No matter how creative you are, coming up with fresh ideas on-tap isn’t easy. The blank page can be an intimidating thing to look at, especially when deadlines are looming. The worst part is, the more you stress, the harder it is to be creative.
This is where ideation techniques come in handy. Essentially, they’re ways to help you think creatively in any given situation. Good news for those who need to come up with ideas — and fast.
Let’s take a closer look at what ideation is, why it’s useful, and most importantly — how to do it right.
What is ideation?
Ideation is the process of generating ideas. It’s an important part of the design process, and, if done correctly, you should end up with a large number of ideas that should spark further ideas. The goal here is breadth, not accuracy: You want to cast a wide net.
Once you’ve gathered as many ideas as you can, the team works together to narrow it down until you have just the best remaining.
What is ideation for?
Ideation is about encouraging creative thinking. It doesn’t matter if ideas don’t completely hit the mark or answer the brief. In fact, even the most tenuous-seeming ideas have the potential to spark an innovative, more suitable one.
In generating large volumes of ideas quickly and accepting all ideas as good, it encourages team members to share more, with less fear that their ideas will be rejected or not be good enough: It all goes into the pot.
By working in this fast-paced, freeform way, you can avoid analysis paralysis, and hopefully discover answers that are increasingly innovative.
Ideation will help you with the following things:
- Overcome analysis paralysis and help you and the team enter a creative mindset faster
- Move beyond the obvious answers and think more creatively
- Help the team both work and think together
- Allow new perspectives to come through
- Generate lots of ideas with more variety
Where does ideation come in the design thinking process?
Ideation is a pivotal part of the project lifecycle. It sits right in the middle, between ‘define’ and ‘prototype’ — though usually, designers hop backward and forward between these different stages.
- Empathize: During this stage, the designers learn about the users and their needs.
- Define: Designers articulate the user’s need they’re going to solve.
- Ideate: Designers come up with ideas that answer the user’s needs.
- Prototype: A prototype allows early user feedback. The lessons learned here can reveal more about the users’ needs and spark more ideas.
- Test: Tests reveal more information about how suited the solution is to the need. At this stage, designers may jump back to the beginning and repeat, or return to the ideation stage and repeat the last three.
Popular ideation methods (and how to do them)
There are dozens of ideation methods. We’ll run through a few of the most popular (and give you tips on how to get the most out of each one).
Probably the most well-known ideation technique of the bunch, brainstorming involves a team of people all gathering in a room (or virtual hangout) and bouncing ideas off one another. The goal is to get as many ideas down as possible, and then collectively agree on a solution there and then (or in some cases, after follow-up sessions).
Brainstorming sessions are sometimes criticized for being ineffective. It’s true that without proper organization, they can be chaotic, with big characters dominating while quieter, more analytical thinkers (who often generate better ideas) underperform. Don’t just ask everyone to shout out ideas or expect the team to generate amazing ideas without direction: preparation and guidance are key.
3 variations on brainstorming
Braindump is like brainstorming, except you work individually. Simply write ideas down (either on sticky notes or virtually), and share ideas with the group later on. If your group is made up of quieter individuals who work better alone, then this is one to try. It’s great as a pre-brainstorming exercise, as well as being something that works well for remote workers.
For this one, everyone gathers in a room. Each person writes an idea down on paper, then passes it onto the next person to elaborate on. And round the circle it goes. After a set period of time, the ideas are shared and discussed as a group. It’s similar to the lotus blossom technique, as well as spider diagrams and mind maps, both of which work as solo or group exercises. The benefit of this way of working is that it gives everyone an equal opportunity to share their ideas.
Similar to brainwriting, except instead of passing paper around, the room is split into different ‘ideation stations.’ Participants walk around the room, leave thoughts at each station, and add ideas to those of the other participants.
10 top tips for better ideation sessions
To have the best chance of success, prepare. Here are some tips for better ideation sessions.
- Set a strict time limit. This creates a concentrated atmosphere that helps participants focus.
- Stay focused. Coming to the session with a pre-defined goal, along with questions, will help the team stay focused (and spark discussion if things fall flat). Condense the problem into a single sentence if possible, and put this somewhere prominent (e.g. on a whiteboard) so participants can refer to it.
- Maintain focus. If people start mentally wandering off, try to guide people back to the central point. Address one point at a time, and don’t be afraid to pause the discussion and remind everyone of the central goal.
- Encourage open-ended discussion. The goal is to get as many ideas down as possible, so resist analyzing or criticizing. Not only does this eat into ideation time — but it also limits freedom and creativity. Share now, judge later.
- Collaborate. Promote listening, sharing, encouraging, and building on each other’s ideas. This will help the group move collectively toward a solution.
- Incorporate drawings and diagrams. Visual learners will especially benefit from this. It also means you’ll have ideas physically written down, which reduces the chance of things slipping through the cracks. The more media you use, the more engaging and inclusive the session will be.
- Let everyone speak. It’s important to give everyone a chance to share their ideas in a way that makes them comfortable. This might mean designating one person to lead the group and ensure everyone has their chance. If you’re working remotely, use one of these remote brainstorming techniques to help everyone feel involved — no matter where they are in the world.
- Inspire participants. Use games and activities that appeal to different types of thinkers. Include a mixture of physical and cognitive techniques.
- Encourage equality. People are less likely to be open and free with ideas if the environment feels judgemental and hierarchical. Don’t sit the boss at the head of the table — instead, encourage everyone to pile in together and chat without feeling self-conscious or judged.
- Play devil’s advocate. If things begin to stagnate, or you feel people have reached a brick wall, start asking questions designed to be playful or provocative. Like — what would be the worst possible solution to this question? Or how would (insert celebrity name/superhero) deal with this problem?
How to choose your ideas
So you’ve ideated literally dozens of ideas. Now what?
The team needs to work together to narrow the selection down and choose the best from a shortlist. Here are two popular, but very different options to start with.
The four categories method
The four categories method encourages everyone to consider the more creative ideas, rather than just going for the safer options. To get started, simply split ideas up into four groups according to their practicality. At one end of the spectrum, you’ll have your ‘long shot’ or ‘wildcard’ choice. Next comes ‘the darling,’ followed by ‘most likely to please’ and last, ‘most rational.’ Participants then choose their two favorites from each group. Once you’ve decided, you should have a shortlist that contains four ideas to move forrward
This is one of the most simple and popular options. Everyone on the team has a number of votes (three is a good number), which they then use to choose their favorite ideas. You can do this over and over again until you have your winning idea. In terms of how it works, you can either gather together in a room or do it virtually — both work well.
Ideation helps design teams generate lots of creative ideas in a short space of time. To get the most out of your sessions, try to be as organized and collaborative as you can. Prepare with questions, prompts, and games — and whether you’re working around a whiteboard or chatting virtually, remember to record every single idea.
Paper can get messy, so use a cloud-based diagramming tool to make the process that little bit neater. Using a digital tool means you can version control, edit, and annotate ideas. It also means you can share the work with everyone on the team, whether they’re remote, or they just didn’t make it to the group session. Some diagramming tools, like Cacoo, also allow you to create and edit diagrams in real-time — meaning you can host the entire session virtually.
This is just the tip of the iceberg: There are hundreds of ideation techniques out there to try — so have fun, try different options, and develop your own variations to keep things exciting and new.