s, go time crazy and play with different time perspectives. What ideas might you suggest in the 1990s or even earlier pre-internet times? What ideas might you suggest in a world at 3 °C warming, in which heatwaves and other extreme weather events are increasingly common and limit internet connectivity? Experiment with different crazy time perspectives or challenges based on your context.

Stretching your thinking into the past or the speculative future can help you generate more resilient ideas that go beyond short-term viability, regardless of which brainstorming or ideating tool you use.

And when deciding which of the ideas or sketches are best – you might use a technique like dot voting as a group to prioritize and decide – you can also make decisions based on longer time horizons. Before deciding which solutions to vote for, take some time to explore the consequences of potential candidate ideas beyond the next couple of quarters.

Prototype or build by taking a step back and removing features

A common pitfall in the prototyping stage – and often the build stage as well – is that you want to do too much too soon. And that you fall in love with complicated solutions too early in the process. Instead of prototyping or building with a vision of a super-sophisticated future product, challenge yourself to imagine how you might prototype or build your solution with less.

Experiment with simpler approaches that worked in the past to check your understanding of the problem and people’s needs before getting too attached to your idea of the solution. Instead of looking for new features to add, look for opportunities to subtract. Getting better at doing more with less isn’t as easy as imagining exciting new features. However, by thinking a bit more about how you prototype or build, you can put your understanding, definitions, and assumptions to the test faster and cheaper.

The lean startup methodology popularized the minimum viable product approach in product development, but taking a step back isn’t just about stripping away features to the sellable – or prototypable – bare minimum. It’s about rethinking the solution from different perspectives and leaving space to discover prototypes or builds with fewer features that actually meet people’s needs better – and possibly even improve the solution’s feasibility and reducing its environmental impact!

Test or measure on different time scales

When testing prototypes or measuring the impact of new features, you usually want to gain quick insights that can inform your understanding of people, definition of the problem, and spark new ideas. However, when dealing with complex problems that you do not fully understand yet, it can be helpful to run tests and observations on longer time scales.

Rather than wrapping up each test as soon as possible, consider leaving different prototypes in the hands of small groups of people for a period of time or observing new functionality over a period of time. This will help you better test the long-term viability of a proposed solution, and give people time to discover different uses that you never envisioned.

You can run experiments on longer time scales with less involvement, which can help you minimize the observer effect and evaluate solutions beyond the initial enthusiasm and participants trying to please you as the observer. Meanwhile, you can still keep using any insights you get from ongoing experiments to improve additional prototypes.

When analyzing data, don’t forget to question whether the observed effects might be due to seasonality. Before you get too excited or defeated about an observed correlation, remember the famous correlation between ice cream sales and shark attacks during summer. So, if people aren’t signing up for your productivity app during summer, it likely isn’t due to their fear of shark attacks but because they still believe in a healthy work-life balance.

Before jumping to conclusions about causality, remember to look at the calendar. Get curious about what else is going on in the world at that time – and think outside your present box –, and how testing or measuring at a different time might yield different results.

Tools and frameworks for thinking outside the present

If you’re ready to start thinking further outside the present, here are a couple of tools you might consider adapting to your practice, depending on your goals and scope:

I also invite you to explore additional tools and ways of dancing with time perspectives that work best for your context. You might find future studies or futures research a particularly exciting field with many toolkits to explore. But don’t dismiss the wisdom that can be found in history – both recorded and hidden in stories –, and in different cultural contexts. Whatever tool or approach you end up adapting, your design, product, and systems thinking will all deepen if you challenge yourself to think outside the present more often.

Keep in mind that thinking outside the present does take a bit more time, practice, and imagination than going with what’s right in front of you. But if you’re willing to make it part of your regular practice, it will improve your chances of designing more lasting and resilient solutions, and better prepare you to face future changes and challenges.

AI usage disclaimer: I used ChatGPT as a brainstorming partner and sounding board, and LanguageTool to improve spelling and grammar. I stubbornly resisted ChatGPT’s suggestions to make this blog posts more exciting and broadly appealing by adding Steve Jobs quotes, so I can now proudly claim the post’s weirdness and remaining typos as my own.