Design Thinking

Ideation: No idea is a bad idea.

You may be thinking, “There are plenty of bad ideas,” but the point is that at this phase, we haven’t proven it yet. So, it’s time to ideate.

Ideation in Design Thinking enables us to surface a range of possibilities and uncover innovation in unexpected places.

In the Problem Statement phase, we targeted some How Might We questions. It’s time now to offer as many answers to those questions as possible. That’s why in this moment, as we set out to gather answers to “How might we…”, no idea is a bad idea.

There are multiple approaches to any particular problem. 

Any one of these approaches might be valid. Our goal is to be able to surface as many possibilities that exist, and then to force ourselves to make a decision about which one we want to pursue at this time.

Ideation includes divergence and convergence. This illustration depicts a mind map: several irregular shapes are plotted on a white background, and many of the shapes connect to each other or branch off to form new groups of shapes.

In ideation, we practice divergence and convergence.

So, we start from this shared understanding of the problem statement. From there, we diverge in order to create all these possibilities for ideas and solutions. Then, we re-converge around those possibilities and try to make our best judgments about what we want to take forward to prototype and test.

Parallel ideation exercises that surface multiple possibilities

It’s time to have fun: ideation exercises are some of the most exciting exercises in Design Thinking.

Ideation can be performed using any method that’s appropriate. We prefer to add artificial constraints by time-boxing specific activities. This gets our team pumping out ideas quickly.

The team gets together to create ideas – together, but separately. That’s why we say these exercises are done in parallel. Focusing on our main How Might We questions, the team performs drawing, sketching, and mind mapping exercises.

Each activity is performed independently, but synchronously. It’s important that these exercises are individual and that they’re timeboxed. 

Ideate step one: Messy mind maps

Before each participant can get into drawing up rough sketches of their ideas, they need to generate and gather those ideas. So we use a timed period of mind mapping.

Repeating the mantra that no idea is a bad idea, each individual takes 5 minutes to get some loose ideas on paper. These messy mind maps won’t be shared, but this activity gets the creativity kicked off.

Mind mapping allows everyone to pull as many ideas as possible out of their head and onto a visual medium.

We use timed exercises to force all ideas to come rushing forward.

Ideate step two: Crazy for those 8s

The buzzer sounds, and it’s time to drop those mind mapping pencils and swap them out for Sharpies. After looking over all the wild ideas we jotted down, we must pick one of our own to get sketched out.

During ideation, we sketch ideas on paper. This illustration depicts an exercise called crazy 8s, where eight different user interface ideas are sketched onto a piece of paper.

OK, it’s not important to use Sharpies, but the idea here is that we aren’t going to sketch happy trees with correct shadows.

We’re going to outline eight different solutions – getting the general idea across, not going deep into details – for that one single problem.

Taking a single sheet of paper, we fold it in half three times. When we open the paper, we’ve given ourselves eight panels on which to unleash these solutions.

Ideate step three: Storyboards

After reviewing the eight options we provided for ourselves, we come up with the strongest among them and turn it into a 3-panel storyboard.

If each panel on the crazy 8s sketch represented a single user interface, the storyboard brings that interface to life by taking into account everything else that is happening for the user when they encounter this product.

Drawing on empathy, we’ll picture what the user is needing and feeling, and represent this by telling their story. The depiction will demonstrate everything that’s happening from the point of pain, to the encounter with our proposed solution, and on to the reward or payoff that our solution has brought.

This storyboard is an interface sketch that will speak for itself. It has a title, and it’s shared with the group.

Note: we share the storyboard. We don’t present it. Without narrating or selling what we’ve drawn, the group should be able to understand the scenario or have their curiosity piqued about the user.

Our ideation exercises are limited by time to inspire more creativity. This illustration depicts a green minute timer, with the dial set to ten minutes.

Heat-mapped voting: The group responds to the storyboards

Spending two minutes on each storyboard, the team performs heat-mapped voting to select the section of the storyboard that most speaks to each team member.

Silently, and individually, the team examines each storyboard. Each person is equipped with small dot stickers that they use to place anywhere on the storyboards where they find something of interest.

Heat mapping is a great way to perform this exercise, because it helps us identify commonalities among the team. Areas that show clusters of stickers, or heat, might be related to a single button or interface element, an implied transition, or some other piece of the user flow.

The heat maps can also identify ideas that are different, and worth exploring.

This may sound like an exercise that has to be done in person, but that’s certainly not the case. You can perform remote design thinking exercises by using Zoom and some creativity.

With the heat map complete, it’s time for a verbal critique.

Set a timer for 3 minutes per storyboard. Have the team talk through each storyboard for 2 minutes (the creator stays silent, actively listening). The purpose is to highlight what the team finds interesting, challenging, or even confusing. Then, in the final minute of each, ask each storyboard creator if the team missed anything important.

Once this review is complete, the team is ready for decisionmaking.

We conduct another super vote, as we did during the How Might We exercises described in the Problem Statement phase. The stickers we use this time will be a bit larger, and we can use all our votes in one place if we feel strongly.

The team members have 3 votes each. We place our votes on the storyboard – or across the storyboards – to identify the experiences and actions that should be pursued in prototyping.

Vote for your own storyboard, or put all your votes on a single storyboard. All voting is fair game in a super vote.

With the super vote in hand, there should be a standout storyboard to carry forward into prototyping. Don’t forget the heat map as you move forward, though; often small ideas from each of the storyboards make their way into the prototype as valuable additions.

After analyzing the heat maps, it’s time for a final round of voting.

Read next: We’ll pursue two final solutions and move them toward testable prototypes.