Knowing where to start is the hardest part of any project. In the design thinking process, you spend a lot of time learning to empathize with your users through research, then properly defining the problem that your project needs to help them with. At some point, though, you have to pivot your brain to put all this understanding and definition to use. You must start coming up with ideas. AHHHHHH!
The excitement, the anxiety, the experience of having everything or nothing pop in your head when presented with this challenge is overwhelming. How am I supposed to come up with a solution no one has thought of before? Where do I begin? It’s enough to make you run around in circles and crash into walls.
Luckily, there are ideation techniques that you can employ to add guidance and structure to your efforts, sparking creativity and innovation.
Types of Ideation Techniques
In a previous post, I explored one such technique—ideation mash-ups—but there are many, many more from which you can choose, such as the 6 ways outlined in the video above. Just do a quick Google search and you’ll find copious techniques that others have found helpful. Some commonly used techniques are:
- Brainstorming: find new ideas by building on others’ ideas. There are many methods for brainstorming sessions. One method is 6-3-5 in which 6 participants write down 3 ideas each in 5 minutes and then share.
- Braindumping: similar to brainstorming, but it is done alone by setting a time limit and writing down every idea that comes to mind, no matter how crazy
- Brainwriting: similar to brainstorming, but participants write ideas on a piece of paper, pass the paper to the next participant after a few minutes, and that person builds on the previous person’s written ideas. After a set time limit the passing ends and ideas are shared.
- Worst Possible Idea: define the worst ways to solve the problem, alleviating anxiety about the need to be right.
- Challenging Assumptions: ask questions about the product, service, or situation you are trying to solve to see if there is anything you take for granted. This method helps when ideation is stuck or focused too much on one idea.
- Mindmapping: a way to visualize relationships between elements of a problem. Write your problem statement in the middle of a piece of paper or whiteboard then write related words and concepts around it and draw lines to indicate connections and relationships.
- Sketching: express ideas as rough, simple sketches. Ideas presented visually can inspire further ideas and be easier to share, discuss, and critique with others.
- Storyboarding: bring a situation related to your problem to life by telling it in a visual medium. You can use details and quotes from user research to build a scenario, then highlight tension points through the story to help people empathize with users and look for ways to resolve the tension.
- Bodystorming: act out situations related to your problem to find how to solve for these situations in the moment. This helps to get participants involved and in the shoes of a user, rather than thinking theoretically.
- Analogies: an analogy is a comparison of 2 things. Think of the product, service, or situation you are trying to solve for in relation to another product, service, person, or thing. This can help with expressing complex solutions in an understandable and inspiring way.
- SCAMPER: stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, Reverse. For each of these words, think of 1 idea for your product, service, or situation that does what each word says.
- Gamestorming: Make problem-solving more fun and engaging by gamifying it. For example, Cover Story is one type of gamified problem-solving technique in which participants create a cover story, including main image, headline, quotes, and sidebars with associated facts, related to their problem or the product, service, or situation involved in their project.
- Prototyping: although this is the stage of design-thinking that usually follows ideation, it can be useful to build ideas physically because it forces you to make decisions from which you can learn and generate more ideas.
- Opportunity Redefinition: craft a phrase about your problem that identifies the opportunity, then pick the 3 most interesting words in the statement and list creative alternatives for them. Place your word list in columns below the words they correspond to in your statement and then select random combinations of words to rewrite your statement. These combinations can become triggers for ideas.
- Picture Prompts: give pre-selected images to participants and ask them to write down what ideas the images inspire. Participants then pair up to discuss their ideas and generate more. Finally, the group comes together to share all ideas.
- 5 Whys Analysis: popularized by Toyota, participants must ask why 5 times, starting with a problem statement, to find the root of the problem. It is all about questioning why problems happen and how things are related.
Which Technique To Use
Not every technique will work for every type of person or project, which is why there are so many. You should look at the type of ideas your project needs and choose an ideation technique that is most conducive to generating those types of ideas.
Another factor to consider when choosing a technique is the type of people on your team and their level of experience with ideation. If you have many novices on your team, you may want to choose more familiar, easier techniques to start off with.
Most techniques benefit from having a time limit as you cannot ideate indefinitely without your generation and creativity waning significantly. Some techniques, though, require more time commitment than others, which if you are trying to coordinate group meetings can be too large of a demand. So, keep in mind how much time you reasonably can commit to ideation when choosing your techniques.
One of the most important things to remember, no matter the technique you choose, is that ideation should be focused on generating as many ideas as possible. Judging or giving opinions of ideas before an ideation session has ended can often limit the number of options so, it is best to refrain from this behavior—however tempting it may be to do so in the name of hurrying a project along.
The more ideas you have to choose from, the more likely you are to find one or more that are viable options for helping to solve your users’ problem and worth the investment of prototyping, testing, and development.
In a previous post, I explored 3 weather apps in order to create 6 problem statements. I’ve used these problem statements as starting points for demonstrating 4 of the ideation techniques listed above: braindumping, sketching, worst possible idea, and analogies.
I know that I’m a visual learner so, when choosing ideation techniques, I wanted at least one that was visual. I’ve used mindmapping before, but I didn’t find that it actually helped me come up with ideas. Rather it felt more like an exercise in organization. I chose to sketch because it allowed me to freely get the images I had in my head on to paper. Some of these ended up turning in to scenarios, which meant I kind of did storyboarding by accident.
Braindumping was the most generative technique that I used. Some ideas, though, were better than others and I did get stuck a few times trying to figure out how to explain certain ideas I had in words. Having the option to sketch made communicating these ideas much easier.
This is a good example of how certain techniques are suited to inspiring and communicating certain types of ideas. Choosing the right way to ideate is important for making this step of the design thinking process successful.
Worst possible idea was probably the most fun technique to use because it was so nice to take the pressure off of needing to come up with good ideas. When I was doing it, I kept thinking of Saturday Night Live segments, like the one below, and how they sometimes take a real-world product or brand and put it through a funhouse mirror. Their success comes from turning something on its head, very similar to how this technique works.
Like SNL segments, I laughed a lot at the worst possible ideas I came up with, but with a few ideas, I started to see how you could use this to form actual, usable solutions. For example, with my AccuWeather problem statement related to users who live in locations where severe weather alerts are vital, most of my worst ideas involved trivializing alerts or making them unreliable—random weather alerts, alerts only for minor weather, allowing users to send fake, severe weather alerts to friends for fun.
Looking at these solutions it seemed obvious to me that no one would ever want to put someone’s life in danger with the design of this app. However, reviews of the app indicate that that’s exactly what users felt the app was doing in some cases.
My worst possible ideas were simply extreme examples of a problem that already existed. Extreme examples make it easier and clearer to see a route to fixing a problem compared to more common examples.
My bad ideas helped me figure out that AccuWeather should have a defined criterion for what constitutes a severe weather alert and what the best timing and content for them is in order to keep users safe. Inconsistency in this area leads them to be considered negligible or the boy who cried wolf by users. You could actually build and implement a real solution based on this idea. However silly worst possible ideas are, they can lead to useful understanding and good ideas.
Analogies was an interesting technique because it made me think of the apps outside of the very focused perspective I’d normally use. Since all 3 apps basically have the same purpose it would be easy to compare them to each other and just imitate what the others do well in order to fix the problems. This doesn’t lead to much innovation, though.
Analogies had me looking to other types of apps, and even people, and saying how could I take qualities that make these other things successful and create the weather app version of it to solve for these problem statements.
The Weather Channel app users are concerned about people close to them in different locations. What else do you look at if you are concerned about this? The Find My Friends app. Dark Sky Weather users want radar with great detail. Radar looks like a map. What displays maps with a lot of informational detail? Google Maps. AccuWeather users are concerned about the weather affecting medical conditions. Who do you also consult about medical conditions? Doctors. Is there a way to have AccuWeather act like a doctor?
By creating these trains of thought, analogies widened my mind’s field of view and made me feel that I was on a pathway to truly innovative ideas. In fact, I think doing braindumping right after analogies helped me to come up with more original ideas. Some of these ideas were hard to express in words, as I said before, so sketching after braindumping helped me nail down those ideas better.
Using these 3 ideation techniques in conjunction was helpful for me. I can’t imagine I would have done very well if I’d limited my ideation to just one approach. My recommendation, especially if you are struggling to come up with ideas, is to try different ideation techniques. You don’t buy shoes without trying on multiple options to find the most comfortable, so why would you settle on a solution before seeing if another approach would serve your ideation work better?
Reflections on Ideation
Overall, what was most enlightening about trying this range of techniques for the same set of problem statements was just how diverse an experience ideation can be. There were obviously some themes and similarities to the ideas I generated across techniques, but each technique had me thinking about the same problem slightly differently.
Braindumping had me thinking more in terms of verbal concepts. Sketching had me visualizing what my idea would look like or the context it would be used in. Worst possible idea had me gaining understanding of my problem by imagining making it worse, rather than fixing it, and analogies started me thinking outside the box and past traditional competitors for inspiration.
None of these is THE technique, the one that will always unlock the perfect idea. That’s not how solving a problem works. Ideation will look and feel different from person to person and project to project. Don’t worry. Just pick the techniques you think are best for you and start coming up with ideas.
Dam, R. F. & Teo, Y. S. (2019, July). Introduction to the essential ideation techniques which are the heart of design thinking. Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/introduction-to-the-essential-ideation-techniques-which-are-the-heart-of-design-thinking
Dam, R. F. & Teo, Y. S. (2020, January). Learn how to use the best ideation methods: brainstorming, braindumping, brainwriting, and brainwalking. Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/learn-how-to-use-the-best-ideation-methods-brainstorming-braindumping-brainwriting-and-brainwalking
Dam, R. F. & Teo, Y. S. (2018, February). Learn how to use the best ideation methods: SCAMPER. Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/learn-how-to-use-the-best-ideation-methods-scamper
Frey, C. (2013, May 30). The 7 all-time greatest ideation techniques. Innovation Management. Retrieved from https://innovationmanagement.se/2013/05/30/the-7-all-time-greatest-ideation-techniques/
Harley, A. (2017, January 15). Ideation for everyday design challenges. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ux-ideation/
Landry, L. (2017, December 1). How ideation techniques can help solve your most challenging business problem. Northwestern University. Retrieved from https://www.northeastern.edu/graduate/blog/ideation-techniques-impact-on-business/