Designing an App for Good with Ideation Techniques

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I just got my groceries delivered for the first time in my life. It was a little strange, but a big relief for my anxious mind to not have to venture into a store in the middle of a global pandemic. I’m doing my part to flatten curve, which also happens to be exactly what my mental health needs. But this got me thinking about what all the senior citizens out there are doing right now for groceries, 1 in 4 Americans over 60 live alone.

I’ve figured out how to order groceries for my 70-year-old mother who lives alone 1000 miles away, but what about those who don’t have close family or friends or use the internet? I know stores are beginning to offer senior shopping hours, but any social exposure for people in high-risk groups can be dangerous and nerve-wracking. One senior couple in Oregon asked a complete stranger in the parking lot to get their groceries for them last week because they were too scared to leave their car.

These and more situations are occurring right now and while individuals are stepping up to help and organize solutions, efforts are siloed by the nature of our social circles. You may publish a spreadsheet with the needs of local citizens on social media, but only the local residents connected to you may be lucky enough to have it fed to them by the algorithms, and only for maybe a few days. So many of us are ready and willing to help our neighbors and local communities, but we just don’t know who needs help and where to look all the time – and this isn’t just a problem during a pandemic.

We depend heavily on non-profits to shine the light on who needs help, but these organizations, however caring, are limited in their reach and resources. Each of us has resources in some form – funds, time, goods, labor, emotional support, friendship – that someone else in our community could benefit from if we shared.

I wish there was an app for centralizing and connecting those in our communities with resources and will to help with those in need. An app that could be an out-of-the-box solution that every community could adopt their own instance of and get organized with. That could be as default and familiar across the board as Facebook and Nextdoor are in our communities and as part of our daily lives. Use technology to break barriers to helping others even more than it does now. Alas, this is just a wish, but I decided to do some ideation on this problem of how to crowdsource a community to see if I could spark the beginning of an app solution.

What is Ideation?

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If you’re looking to fix a problem using the human-centered design thinking process then ideation is the point in the process when you come up with all the ideas you can think of for how to solve your problem. In ideation quantity over quality is the name of the game because as you increase your idea options, your chances for success increase as well.

When we colloquially talk about brainstorming, ideation is what we mean. Brainstorming, traditionally done by sitting in a room thinking up ideas with a group of people, is just one form ideation can take. I’ve previously posted about how there here are countless ideation techniques to choose from. Some techniques are more verbal in nature, others are visual, physical, gamify ideation, or include users directly.

Using ideation techniques helps to increase creativity, innovation, and the sheer number of ideas you generate in your efforts. Without the structure and guidance of ideation techniques, you usually find yourself either coming up with the same, tired ideas or stuck on a mental block.

To help with my app ideation I chose 4 different ideation techniques:

  1. Sketching: express ideas as rough, simple sketches that allow expression of ideas quickly, inspire further ideas and are easy to share, discuss, and critique with others
  2. Storyboarding: draw a series of 3-6 panels depicting a scenario of a concept related to a project that provides a visual narrative that builds empathy for users and shows ways in which a project’s solution may be used
  3. Image Board (Mood Board): Create a collage of pictures, illustrations, and brand imagery that visually communicates the target aesthetic, style, audience, context and other features of design intent
  4. Cognitive Mapping: Write several concepts related to a project on a piece of paper, write things related to those concepts around them, and connect with lines to show how everything relates to each other (mind maps are 1 type of cognitive map)

My App Ideation

Ideation Technique: Sketching

I’m a pretty wordy thinker and a wordy communicator, but I’m also more of a visual learner. I consider ideation to be a learning experience. You learn how your brain works. You learn where opportunities may be. You learn how to connect seemingly unrelated things and shift your thinking to make the impossible possible.

So, for my app ideation journey, I chose 4 largely visual techniques to use. Going in, I felt both more comfortable and more excited to try these techniques then I did others I’d researched. I also find that visual techniques are better for ideating alone, which I was for this project.

On to the hard work. I knew roughly what I wanted my app to do at the start – offer a central location where all needs in a community could live, be accessible, and be answered – so, I began by sketching the images above of what the UX/UI (user experience/user interface) might look like for 3 different actions users looking to help others could take on the app.

I sketched what the basic interface would be for a list of requested needs and how a user could choose a need to answer. I then sketched how a user could search for need requests in their chosen geographic radius and finally how they could search and filter all need requests on the app.

Working on these sketches made me realize that there could be a lot of information flowing into this app and it could easily get confusing or cluttered and demotivate users. Since the app is meant for community-wide use, many different types of users will be interacting with it with different time constraints, levels of interest, and technological capabilities. As a result, the UI of the app needs to be relaxing and unintimidating and the UX features need to be simple, intuitive, and guiding.

Ideation Technique: Storyboarding

After sketching, I moved on to storyboarding the 3 use scenarios for the app pictured above. One of my scenarios was a senior citizen making a request for someone to clean out her gutters for free on the app. The request is then reviewed briefly and approved by the local government to help ensure authenticity and quality on the app. This could be an optional feature for communities if they do not have the resources for app management.

Finally, someone sees the request on the app and clicks accept to clean out the senior’s gutters. I used myself as a user persona for my app so, in this scenario, I was the person answering the need. In my other 2 scenarios, though, I took different roles: working alongside another volunteer to fulfill a need posted on the app and as the requester of a need.

By storyboarding different scenarios and looking at how a single person fits into all of them, I realized that the app would have 3 main user goals. One would be to find opportunities to help. Another would be to make requests for a need to be met, and a third would be to manage the app for a local government.

Although finding opportunities was my initial reason for this app, the other 2 user goals cannot be deprioritized in design, for example ignoring how a request is submitted and accidentally hiding a submission form link in an illogical place or using just generic fields on the submission form. If someone cannot submit a request easily then there will be no needs to answer by other users and no reason for anyone to use the app.

Ideation Technique: Image Board

I followed storyboarding by creating an image board to organize what I was thinking the visual aesthetic and vibe of the overall app brand should be. This was probably the most fun technique because was it was where I was able to best communicate the mental images and associations I was having when I thought about the app.

I was also able to express my emotional feelings about the app in a simple, non-wordy way that I think could be a good jumping-off point for more specific ideas if I moved on to reviewing my image board with a group. I’ve posted before about how emotions are often difficult to communicate verbally so, having a visual medium for that is important.

I think my image board cohesively communicates my desire for the visual language of the app’s brand to be welcoming and reinforcing of positive change through bright colors, round edges, relatable photography, and motivational language.

Ideation Technique: Cognitive Mapping

I finished my ideation efforts by doing a cognitive map of 3 subjects I thought were inherently important to my app idea: community, government, and sharing. I wanted a high-level understanding of just how I understood connections between these elements in case that could inspire ideas for how the app could mimic or improve already existent connections.

My map showed that there was a high level of interdependence between these subjects, as I suspected. However, the number of connections I could think of almost made the job of drawing the map overwhelming. I kept finding that many of the same words, such as schools, connected in some way to all 3 subject areas and that drawing too many crisscrossing lines could make my map messy and less helpful.

Instead, I had to start looking at the big picture, that maybe a certain word was more owned by 1 section, but because everything on the page was connected in this giant web that it also was linked, even if by a few degrees away, accurately to everything it related to.

Looking at my map inspired a number of ideas for additional features. I had mostly been thinking of the app as a place for people in the community to communicate and offer shared resources but started to think that idea could include the local government using the app as a way to meet people’s needs as well, such as through integrating social services applications or offering live streams of community events for homebound residents in it.

With this web of connection as inspiration, I think the function of the app could be expanded in many different directions or offer a menu of features for communities to customize their instance of it to their local circumstances.

Meet ‘Cup of Sugar’

Once I finished my ideation, I felt I had a more tangible handle on what this app could be so, I gave it a name: Cup of Sugar. I was inspired by the old analogy of borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbor. This concept of sharing resources and building community through that has fallen out of fashion, but as one illustrated article in Yes Magazine depicted it, it is still very valuable and should be revived.

Although this was just a quick ideation exercise, you can see just how far you can get into actually coming up with a solution for a real-world problem. We often like to think we are powerless in helping to change the world around us for better but practicing ideation can shift that mindset.

So, next time you see or feel a problem in your life sit down and start sketching or storyboarding or building an image board or a cognitive map or anything else that moves you past just accepting the problem as a static reality and on to being part of the solution.


Cureton, E. (2020, March 22). In Oregon, neighbors use social media to offer — and ask for — help. NPR. Retrieved from

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

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

Dam, R. F. & Teo, Y. S. (2019, November). Stage 3 in the design thinking process: ideate. Interaction Design Foundation. retrieved from

Ideation Methods. Design Kit by Ideo. Retrieved from

Gibbons, S. (2019, July 14). Cognitive maps, mind maps, and concept maps: definitions. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from:

Gidalevitz, Y. Mood boards in UX design: ignite passion in your users Usability Geek. Retrieved from

Harley, A. (2017, January 15). Ideation for everyday design challenges. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from

Lazarovic, S. (2019, March 18). This is how borrowing things from our neighbors strengthens society. Yes Magazine. Retrieved from

Livingston, G. (2019, July 3). On average, older adults spend over half their waking hours alone. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

Martin, B. & Hanington, B. (2012). Universal methods of design. Massachusetts: Rockport Publishers.

O’Kane, K. (2020, March 13). Woman helped elderly couple get food when they were too scared to go shopping during coronavirus outbreak. CBS News. Retrieved from

Selyukh, A. (202, March 19). Supermarkets add ‘senior hours’ for vulnerable shoppers. NPR. Retrieved from

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