Different techniques to ideate about a software product.

We will discuss the following methods and techniques and how to best use them:

  1. Writing Epics
  2. Brainstorming
  3. Adopt a competitor
  4. Why Ideate
  5. Ideation Techniques


Discovering and articulating a meaningful challenge is a key responsibility of the designer. Design Targets statements serve to focus ideation (brainstorming) and capture your design vision.

Format: [USER] needs to [USER’S NEED] because [SURPRISING INSIGHT]

Good Design Targets should be based upon information about real users e.g. interpreted data, stories and user journeys which are, actionable and potentially generative (rather than just factually true), Intriguing and provocative (tostimulate, and feed, the generation of alternative options).

For example, instead of: “A teenage girl needs more nutritious food because vitamins are vital to good health” Try: “A teenage girl with a bleak outlook needs to feel more socially accepted when eating healthy food, because in her hood a social risk is more dangerous than a health risk.” OR “A high-achiever at work, and as a parent, needs to feel more in control of her young children at school, because the child’s achievements are also an achievement for the parents”.

Design Targets are a bit like epics

Format: As a [USER], I want to [USER TASK], so that [PURPOSE or MOTIVATION]


The aim of brainstorming is to familiarise with an approach to ideation that generates more ideas than any single individual could.

Although brainstorming is used here as an ideation technique, it may of course be used whenever a creative solution is needed e.g. when planning how to bring the developed artefact to market, or how to study users.

Write some questions to direct your session. The exact questions will be unique to your user information, and kind of application – here are some examples.

Prepare 1 or two energising “How might we ...” questions:


For example, how about ‘How Might We ...’ : ‘reduce repetition and duplication of communications for organizers’?  ‘provide busy parents with more opportunities to squeeze in additional tasks en route to a destination’

Generate and create as many ways of meeting the need as possible.

a) Write a ‘How Might we...’ question on the board. b) Set a limited time. c) Adopt an active, high-energy attitude. d) Generate ideas.

Ideation should follow these rules:

  1. One conversation at a time
  2. Go for quantity
  3. Headline! (concise, highlight important information, high impact)
  4. Build on the Ideas of Others (recall, collaboration should beat individual genius everytime)
  5. Encourage wild ideas
  6. Be visual
  7. Stay on Topic
  8. Defer Judgement – NO blocking (assessment – that comes later) Enforce these rules by reminding the group of the value of following them – that will increase the creative output of the group.

TIP: Prepare the Space

All members should:

Have continuous and easy access to the shared contributions area, and each other e.g. within two-steps of a flip chart, hold a big felt tip, or sticky notes, and sit around the same large table. No Blocking or Barriers that obstruct a stream of ideas from everyone.

Capture the ideas

Either: A scribe captures every contribution clearly and faithfully (no omissions) Or All-in. Every individual writes down their own ideas, and also shares it verbally with the group.

Create EVEN MORE ways of meeting the need

Ask some provocative questions

i) Context Flips:  Now the requirement is for use in:

  1. A primarily business, rather than social, context, (or vice versa)
  2. Driverless cars

a) Stretched Metaphors: Find of a metaphore e.g. In some ways, our service is like a... “fitness coach".  It sets goals, suggests actions, and provides feedback.” Push the metaphor further e.g. ‘What if we... also used social forces to change behaviour by posting goals and feedback on facebook.’

b) Ask some re-framing questions about constraints:

  1. What if it had to be...<X> ?
  2. What would a paper-based version look like?
  3. How would another persona do it?
  4. Increase/Reduce. Change the context by increasing or decreasing a critical parameter by a power of ten e.g. if typically assumption for time allowance would be 2-3hrs, what if average 15 mins, or what if there was 1 day spread over a week?    
  5. Or add/remove a parameter e.g. what if you need not be present at all?  What if London had tuk-tuks (2-person scooterised cabs)

3)  Select best ideas there are different selection methods:

i) Each member independently votes for the three most attractive ideas.  Every member gets a voice.

ii) Elect one or two ideas for each of the following categories:

  1. Rationale Choice
  2. Likely to Delight  
  3. “Darling” (most popular, likable, sweet)
  4. Long Shot. With this method, crazy but meaningful solutions are more likely to survive.

iii) Elect one or two ideas in each category, according to the likely form factor:

  1. physical prototype
  2. digital prototype
  3. experience prototype (role play)


To develop an innovative idea, it is best to research users with ‘leading edge lifestyles’ - early adopters, digital natives – for Internet of Things apps, nomads who are always online, dependent upon a supporting infrastructure to operate effectively.

Do a competitor analysis review personal and ubiquitous computing technology and apps that might help you with your idea. What are their relative strengths and weaknesses in terms of features, usage, experience? Which ones are leading?

Select ‘Competitors’ Try ‘top 10’ or ‘best...’ Direct – same need satisfied same way Indirect – same need satisfied different way Sources Self – Inspection and auto-ethnography (live with it yourself).

Customer Forums – feedback channels, discussion boards; Focus Groups Professional Reviews – remember to focus on Ux – UI features & user insights (advantages and disadvantages) Create matrix.

Auto ethnography. Select a gadget that could, in principle, help you with some aspect of the application you are building.

Something new and innovative to help you adopt a ‘early adopter lifestyle’ - that way you can actually get ahead of the competition to discover something genuinely new.

Perhaps the ‘market leader’, if it is relevant and appealing to you. Acquire this new technology (buy, borrow, or free), and learn how to make it part of your life. As you learn to live with it, develop a view of how your usage and conduct changed. For example, I might write about online music streaming, and how I always use it when traveling by tube.

Try reflecting on these questions: At the outset, what triggered your adoption of this product? How did you expect you would use it? Did your perception of the product change / did you learn things about its functionality or other attributes?

Did you use the product in unanticipated ways? Did you change your habits to use the product? Did you encounter any obstacles which hampered your adoption of the product? Did you have important questions or uncertainties about the product? Write down some short anecdotes about your adoption of the product that reveal the reasons for the product’s success or failure as an interactive experience. I might write some anecdotes about how anipod let me as a busy parent find the opportunity to listen to music, and some of the unexpected places and occasions I considered ‘OK’ to listen to music. This encourages you to include images that ‘show’ events and situations, as well as text. Update Competitor Analysis, participant, organiser and early adopter. Do they support design for innovation i.e. are they provocative, representative and personal? Update your competitor analysis with summarise of your own ‘auto-ethnography’ research?


  1. Your projects are built around project goals
  2. You have a start point A and an end point (project completion/goals)
  3. In between A and B is a challenge space.

Ideation and Goals

You want the challenge space to be consistent, repeatable and predictable – much like established business or design processes. But... this is only possible if we have a clearly defined, unambiguous, specific and measurable goal.

If your goals are "fuzzy”, it becomes necessary to be creative to help define them.

This is where ideation can help because it enables progressive movement towards fuzzy goals, emotional momentum and uses the sensory to produce tangible assets and artefacts to make ideas shareable.

The shape of ideation

The Opening Act: A big bang – an explosion of information, ideas and opportunities.

Once energy and ideas are flowing, You need to explore and experiment with these ideas. Look for patterns/ analogies. Emergent new ways to sift ideas, build and test things.

Moving towards a conclusion: Assess ideas, look at them with a critical eye. Which ideas are the most promising? Which are worthy to invest time/ energy.

Act 1 •Set the stage •Develop themes, ideas  & info

Act 2 •Examine •Explore •Experiment

Act 3 •Conclusions •Decisions •Action



The most useful way to fire-start (pique the imagination) is to pose questions before entering the opening or divergent phase of ideation.

What questions do you want answered about your project that cannot be answered by other methods?

Opening methods include:

  1. Brain-writing
  2. Draw the problem
  3. Forced Analogy
  4. Heuristic  Ideation

Brain Writing

Brain Writing is about generating and building ideas within a group – two (or more) heads are better than one

  1. First, identify and write down the topic around which you need to generate ideas. Draw a picture if you are feeling artistic. Tape this to a nearby wall.
  2. Next, each participant silently writes an idea about the topic on an index card.
  3. As each idea is completed, the index card is then passed on to the person on the participant's right.
  4. The receiving participant treats the card they receive as an "idea stimulation" card. They should either add an additional (new) idea to the card inspired by what they have read, and/or modify and enhance the existing idea.
  5. Continue the process of passing cards to the right until there are various ideas on each card
  6. At the end, collect the cards and tape them on the wall around the topic.
  7. Finally, the group come to the wall to review and discuss the ideas and highlight those they find most compelling.

Draw the Problem

Drawing the problem is a way of clearly defining the problem, but also making it compelling enough to make people care about solving it

  1. Each participant is given a large index card or piece of paper
  2. Participants should think about the problem they wish to solve
  3. As they do so, they should write a numbered list of items that help explain the problem
  4. They may consider  a "day in the life" of the problem or an idea that  represents the problem as a whole
  5. After a few minutes of this thinking and reflection, participants should flip over their paper and draw a picture of the problem.
  6. This should be a vehicle to explain the problem to a peer – not hing more!
  7. The drawing can be a simple diagram or somet hing more metaphorical – no prizes for aesthetics!
  8. When everyone is finished, the drawings should be posted on the wall and each "artist" explains theirs to the group.
  9. While the group shares, note shared elements and interesting differences to work towards a shared understanding of the problem.

Forced Analogy

Forced analogy breaks hard-wired categories and allows us to see things from a different angle, opening new possibilities to problem solving and idea generation

  1. First, a collection of index cards with random objects is created.
  2. This can be done in advance, or as part of the exercise by the participants
  3. Each card will also include some of the object's qualities or attributes, e.g. "an aeroplane flies through the air, moves along predefined routes, and has an autopilot feature"
  4. Participants shuffle the cards and distribute them randomly
  5. Participants then use the cards to develop analogies to the problem, asking:
  6. How is this problem similar to [random object]?
  7. How would I solve this problem with [random  object]?
  8. Participants can then choose particularly interesting random objects/analogies to work through in a group, e.g. "How would we use a paperclip to solve our data integration problem?"

Heuristic Ideation

Heuristic Ideation involves using a matrix to generate new ideas or approaches to a problem.

  1. Participants decide on two categories to define their matrix – for example, a toy maker might look at their product line by type of toy (vehicles, figures, puzzles etc) and type of play (racing, simulation, construction).
  2. Participants populate their matrix and create a grid of new possible combinations
  3. Look across the cells for new or surprising combinations. These become the seeds of new ideas
  4. Some combinations that at first seem absurd may be worth examining more closely!
  5. A group might then develop fast prototypes or sketches to explore the possibilities


Exploring activities make and break patterns. These activities are for navigating, combining and interpreting ideas to discover something new.

Examples include:

  1. The 4Cs
  2. The 5 Whys
  3. Customer, Employee, Shareholder
  4. Do, Redo and Undo

The 4Cs

Information-splicing activities disrupt the standard way we break down topics. The 4Cs is a quick way to gather and organise information about any subject using four common key concepts.

  1. First, draw a 2 x 2 matrix on a large white sheet or whiteboard.
  2. Write the following categories at the top of each box of the matrix: Components, Characteristics, Challenges and Characters. Then draw something that represents each category.
  3. Components are part s of the topic; a component of a social commerce strategy might be tweets, for a distribution channel it might be delivery vans.
  4. Characteristics are features of the topic. A characteristic of a distribution channel might  be an inefficient use of fuel.
  5. Challenges are obstacles associated with the topic.
  6. Characters are people associated with the topic

Divide the group into four teams (in small groups, a "team" can be an individual). Each team is assigned a different "C" and their goal is to collect information about that "C".

The next part of the activity is divided into three stages:

  1. The planning phase (3 minutes): During this period the individual teams should plan an information gathering strategy for their "C". Decide what key things you need to know and think about who you might need to talk to.
  2. The information gathering phase (5 minutes): In this phase, participants may speak to anyone (including those outside of their own team) to collect as much information about their "C" as possible.  They should use post-it notes and markers to record for later posting onto the matrix
  3. The information-analysis phase (3 minutes): At this point participants should analyse their data, organise it in a meaningful way and post their contents on the matrix.

Finally, each team should present their findings to the wider group. Try to ask clarifying questions e.g. is anything missing?  Do certain items mean the same thing?

The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys is about moving beyond the surface of a problem to discover the root cause.

  1. Write the problem statement on a piece of paper and stick it to a wall
  2. Each participant should number some post-it notes from 1 to 5.
  3. Participants should then review the problem statement, ask WHY it's a problem, and write their first response on post-it note #1. On post-it note
    #2, they should write WHY the answer on post-it note #1 is true. On post-it note #3, they should write WHY the answer on post-it note #2 is true.
  4. Repeat this process until every numbered post-it note has a response written on it
  5. All participants should then post their responses on the wall underneath the problem statement in five rows, with all the #1 responses in one rows, all the #2s in another, etc.
  6. Review the columns with the group and note commonalities and differences.
  7. Work in the group to build consensus on which of the five "whys" offer the most meaningful insight – if necessary, rewrite them to achieve consensus. Once done, post them into a final column under the problem statement

Customer, Employee, Shareholder

The object of this activity is to imagine possible futures from multiple perspectives.

  1. Divide the group into three roles: Customers, Employeesand Shareholders
  2. In their roles, participants should imagine what the business/problem/project will be like five years from now
  3. What will they value?
  4. What will their experience be like?
  5. What events or trends emerge?
  6. What specific, tangible things are different?
  7. Participants should draw their v isions of the future and share them.
  8. In the group, use these v isions to identify themes and new possibilities.
  9. If time permits, repeat the exercise, with each participant taking on a different role

Do, Redo and Undo

When creating something, we think in terms of taking actions and building things. Sometimes, undoing  decisions can be just as important. This activity encourages participants to think through the implications of dismantling and altering.

  1. Generally, Do, Redo and Undo is performed with a concept or prototype as a starting point.
  2. Open with the group brainstorming  answers to a simple question
  3. What mistakes can and will be made?
  4. Participants should then silently write answers on post-it notes and post them on a wall or board. If responses can be sorted into clear categories, do so.
  5. In generating this list, there will be at least one Worst Case Scenario. The task is then to address these scenario(s) by focusing  on three possible solutions:
  6. Do: Change the design or plan to avoid the problem altogether
  7. Redo: Provide a means for changing an action while it's being taken –a course correction, modification to something or a mitigating measure
  8. Undo: Provide a means to completely undo an action and return to a prev iously known state

A group that has lots of Worst Case Scenarios may wish to prioritise them and then focus on the hotspots.

  1. The group should capture their solutions and then revisit the original concept or prototype. Consider:
  2. How likely is/are  the Worst  Case Scenario(s)?
  3. How feasible are the solutions?
  4. How damaging  are the solutions?


Closing is bringing things to a conclusion. It involves comparison, sifting, prioritisation and establishing commitment and alignment to the next step of your goal. Examples include:

  1. Ethos, Logos, Pathos
  2. Impact and Effort Matrix
  3. NUF Test
  4. Plus/Delta

Ethos, Logos, Pathos

The goal of this activity is to channel Aristotle's assessment of an argument. Aristotle laid the groundwork for persuasive communication in the 4th century. Although times has changed, effective communication hasn't.

In this activity, you will evaluate a project proposal, value proposition or other UX asset by using the three elements of rhetoric.

  1. Each member of the group has two minutes to present a project, value proposition or other UX asset to their peers.
  2. In collaboration, score the presentation from 1 to 10 in these categories:
  3. Ethos/Credibility: What authority is carried on the topic?
  4. Logos/Logic: How clear and consistent was the reasoning? How did the presenter's fact's measure up against the group's collective facts?
  5. Pathos/Emotion: How vivid, memorable  and motivating was the message?
  6. Look for areas of improvement or imbalance.

Impact and Effort Matrix

In this decision-making exercise, actions are mapped based on two factors: action required to implement and possible impact. Some ideas are costly but may have a long-term payoff. This activity gets participants to balance and evaluate suggested actions before committing to them.

  1. Given a goal, a group may hav e several ideas of how to achieve it.
  2. First, frame the goal in terms of a "What to do" or "What we need" question.
  3. Then, the group should generate ideas individually on post-it notes.
  4. The ideas should then be posted within a 2 x 2 matrix organised by impact(the potential payoff of the action) and effort (the cost of taking the action).
  5. As participants place their ideas, the group should discuss the position of elements.
  6. Ideas may move around as discussions take place

NUF Test

The NUF test is a good way to do a "reality check" on possible ideas.

In this activity, a matrix of ideas are set against the criteria:

  1. New: has the idea been tried before? High marks should be awarded for ideas significantly different from previous approaches; a new idea captures attention.
  2. Useful: Does the idea actually solve a real problem? High scoring ideas will solve the problem completely and not create any additional new problems.
  3. Feasible: Can it be done? A new and useful idea still may be too expensive to implement. Higher scoring ideas will required few resources and effort.
  4. The group rates each idea individually at first from 1 to 10 in each criteria. They should then call out their scores on each item to create the tally. Scoring should be done quickly – go with your gut not your head in the first instance!
  5. After the scores have been tallied, the discussion should look to uncover any uncertainties about ideas or previously underrated ideas.


This activity is about generating constructive feedback about an idea, project or concept.

  1. Make two columns on a whiteboard or large sheet of paper: one for plus and one for delta (the Greek symbol for change)
  2. Individually, the group should reflect on what was positive, repeatable or useful about the idea, project or concept. They should collate these on post-it notes.
  3. Next, the group should capture what was negative, what they felt was wasted effort or other areas they would change and again, record them on post-it notes.
  4. The group should then post their notes under the appropriate columns.
  5. The group can then brainstorm the results; look for common themes in both columns, and discuss options for change