Coming up with good ideas is hard, and it’s especially hard when you’re looking for solutions to complex issues. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, ideas aren’t likely to pop up while we’re wracking our brains alone in front of a computer screen. That’s where design thinking can help.
Design thinking is a problem-solving approach popularized by IDEO founder David Kelley, that has five stages— empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. Each of these stages has a number of tools, methods and activities that goes along with it. If you’ve found this article, you’re likely looking for ideas, so let’s focus in on the ideation stage.
What is ideation? Simply put: coming up with ideas. However, when you hear about ideation in relation to business and design, it’s usually in reference to design thinking activities, which encourage us to stretch our mind and embrace discomfort to innovate.
There are a few important principles to keep in mind before jumping into ideation.
Keep an open mind: No matter how crazy an idea might sound, don’t write it off! It’s okay if the ideas you come up with seem out of the range of what you can accomplish— every idea you put out during an ideation session will work as inspiration to help you reach a viable solution.
Don’t get too attached: Though it is important to keep an open mind, you should also know when to let go of ideas that won’t work. In the ideation phase, nothing is too far-fetched. However, once you exit ideation and enter user testing, it is important to release any bias you have towards a certain solution and accept if your idea does not work in real life. If you find out something can’t be done, it’s just narrowing things down and getting you closer to the right solution!
No creativity required: Design thinking should be for everyone. It’s okay if you don’t think you are “creative” person— you’d be surprised what ideas you can come up with if you give yourself the chance! It might take practice to feel comfortable with this, but over time you will see results if you let go and immerse yourself in prompts and activities.
Involve others: It’s best to run an ideation session in a group of 3-5. It’s not impossible to do these activities alone, but it can be difficult. It is very worthwhile to gather a group of people with varying perspectives.
In addition, ideation doesn’t just come out of nowhere, it is the third stage of the design thinking process for a reason. Before you start, it’s best that you clearly define what problem you are trying to solve and for whom.
Now, the fun part. Let’s try out some ideation activities!
- Crazy 8’s: This activity is a favorite of ours that we often (almost always) run during Design Sprints. All you’ll need is a single piece of white A4/letter paper per person, some black markers (or colorful if you’re feeling fancy). First, fold your piece of paper so that it creates 8 even creased boxes, and unfold. Within each box, sketch one potential solution or idea. Don’t worry, the drawing does not need to be detailed. Set a timer for a short amount of time— anywhere from four to six minutes— and get drawing!
- Time Machine: This activity comes from the Service Design Sprint. Using a Time Machine Canvas (download ours free below), start by writing the ways people approached your challenge in the past on post it’s, and stick them on the canvas. Next, write out present solutions. Finally, add in future solutions. You can really stretch your imagination and go wild when imagining future solutions. These will serve as inspiration for more feasible ideas.
- Bodystorming: This activity involves putting you in the shoes of someone who faces the issue you are trying to solve for. Start by putting yourself in the environment your user might be in— for example, a grocery store. Then, carry out the action you are trying to solve for— perhaps the self-checkout experience. You can either do this in a real environment (like a grocery store) or reenact the experience with your team. Through bodystorming, you will start to notice any incorrect assumptions you had, as well as key pain points in the experience.
- Powers of 10: This exercise draws its inspiration from legendary industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames. Their film Powers of 10 shows a man laying a park and zooms out every ten seconds by a power of ten (if you’ve never seen this stunning 9 minute film, I highly recommend you watch it). It goes from a close up view of a couple in a park and zooms out by factors of 10 every 10 seconds, taking us beyond the Milky Way and back down to the atomic level in less than 10 minutes. The Powers of 10 ideation activity references this by asking us to imagine the solution and the way your problem looks in vastly different scales of the same variable— for example, coming up with solutions that costs 10 dollars, 100 dollars, up to 10,000 dollars.
- Round Robin: In this activity, you will need a group of 4 to 5 people. Each person will fold a piece of paper up to create four boxes. Write down your solution idea in one quadrant. Then, pass clockwise. You should now be holding the idea of the person next to you. In an adjacent quadrant on the paper, write down a reason why their solution would fail. Then, pass clockwise again. This time, look at the idea on the paper and the reason it would fail, and write a revised version in the next quadrant.
If you’d like to find even more ideation activities, there are tons of free resources online! Here are a few that we enjoy:
- Google Design Sprint Kit: Sketch Methods
- IDEO Design Kit: Ideation Methods
- SessionLab – Idea Generation and Innovation Exercises