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What is the ideation process?

Last updated

22 March 2023

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

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The most important thing a user experience (UX) designer can do is solve real user problems with innovative solutions. This starts with phase one of the design thinking process: empathizing with your target audience by researching and gaining real insight into user needs. 

The next phase is to define and detail your users’ needs and problems (often with a UX problem statement) by organizing the data gathered and analyzing core problems.

The third phase is the ideation process.

In the ideation process, your design team challenges assumptions and generates many ideas that ideally expose an innovative solution to the problems discovered in the first two phases of design thinking. Is the process effective? According to research, 74% of UX professionals reported the process as being either 'somewhat' or 'very' successful at generating useful design ideas.

Keep reading for more information on ideation, its importance in design and marketing, and ways to optimize your sessions. 

Defining ideation and its purpose

The Oxford dictionary defines ideation as the formation of ideas or concepts. An ideation session, therefore, refers to creating and sharing new ideas (concrete, abstract, or visual) throughout the entire thought cycle: innovation, development, and actualization.

These ideas do not have to be completely new. The purpose here is to generate as many ideas as possible (new and old) to reveal either a completely new idea or a current one that can be implemented in a new way. 

What is the concept of ideation?

The concept of ideation is to generate as many ideas as possible—good and bad—in the session, only narrowing down the list to top favorites. This ensures you've exhausted all your creative resources to develop the next innovation to introduce to your users in your market.

What is an example of ideation?

One of the most common examples of ideation is brainstorming, a process that requires participants to spit out ideas as they come to mind. The key to ideation and brainstorming is to keep the environment open-minded and without fear of criticism. This way, your participants can comfortably develop new ideas, no matter how 'off-the-wall' they may initially seem. 

Why do we need ideation in design thinking?

The key to filling in market gaps and resolving user needs is innovation. One of the most important ways to continuously promote innovation among your team is to generate ideas. An ideation session gives your team members an inspired and influential environment to generate creative ideas and develop a final solution to the problems you discovered in the design thinking process.

In fact, there's a reason it comes after researching user needs and analyzing data and just before creating prototypes and testing results. It's based on how well your team knows your users and understands their pain points in the market. It's also a crucial step in thinking outside the box, incorporating different perspectives, and expanding the thought process through a free-thinking space—leading to the final concept on which your design team bases the next prototype on. 

Simply put, it's the very foundation of everything leading up to your product launch.

What does ideation mean in marketing?

Since ideation prompts teams to generate ideas from nothing, it's no surprise that it would also play an important part in your company's marketing. Just as product development and design require constant innovation, marketing techniques must also stay ahead of the competition to introduce new things in memorable ways.

Fortunately, ideation has a track record for delivering results when used as an essential step in improving your marketing strategy. 99% of marketers cite that a central part of their success in the industry depends on their ability to create a steady stream of ideas.

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Tips for preparing for an ideation session

As you prepare for your ideation session, it's important to consider the environment in which your team will generate ideas. This is because it will influence the quantity and quality of ideas in the process. 

Here are some tips to help support a successful ideation session.  

Provide a collaborative work environment

Collaboration is one of the most important elements of ideation. Team members can build from each other and create solutions they may not have the opportunity to think of otherwise. By bringing together different skills, expertise, and perspective, the session will benefit from creative ideas that possess more innovative thinking and review.

In fact, researchers report that "simply feeling like you're part of a team of people working on a task makes people more motivated as they take on challenges." Generating ideas from scratch to address the issues identified in user needs research can be a complex and challenging process. In such a situation, motivation is critical in determining whether the end product will successfully solve the problem or fall short of the desired solution.

Foster freedom to share any idea

No idea should be considered unacceptable in your ideation session. It's more common for the most off-the-wall and bizarre idea to influence the final concept than the most obvious. After all, the point of the process is to think outside of the box so your team can generate new ways to fulfill consumer needs.

The same ideas have already been used and used again. While it's important to share all ideas during a brainstorming session, it's worth noting that a mix of both obvious and abstract ideas can lead to a more remarkable outcome. Although obvious ideas may still contribute to the success of the session, exploring abstract ideas can inspire creative thinking and result in a more impressive outcome for the team.

Use technology to your advantage

You don't have to completely disregard paper and pen methods in your ideation session. However, technology has the unique capability of streamlining ideas and fostering more creativity. Although other stages of design thinking receive more technological focus, experts also recommend accelerating technologies for rapid ideation. 

In an in-depth field study comparing the use of technology to traditional methods, the researchers noted that participants using technology to ideate were able to create functional solutions quicker than their counterparts. This tells us that technology can foster quicker innovation. 

3D printing made all the difference in this case, but that's not necessary for every session. In most cases, using digital devices, tools, software, etc., can be a great way to accelerate creativity and innovation. 

Similarly, when ideating on a technology product, inviting developers that are building the solution would be critical to having a productive ideation session. They will have insider knowledge of what existing technologies could be leveraged and perhaps your current tech stack’s state. 

It should be said that there may be some bias when it comes to allowing those having to build the solution to the table, but it’s often to everyone’s advantage. Putting them at the source of ideas can help stifle or even stop completely an idea that could never feasibly be built. Other times, developers may hear a purposefully outlandish solution only to offer ways in which it could actually be built.

Timing and inspiration

Successful ideas often come at the most curious times. The best ideations aren't always introduced in the very first session. It takes time. More importantly, it requires you not to restrain participants from having more time. Not only can this tactic scare away the introverts in your team that can add value to the process, but allowing the mind to wander on its own time can be excellent at aiding creativity.

Opposingly, imposing a time limit or timed sketch sessions can foster adrenaline-induced inspiration. An exercise known as “Crazy 8s” offers this phenomenon and can be done during any ideation session. 

Each individual is given a paper they fold into eight parts. A timer is set for eight minutes, and everyone is meant to take eight minutes to sketch out eight different ideas or eight steps of a single flow when applicable. The results are often surprisingly insightful, and silent voting can usher in a well-leveled deciding factor and group-based solutions.

What are the four themes of ideation?

According to Milene Goncalves and Philip Cash's "The Life Cycle of Creative Ideas..." study, you can divide the creative process into four themes:

Theme 1: closed-loop ideation

In theme one, the researchers found that the earliest ideas may not be 'the best,' but they are highly influential to the final concept. 

Theme 2: incremental middle

Theme two occurred during the ideation process, where participants started to be more deliberate about their creation and variation of ideas. 

Theme 3: sacrificial reframing

Theme three emerged late in the session. At this time, the 'sacrificial concepts' were ideated—a necessary part of the process as the craziest ideas thrown out in a session most often lead to the most valuable solutions.

Theme 4: combinatorial preference

Theme four revealed how much more influential the intuitive ideas were for participants than the ideas that were ideated in deep deliberation. Even during the final stages of refinement and elaboration, participants' final solutions had a connection to their instinctive ideas.

What are the three stages of ideation?

Ideation isn't as simple as just spitting out ideas. In fact, it’s common for companies to churn out ideas and never go further because they miss the next two stages. 

The entire process starts in the first two phases of design thinking—research and evaluations—when pinpointing the consumer problem you want to resolve. As you uncover the problem, you move into the three stages of ideation:

Stage 1: idea generation

Idea generation is the stage you're likely most familiar with because it's the process of creating and sharing ideas. This is the stage where you'll combine techniques and methods to help your team develop the best possible solutions. No ideas are bad ideas in this stage, and you'll find that the more ideas generated, the more successful your session will be in the next stage.

Stage 2: selection

After you generate as many ideas as possible, the team isn't finished. You have to bring those ideas to life and refine them into ideas you can make work. At this time, you'll select the best ones, continuously narrowing down your top picks until a clear winner is ready for development. Then you'll encourage the team to evaluate the best ideas and focus on ways to use them to solve customer needs. 

Stage 3: development

By the development stage, your team is refining all final ideas to perfection (or as close to perfection as you can get until you refine the solution again following testing). This includes moving into the fourth phase of design thinking, creating prototypes, evaluating the idea in action, and making any necessary improvements. 

Ideation methods and approaches

Develop methods and approaches that work best for you and your team. These examples can be very helpful in getting you started.

Methods for the first stage of ideation: idea generation

To inspire your team to think more creatively when generating ideas, these methods can be useful:

Sketching

This is often one of the first approaches to ideation, having participants sketch out their ideas. The first sketch is typically pretty basic, incorporating the core concepts of the solution. However, as time goes on, the sketch is continuously refined until the final concept is revealed. 

Even those not typically seen as “designers” should be encouraged to sketch as it’s much less a competition of artistic skill and much more about the idea itself. Simple shapes and lines are all that’s necessary, and everyone can and should sketch out the ideas in their heads.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is another way to generate a lot of ideas at once. You can do this by simply spitting out what comes to mind and jotting down several ideas on a card to share with each other. However, most won't likely be usable. The intention is to get out the 'obvious' ideas that first come to mind out of the way and create a collaborative environment that inspires more innovative thinking and perspectives. 

Brainwriting

Like brainstorming, team members come up with as many ideas as possible. However, this method focuses on anonymity to help the most outside-of-the-box thinkers generate ideas that may otherwise be suppressed by fear of judgment. Everyone jots down as many ideas as possible, but the read-through of ideas comes from the session's leader. 

Worst possible idea

In this method, you ask your team to purposely list the worst ideas possible for solving your users' needs. First, team members will spend a few minutes listing bad ideas (quantity over quality!). Then everyone goes over them. 

Another round of bad ideas is generated from what participants heard from others and what they were inspired by. The final steps include grouping bad ideas together to find common elements, listing 'good' substitutions for the bad, and challenging each other to develop better solutions through the combination of bad.

Idea challenges

Idea challenges are methods that use incentives to encourage maximum results. This means that the leader of the session gives a time limit, asks for the best solutions, and awards the top answer (or answers) with a prize for coming up with their idea. It's most often used in a setting involving more people in the company, encouraging a more innovative culture. 

Methods for the second stage of ideation: selection

When entering into the 'selection' stage of the ideation process, these approaches can help narrow down ideas:

The impact-effort matrix

This decision-making tool is a great way to prioritize the best ideas by comparing their likely effort to the end impact. According to the American Society for Quality, the impact-effort matrix "provides answers to the question of which solutions seem easiest to achieve with the most effects." 

This is done by gathering all the suggested solutions and creating the diagram—four quadrants. The horizontal line is the effort it will take to implement the solution, and the vertical line is the solution's impact. Using various colors, symbols, labels, etc., the team evaluates the diagram. The best solutions are placed in the top left-hand corner of the quadrant. 

The stage-gate process

In this process, your team developed gates between each stage to reduce uncertainty and help shape the best ideas. It is organized into small, easier-to-manage stages like discovery, scoping, feasibility, development, validation, and launch. 

As you move each idea through the roadmap, each gate will present resources, risks, and forecasts for the best courses of action moving forward. The process helps weed out high-risk solutions while choosing the most viable ideas.  

Idea management

There are likely many ideas to consider and manage through the selection process. It's not uncommon for sessions to hit in the high dozens in many cases. How you manage your ideas will play an important role in your session's success. For instance, a management tool can be very helpful in this case because it will help keep everyone focused on the top ideas as the bad ones are weeded out through the previous methods.

Methods for the third stage of ideation: development

Finally, as you enter the development stage, you'll find methods like analogy thinking and storyboarding are most helpful:

Analogy reasoning/thinking

This method involves finding the commonality in two or more ideas to optimize the final concept. As you make your final selections, finding similarities in the top results from your second stage is common. There's also a good chance that these ideas are somehow connected.

Have your team implement analogy reasoning into the final step of the ideation process to combine two or more ideas to make the best possible solution for your users. You may even find that the ideas are similar to what is currently available. This process can allow you to expand on what already exists to improve it.

Storyboarding

Another tool that helps in the third stage of ideation is storyboarding, a technique used to visualize existing ideas so your team can identify connections between them. The concept here is that by drawing connections between a sequence of events and your team's ideas, you can make more sense of the final concepts heading into development. As a result, you could refine and make final improvements before moving them into the next stage, prototyping.

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