Design Thinking Ideation Techniques You Haven't Tried

Masha Panchenko

In a world where we are obsessed with productivity and achievements, it is hard to accept the idea that we have to do something just for the sake of the process. That is the problem with many creative techniques.

As ideation is a part of serious work, people want to be practical and constructive. They don’t want to waste time on things that look like silly kids’ games. Because, why are we trying hard to come up with the worst ideas during the meeting? Shouldn’t we think of our business objectives?

“Creativity” and “thinking out of the box” have been on the list of top skills that all employers are looking for years. As a design agency, we value creative skills in our team — and we know well that it’s a thing that can be learned and nurtured.

Not sure if there are people who can come up with a bunch of great creative ideas on demand, but most of us need special conditions for that.

That is when silly kids’ games are necessary. To awaken that creativity in team members, all those weird activities really help. Imagining the ways of ruining the product, roleplaying the scenes, drawing them… Curious to know how it works? Read below.

Sketching

The main point of this technique is to draw and write instead of talking. When we visualize our ideas on paper, our thinking process works differently. We can’t express as much as when we’re talking, but we have better focus.

product design sketch
Image credit: matthieu mingasson on Pinterest

There are no rules: it can be a piece of paper for everyone, a flipchart, or a big whiteboard. Some people who are not used to thinking visually might find it intimidating to sketch and show their drawings to others. No need to be shy: it is not about our drawing skills here. Write, draw diagrams, schemes, sketches — what’s important is to let your creativity flow.

SCAMPER

The word SCAMPER stands for seven focus points:

  • Substitute
  • Combine
  • Adapt
  • Modify (Magnify, Minify)
  • Put to another use
  • Eliminate
  • Rearrange

We start with a product or a problem that we are working on, and go from S to R, each step gives us a new point of view. This method is all about asking questions, and the questions are more than just seven. 

Each word triggers a few questions. For example, it is not just “What can we substitute in our product?”, but also “Can we change the way our clients think of the product?”, “What if we substitute our target audience with another?” “Can we substitute our sales budget for marketing?”, and so on.

Image credit: https://husite.nl/creativebusinesshu

Ask as many questions as you can think of, and come up with answers. The answers give us different perspectives on the product — and this is exactly what we are looking for in our ideation process.

This is one of the lateral thinking ideation techniques, which means that the solution is found through looking at the problem from a different angle and approaching the issue in a creative way rather than “rational”.

Brainstorming

When asked “what is the most popular ideation technique?”, most people would surely name brainstorming.

Of course, brainstorming won’t be a new thing for you. However, as a popular and effective method, it has lots of variations. Have you heard about brainwriting or figuring storming? There is a whole science behind this seemingly simple method. To learn more about it, read our article on brainstorming strategies.

Apart from those 7 methods described in the abovementioned article, there are many more “storms” that help us to generate new ideas. They deserve a separate book, but we’ll just list one of our favorites.

Crowdstorm

If you are familiar with crowdsourcing, you’ll understand what crowdstorm means. By “crowd” we mean people outside of the team: customers, fans, members of focus groups, social media followers, and others.

Tweet post asking for ideas for new features

The ways of connecting with a larger pool of people are various: sending out a questionnaire, tweeting the question, asking the participants of user research sessions, and so on. You can pose the question straightforwardly, or ask for ideas or associations, or pick a few ideas that you’ve already had and ask people to give feedback.

The side effect of this technique is enhanced user engagement: people love to be asked about their opinion. Companies that value the opinion of their customers have a higher level of loyalty.

Crowdstorm can become an introduction to the participatory design approach in your company. Involving all the stakeholders in the design process is an essential part of the holistic design approach.

Journey map

We are used to thinking of a customer journey map as a standard tool for improving user experience. However, they can be useful for generating ideas.

hotel guest journey map
Image credit: LoungeUp

A map gives us a detailed view of all the aspects of user-product interactions. From this overview, we can focus on the points that need our ideas, or, on the contrary, see new opportunities in those parts of the user journey that we haven’t been thinking of.

A customer journey map is a strong tool for both empathizing and ideating. And don’t forget, there are also user journey maps and even employee journey maps. The principle of a journey map can be applied to other issues that are not directly related to user experience.

If you find that visual ideation techniques such as maps work well for your team, you would surely like the next one.

Storyboarding

A storyboard is a detailed scenography of some actions related to the product. For example, it can be episodes of user interaction with the product. You have to imagine an episode in detail: sketch it, write lines, try to feel the emotions, imagine different scenarios.

storyboard comic style
Image credit: Bryant Hodson

If the team feels comfortable with acting, they can even roleplay some short scenes themselves — whatever makes people feel relaxed and free to express their ideas.

Did you know that Airbnb uses storyboards a lot in its product design process? The inspiration for drawing episodes came from Disney’s Snow White. We have written how storyboards changed their way of seeing the business in the article about different types of customer journey maps.

Billionaire dream

The point of this ideation technique is to imagine a situation without any constraints. You have to ask just one question: “If we had an unlimited budget, what would we do with our product?”.

After we have imagined that ideal situation, we can think about which parts of it we can realize with the existing budget, as in the real world. 

“Dreaming big” is useful not only with personal objectives, but also with product design. We often tend to discard ideas before even pronouncing them because we believe that they are unrealistic. In many cases, these ideas are not as impossible as we think.

Reverse thinking

In this technique, we basically just flip the logic of ideation upside down: instead of thinking of the best way to solve the problem, we think of the way to worsen the problem, a way to create more problems, and so on.

Imagining the “worst” ideas can have two outcomes: you may “revert” these ideas to turn them into positive solutions, or you may just approach the whole thing as an “ice-breaker” exercise that prepares the team to express their craziest ideas freely.

Synectics

This method was invented by George M. Prince and William J.J. Gordon. Synectics is using the power of analogies, finding similarities in different things and differences in similarities.

First of all, you have to phrase the situation that you are working on. Secondly, we come up with an analogy, an example from a different sphere where the situation is somehow similar. When we have found a good analogy, we focus on it and stop thinking about the initial issue for a while.

Team members think of ways to solve the new situation. The ideas are collected and later applied to the initial problem. Some of them might not be applicable, whilst others can bring a completely new solution.

Mash-up

This technique was invented by IDEO, a design firm that was rocking design thinking before it became a buzzword.

As we know, innovative solutions don’t appear from nowhere: usually, it is just two previously existing things combined in an unusual way. That is what the mash-up technique is about: mixing two unrelated things to come up with new ideas.

Where do we find these unrelated things? First of all, we have to make a problem statement or the question (by the way, defining the problem properly is crucial for the other ideation techniques as well). The question should start with “How might we”. For example, “How might we make our customers order their medicines for delivery?”.

After that, we pick two categories. One of them should be related to our topic, another — not related at all. Let’s say it can be “pharmacies” and “Disneyland”. Give your team a few minutes to create a list of all the things that come to mind under each category.

Then take one item from each category and combine them in an unexpected way: for example, “painkillers sold by Mickey Mouse”. Don’t expect each combination to be a potential answer to the initial question. The objective is to generate new ideas, and only then evaluate them and see if there is something real.

How might we prevent monotony in office work? Category 1. Elements of working in an office  Category 2. Types of childhood play
Image credit: linesof.com

To sum up

Ideation techniques are endless, just like good ideas. You can use one of these for inspiration, combine a few of them, or invent a completely new one. There is no single way to generate new ideas. The only rule is to express ideas freely and go beyond the frames of the most common way of thinking.

The main points of ideation techniques are:

  • make everyone feel comfortable to express anything that comes on their mind
  • ask unusual questions to get original answers
  • shift the focus from problem-solving to the creative process

So what can we do with all these crazy and genius ideas? That’s the next step of our work! Learn how to apply design thinking in product design in our article Design Thinking Examples: Five Real Stories.

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