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February 20, 2017

As User Experience Designers, coming up with ideas and new solutions is a big part of our job, whether it’s fine-tuning the details or coming up with new concepts. When we conduct workshops and idea generation sessions with and on behalf of others, using different methods is a matter of course for us. But what about when we want to generate ideas on our own or together with the colleague next to us?

While we, Theresia and Julia, were attending the Nielsen Norman group course “Effective ideation techniques for UX design” in Chicago, we covered the basics of idea generation and a couple of new approaches as well. At the end of the day, we asked ourselves this: Do we apply the methods we are familiar with in everyday life?

Our sense is that we are often less methodical when we are working alone or in pairs, that we tend to default to our experience and know-how in such situations, and sometimes do we end up just doing the simplest thing possible? And what do we do when we get stuck?

We believe that it is important to clarify objectives and to deliberately adopt a broader perspective when working alone or in small groups too, which is where a methodical approach comes in handy. Here are five failsafe tips for how to approach idea generation methodically in everyday life.

1. Warm up to stimulate the imagination

The creative spark is struck when the conscious mind meets the unconscious and when rational thought and knowledge meet the imagination. Most adults have the rational side at their fingertips, as that’s the part we use in everyday life. It can be harder to get in touch with our imagination and open our minds on demand. But doing so is vitally important if we want our idea generation efforts to be innovative and fruitful. For pairs or groups of designers, it is a good idea to use warm-ups to stimulate the imagination and the mind’s power of association before proceeding to idea generation proper. When working independently, it is also important to find your own personal way of getting into the right frame of mind – whether by changing your setting, taking a walk or letting your mind just wander. What works for you?

When working independently, it is important to find your own personal way of getting into the right frame of mind – whether by changing your setting, taking a walk or letting your mind just wander. What works for you?

Two warm-up exercises for groups or teams of two

Association game

Associating is a great way to warm up the brain. This game is best played in a group, but it works between two people too. Pick out a subject beforehand or just be completely spontaneous. It’s as easy as having the first person say a word, after which the next person says the first thing that comes to mind, and then the next person makes an association with that word, and so on. The pace should be fast, and everyone needs a few turns to get the game going.


Decide if you want to sketch out ideas related to a topic chosen at random or if you want to narrow it down to a specific solution area or problem. Then have everyone in the group start sketching out a solution on a piece of paper. Pass the paper on to the person on your right and pick up where your neighbour left off. Keep going until the sheet of paper returns to the person who started the sketch.

2. Have clear objectives

Clear objectives are vitally important for idea generation. What is it we are trying to solve, and why? Stop for a moment to consider the formulation of the objective or the problem statement. Big objectives are intimidating and hard to solve – so if you can break the objective down into milestones, you should do so. Ask yourself “why” iteratively for several steps until you have abstracted back from the objective. You see, sometimes the objective or the problem statement can be based on unconscious assumptions that point towards a particular type of solution. Make sure that the objective is geared to the needs of the user and that half the solution is not already present in the problem statement/objective.

Example: If the objective is to design a car key. You ask "why should we design a car key?" A common answer is: To start the car and to be able to lock it. A better way to set the objective and break it down is this: Objective 1: we need to design a solution for starting the car. 2. We need to design a solution to make sure that unauthorised people are not able to gain entry to the car. A key might be the solution, but there are probably other potential solutions too, maybe a fingerprint reader, voice recognition, biometric ID, etc.

3. Introduce the target group and context - every time

Don’t take for granted that the context is hardcoded in your mind – memory is selective.

In order to design solutions for a specific target group, all the participants need to understand that target group and the context of its members during use of the service. This is done by having people present whatever insights they have to the group. These can be things like personas, customer journeys, analytics, survey statistics, etc. It can be a good idea for even the most experienced UXer to look through everything one more time prior to a solo session to have it fresh in the mind. Don’t take for granted that the context is hardcoded in your mind – memory is selective.

4. Switch back and forth between solo thinking and group discussions

No matter the size of the group – even if there are just two of you – you should let the participants think/write/doodle alone for a while in some way, and then have them present their ideas and solutions to each other. This method lets you think thoughts through in peace and quiet. Another advantage is that different personality types can more easily have their voices heard this way, and get into a creative mindset without being stifled by the person who talks the loudest. Methods that make use of this mindset include parallel design and design studio. Here is an introduction to design studio by Todd Zaki Warfel, Agile UX NYC.

5. Delimitation of blockers to think innovatively

Keeping many factors in mind at once can often suppress our creativity and ability to think innovatively. Because the world around us and the problems we are trying to solve are frequently complex, it can be a good idea to temporarily block out certain factors to free up space and think innovatively. All factors, such as technical viability, profitability and sustainability, should of course be taken into account in the evaluation phase, but during idea generation itself, we can let ourselves focus on just one aspect at a time while temporarily ignoring certain other parts.

Delimitation also helps us change perspective and think beyond the most obvious solutions. There are many ways to do this, and it is possible to combine various techniques during the same session. Here are some of our favourites:

Trend projection

Pick out one or more current trends in design or technology and explore how the trend or trends could be used in an extreme case development of the product or service. The resulting ideas should not be seen as the end result, but can be scaled down to a solution that is both feasible and innovative at a later stage.

Examples of trends: Voice and gesture control, the Internet of things (IOT) or self-monitoring technology.

Design for the persona or the needs group

This method is suitable if the service has multiple target groups or is used in different situations. Design for one persona or needs group at a time – the ideal solution for this particular person and his or her task, with no compromises. Do the same for several personas. The next step is to identify whether any of the ideas or solutions have utility for more than one of the personas, and then continue by combining the solutions.

"Systematic prediction" - Scale up and then back down

Shrug off all limitations and try to gaze far into the future. What would our ideal service look like in five years, for instance? Once you have an idea, scale back down. Based on the idea, what will the service look like in three years? In one year? In six months?

Apply select design principles

This is a method that is particularly effective when making improvements to interfaces and services, rather than in the conceptual phases. Proceed on the basis of one design principle at a time, and create solutions that are optimal from the perspective of this particular design principle. Do the same thing for several design principles, then piece together the solutions based on priority and the needs of the target group.

Examples of design principles:

Content relevance

Identify the most relevant information for the user and make sure that it is clear. Is there any noise that can be removed or hidden?

Error prevention

How do we go about ensuring that the user does not make “errors”? This refers to simple misunderstandings, but also to mistakes – i.e. when the user understands and wants to do it right but happens to make an error, such as entering the wrong telephone number.

Error recovery

What happens if the user makes an error anyway?

Trade-offs between flexibility/usability

Designing flexibility into services often leads to more complex products that are harder to use. Is there any unnecessary flexibility or any unnecessary feature in the service that can be simplified or removed entirely?


Do we allow the user to make use of his or her existing knowledge and mental models to interact and navigate our service? This involves consistency within the service as well as consistency compared to other services.

The above is a selection of principles, but this method can be used in the same way with other factors as well. For more design principles, see Jacob Nielsen’s “10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design”

Now that you’ve made it this far through the post, we hope you feel inspired to tackle idea generation systematically in everyday life, even when you have not planned a workshop and are not facilitating a group – just on a small scale, for yourself. We recognise the tendency in ourselves to just plod on when we know the product well, but perhaps it is precisely in these situations that it is especially important to define the problem, or where delimitation is most urgently needed, to gain a new perspective!

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