Creative concepts and ideation: What’s the big idea?

Daisy Harding, Designer

Creative concepts and ideation: What’s the big idea?

Like Homer in the clip above, we all want to have the next big idea, whether its for a product, a start-up, a re-brand or even smaller changes in our day-to-day lives. But sometimes we can think too far ahead and skip the important processes that help make big ideas happen. The ‘big idea’ is all about coming up with a solution to a problem - but more than that, its about defining the right problem to solve, being empathetic to your users, and refining and testing your ideas until you arrive at the best solution you can. 

For our latest Tinnovation, we got everyone into teams and set them a design challenge. The tasks involved aimed to show the teams how ideation fits into the design process, teach them some methods to help them come up with creative concepts, and to provide some insight into thinking like a designer. 

Task 1: The presumption reflex  

The first task was a bare bones brief and a test that most of the teams passed - with a little help. We deliberately gave the teams a challenge with very little information… 

‘Design a new way to catch mice.’  

That’s it.  

Now, we weren’t really looking for new ideas for mouse traps. What we wanted in this first task was for the teams to question us.  

An interview question from Google recently made waves online posing a similar challenge for potential designers (you can read more about it here) and most of the interviewees failed the challenge for exactly the same reason - they didn’t ask enough questions and designed their solutions based on assumptions.  

Our teams quickly got to work on designing their mouse traps, but with very little information to go on they worked based on their assumptions. Most of our teams soon realised that we actually had a more detailed brief behind our initial question, with a few red-herrings thrown in for good measure, such as the mice being addicted to coffee and needing to be caught humanely. Seems obvious but it’s always worth stressing -  in order to design a good solution, you need to ask the right questions at the start of the process. A good designer will always have more questions than answers at this stage. 

Task 2: Bad idea party  

Another great way to broaden your pool of ideas is to think about things in a completely different way - the wrong way. We asked the teams to come up with the three worst solutions to the mousetrap brief that they could think of and write them down - and there were some pretty terrible ones, including flying coffee cups, high speed trains and traps made out of footballs.  

Why did we ask them to do this? Well, in ideation, there’s no such thing as a bad idea - or a good idea - until you give it context. As designers you should fairly evaluate all your ideas - even the ones you think might be terrible - so as not to dismiss any promising concepts. One of the bad ideas in our session, for example, was getting the local football team to come in and distract the mice. This is obviously a pretty bad idea - but take a look again and it poses some interesting questions. Could the local community be involved in the solution? Could it include gamification in some way? What initially seems like a bad idea might in fact be a good idea in disguise. 

Task 3: Alter-ego ideation 

For the third task, we wanted to teach the teams a lesson about empathy. We got the teams to pick a name of a famous celebrity or character from a hat - Lady Gaga, Harry Potter and Mr. Bean to name a few - and then asked them to think about the mousetrap brief from the point of view of this character. “Imagine,” we said “that, as your character, you’ve already come up with the solution. What would it be, and how did you do it?” 

This is a great brainstorming exercise for any innovation session and the results were predictably ridiculous - I don’t think Lady Gaga will be wearing a mouse-trap dress anytime soon. Thinking in someone else’s shoes can be a useful way to motivate new ideas that you might have not have thought about before. 

There are other lessons we can learn about empathy too. It obviously plays a critical part in the design process, but it’s important to understand what it is your users really want - and to remember that you are the designer, not them. In user interviews and usability tests, users will often tell us what they want, and it can be tempting to turn those requests into features. But user research isn’t about what users want; it’s about what they do. If you were conducting user research for a fitness app, for example, your interviewee might tell you they go to the gym everyday - but in fact, they only go on a Tuesday (if they can be bothered). Our observations of people are valuable, and can help us design better solutions.  

Task 4: Synthesis 

This is the point in the design process where we narrow our insights into a potential solution that we can test and improve on - and it can be one of the more challenging steps in the design process, as some of our teams discovered when we asked them to have a final go at designing a solution to the brief. Steve Jobs famously said that ‘[Focus] means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that are there. You have to pick carefully…I’m as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things we have…’  And he would know.  

It’s a difficult task but a necessary one, and a vital part of lean methodology and creating an MVP (Minimum Viable Product.) Evaluating your ideas and testing them allows you to iterate and refine, until you’ve narrowed it down to something of real value based on real insight. Our teams’ final solutions were a vast improvement on their first sketches.  

So what? 

So what did all these mad mouse traps have to do with what we do everyday as a business? Well, all of the lessons we learnt from these tasks can be applied to a well-known formal UX design process - the ‘double diamond.’

A simple visual map of the design process, the ‘double diamond’ is divided into 4 separate phases - the research phase, the insights phase, the ideation phase and the prototyping and testing phase, and these phases are either diverging or converging. During a diverging phase, you try to open up as much as possible without limiting yourself; in a converging phase, you condense and narrow your findings. You can find out more about the ‘double diamond’ at the Design Council website. 

Our teams were ‘diverging’ and ‘converging’ at various points in their tasks. By further defining the problem at the start of the brief, we converged towards the middle of the diamond. Then, in our ideation exercises, we diverged, broadening our pool of ideas. And in our last exercise, we converged again, using this collection of ideas to help define a better solution. The challenge was a broad exercise to get them thinking about the process, but its stuff that all of us apply to our work everyday.  

So having the next ‘big idea’ requires several steps to get right - and having a framework in place can help you stay focused on defining the right problem and developing the best solution you can. Ask the right questions, observe your users, test your ideas and iterate, and you might just come up with something great. If only Homer could have had the same idea. 

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