No matter how creative you are, coming up with fresh ideas on demand 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.
Well, there’s good news for anyone who needs to come up with ideas — and fast. Ideation techniques are, essentially, ways to help you think creatively in any given situation.
Let’s take a closer look at what ideation is, why it’s useful, and 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 spark further creativity. The goal 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 them down until you have only the best remaining.
What is ideation for?
Ideation encourages 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.
By generating a large volume of suggestions quickly and accepting all ideas as good, it encourages team members to share more. The team has less fear that their ideas will be rejected or won’t be good enough: it all goes into the pot.
Working in this fast-paced, freeform way can prevent analysis paralysis and, hopefully, motivate your team to develop answers that are increasingly innovative.
Ideation techniques can also help you to:
- Enter a creative mindset faster and improve productivity
- Move beyond the obvious answers and think more creatively
- Help the team both work and think together
- Be open-minded and allow new perspectives to come through
- Generate a high quantity of ideas with more variety
Where does ideation come into the design thinking process?
Ideation is a pivotal part of the project lifecycle. In the design process, ideation comes between defining the problem and developing a prototype to address it. However, it’s normal for designers to go back and forth between these different stages as they refine a product solution. Here is a brief breakdown of the design process.
- Empathize: during this stage, designers learn about users and their needs.
- Define: designers articulate the user needs they’re going to solve.
- Ideate: designers come up with ideas to address user needs.
- Prototype: the team develops a simplified version of the product to collect early user feedback. Designers use feedback to learn more about user needs and spark more ideas.
- Test: testing reveals concrete data about the effectiveness of the design solution. Depending on what they learn, designers may jump back to the beginning and redefine the problem or return to the ideation stage and keep improving their ideas.
How to prepare for ideation sessions
Imagine corraling a group of people into a room on short notice and telling them they can’t leave until they come up with an amazing idea. Chances are, it won’t end well, and you’ll simply waste time without producing quality results.
If you want to achieve the right results, it’s crucial to approach the process in a way that serves your purposes. Create an environment that’s conducive to creativity and analytical thinking.
- Ask about brainstorming preferences. Everyone has specific conditions that contribute to their creativity, so ask your team for suggestions before you plan an ideation session. That way, you can focus on providing the right support for your team.
- Set up a flexible work environment. If you’re meeting in person, avoid choosing a stuffy, restrictive space where everyone is just sitting and staring at a whiteboard or projector. Choose a more open space where there’s both seating and room to walk around. Many people are more active thinkers when they can stand, pace, stretch their legs, or interact with their surroundings.
- Surround your team with stimuli. Building on the previous point, it’s a good idea to provide physical or visual resources related to the problem you’re trying to solve. For instance, when designing a physical product, set out prototypes, competitor products, branding materials, etc. Encourage your team to interact with products the same way a user would, so they can discover practical solutions that are easy to overlook when they’re only thinking theoretically.
- Prepare backup activities. If a brainstorming activity isn’t working the way you envisioned, don’t be afraid to move on to something else. Not every method makes sense for your team, so come up with several options and switch between them as needed. The most important thing is to keep the session productive and engaging.
Popular ideation methods (and how to do them)
There are dozens of ideation methods. We’ll run through a few of the most popular techniques 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 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.
Three variations on brainstorming
Braindump is like brainstorming, except you work individually. Simply write ideas down (either on sticky notes or virtually) and share them with the group later on. If your group is made up of quieter individuals who work better alone, then this is a good one to try. A braindump is a great pre-brainstorming exercise, and it works well for remote workers.
For this one, everyone gathers in a room. Each person writes down an idea and then passes the paper to the next person, who elaborates on the previous idea. Keep repeating this model for a set period of time, until you’re ready to share and discuss ideas as a group. Brainwriting is similar to the lotus blossom technique, spider diagrams, and mind maps, all of which work as solo or group exercises. The benefit of this method is that it gives everyone an equal opportunity to contribute ideas.
A brainwalk is similar to brainwriting, but instead of passing paper around, you divide the room into different ‘ideation stations.’ Participants walk around the room, leave thoughts at each station, and add ideas to those of the other participants.
Acting out a design problem through storytelling is an entertaining way to get your teammates to put themselves in the end-user’s shoes. You can either choose a few people to act out a scene for the whole group or break up a large team into smaller ones.
Roleplaying is most effective if you clearly define the problems you want to discuss in advance. Based on their professional roles on the team, everyone can come to the session prepared with research to help them adopt specific customer perspectives. Promote deeper brainstorming by having your team suggest new scenarios on the spot. Then, you can explore potential challenges a user might face or improvements you haven’t previously considered.
10 top tips for better ideation sessions
To have the best chance of success, prepare. Here are some tips for better ideation sessions.
1. Set a strict time limit
Limiting your time creates a concentrated atmosphere that helps participants focus. It also promotes action by encouraging your team not to spend too long in the ideation stage without making progress.
2. Stay focused
Coming to the session with a pre-defined goal, along with questions, will help the team stay on track (and spark discussion if things fall flat). Condense the problem into a single sentence when possible, and put this somewhere prominent (e.g., on a whiteboard), so participants can refer to it.
3. Maintain focus
If people start mentally wandering off, try to guide them 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.
4. Encourage open-ended discussion
The goal is to get down as many ideas 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.
Promote listening and sharing. Instead of rejecting ideas that are too familiar, be encouraging toward others and build upon each other’s ideas. This will help the group move collectively toward a solution.
6. Incorporate drawings and diagrams
Visual learners will especially benefit from creating diagrams. You’ll also 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.
7. 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 ensuring 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.
8. Inspire participants
Use games and activities that appeal to different types of thinkers. Include a mixture of physical and cognitive techniques.
9. 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.
10. 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. For example: 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 down the selection and choose the best from a shortlist. Here are two popular, but very different, options to get you started.
The Four Categories method
The Four Categories method encourages everyone to consider the most creative ideas, rather than just going for the safer options. To start, 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 explore further.
Post-It voting 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 can 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 edit and annotate ideas and easily manage different versions. 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.
This post was originally published on October 14, 2020, and updated most recently on February 21, 2022.