How to come up with great UX ideas

Light bulbs

Thomas Edison famously said that genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration and the same can also be said of UX design. Whilst great UX design is undoubtedly all about the hard work, there can be no great UX design without great inspirational ideas. But how do you come up with great UX ideas in the first place? Whether you’re trying to come up with ideas for UIs, features, products or even new services follow these tips to give yourself the greatest possible chance of having that eureka moment.

Define the problem

Before you start coming up with ideas, or asking others to do so it’s a good idea to pin down exactly which problem you’re trying to tackle and what sort of space you want to explore. Also think about any constraints that you might need to consider. For example, are there any technical constraints? Whilst of course you want to keep things nice and open, you and others will find it easier to think of ideas with a bit of focus and direction.

Exactly how you define and communicate the problem might differ depending on the kind of ideas you want to generate and the people being asked to come up with ideas. You might put together a short brief or even just pose an open ended question, such as “How do we make things easier to find on the website?”. For design problems I’ve found that using a problem statement works well. This is a simple sentence that articulates the problem using the following format:

<Design a form of solution> to enable <users> in <context> to <perform activity> in/with <target performance>

For example the problem might be defined as:

Design a heating automation system to enable households to save money on their heating bills.

In this example the problem statement is at quite a high level but it could equally cover a set of  features or even individual design elements such as:

Design a search results page to enable customers to browse and narrow down their results with greater ease than present.

Don’t worry about leaving out information, such as a form of solution if you don’t want to impose it at this stage. The most important thing is to think about and articulate the problem beforehand so that it’s clear what it is you’re trying to achieve.

Get lots of people involved

Whether you come up with ideas on your own and then share them, or get a group together to kick off the process, ideation should always involve lots and lots of collaboration. Whilst the shoots of the best ideas will come from an individual spark, it’s the collective growth and nurture of ideas that really help them blossom (getting all Zen on you!). Don’t forget that design isn’t just the domain of designers. Everyone should be a part of the design process and sometimes the best ideas come from the most unlikely of sources.

If you’re thinking of running a group ideation session try to put together a cross functional team with a good mixture of disciplines and personalities. You don’t want a group of more than about 10 people, as this becomes more of a crowd, so you might need to run a number of sessions. I’ve found that it’s a good idea to initially ask people to come up with ideas on their own, or in pairs, rather than collectively as a group. This prevents more dominate participants taking over and maximises the number of ideas generated. Ideas can then be shared and discussed with the wider group. You’ll want someone to facilitate these group discussions to ensure that all the ideas get covered, but don’t be afraid to let a discussion go off on a tangent; you never know which interesting place it might lead to.

Audience asleep at workshop

Alas, the ideation workshop was not going as well as Jake hoped it would

Go back to any research

Before you start coming up with ideas it’s a really good idea to reacquaint yourself with any prior research and insights. For example what do you know about your users? What do you know about the domain and context of use?  If you’re looking at a particular feature, where does this fit in the bigger user journey? Going back to the research will help to spark ideas and will help provide a good launch pad for the ideation process.

If you’re running a group ideation session ask the participants to do a little homework beforehand so that they are come to the session fully prepared. Sure, you might want to refresh peoples’ memories at the start of a session, but you don’t want to spend too much time going over insights as this will invariably eat into the precious ideation time.

Create a creative environment

You’ll be surprised at how much your environment can stifle or indeed increase your creativity. It’s a good idea to get away from the usual environment and to get rid of any tempting distractions such as computers, mobiles or even work colleagues! If you’re carrying out a group ideation session then get the group out of the usual meeting room setting and into somewhere more energising, such as a café or break out area. Even asking everyone to stand up rather than sit down can be a good way to increase the energy within the room.

Sunset yoga

It’s a good idea to rid yourself of any distractions, the yoga pose is optional

Focus on quantity over quality

When initially coming up with ideas it’s always best to aim for quantity over quality. Get lots of ideas on the table and then worry about which ones are worth pursuing. Focusing on quantity also gives people the space and freedom to come up with ideas without worrying about them being discarded straightaway. Even the most outlandish or seemingly rubbish ideas can have some interesting elements or indeed can spark other ideas which might be more fruitful.

To help maximise the number of ideas it can be useful to try to think of as many different ways as possible that a problem might be tackled. Utilising a 6 or 9 box template, such as this 6 pages-sketching-template from Adaptive Path can help to encourage lots of different designs. Simply take a page or feature and try to come up with 6 different designs.

You want lots and lots and lots of ideas. Get lots of ideas on the table and then identify the good ones

Get lots of ideas on the table and then identify the good ones

Put the pressure on

Applying a bit of pressure or even adding a competitive element can really help to give impetus to the ideation process. For example, you might tightly time box the activity. Give yourself or the group 20, 10 or even just 5 minutes to come up with ideas. Setting a short time limit ensures that ideas don’t become too overworked and prevents idea fatigue from setting in. If you have a group you could also encourage a healthy bit of competition by giving a prize to the group that come up with the greatest number of ideas.

Don’t get bogged down in the detail

When initially coming up with ideas you don’t want to get too bogged down in the detail or allow others to do so. Leave the detail for later and instead focus on the concept and the nucleus of the idea. This is why it can be a good idea to specifically limit the size of paper, white board or flip chart that is used for capturing and communicating ideas. For example, using A4 rather than A3 sheets naturally limits the space available for adding detail. If you’re running a group ideation session make it very clear that you’re not looking for much detail at this stage, just enough to communicate and express the idea.

Go back to design basics

When coming up with ideas it can be difficult to know where to start. After all, there are an infinite number of ideas out there. Going back to design basics, in the form of user needs and design principles can be a good way to help kick off the ideation process. Think about what your users would need. If you have any personas think about what would work well for them. Take a design principle, such as simplicity or minimalism and try to think of ideas that encapsulate that principle. If you have put together some design principles for your product or service then use those to help drive ideas.

Start with a blank page

Rather than just taking an existing design (either yours or someone else’s) and trying to improve it, it’s a good idea to initially start with a blank page. If you were to go back to the drawing board, what ideas can you come up with? Think about all the crazy concept cars you see at the annual car shows. Sure you’ll never see the vast majority of them making it to production but some of the ideas and concepts will filter down to the regular models. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo, just have a good rationale and reason for doing so.

All terrain concept car

Even the most crazy concept is likely to have ideas and elements that could be applicable

Get inspired

Don’t be afraid to get inspiration from elsewhere before kicking off the ideation process. What are your competitors doing? What established design patterns are out there? It’s a good idea to not only look within the same domain but also at different domains. After all, there might be ideas and design patterns that could be given a different spin and applied to your particular problem.

By all means take inspiration but it’s important not to blindly copy another design without trying to reverse engineer the rationale and really evaluate whether it’s a good design or not. You certainly don’t want to copy a flawed design and don’t assume that just because a big name is using the design that it’s any good!

Get sketching

As they say, a picture is worth a 1000 words and there’s certainly something to be said for sketching out ideas, rather than trying to capture them in words. Sketching can help to stimulate the visual part of the brain and is also a great way to share and communicate ideas with others. You could sketch out a particular screen, concept or even a mini comic strip showing a set of interactions. Don’t worry about the quality of the sketches; the important thing is to communicate the concept. If you’re running an ideation workshop then make it clear that very rudimentary sketches will suffice – you’re not looking for works of art. One good sketching tip is to use a black felt-tip pen (just as a Sharpie), rather than a pencil. This prevents the temptation to continually erase and correct a sketch and makes for clearer lines when showcasing and photographing / scanning a sketch.

Sketches on glass walls

Sketching is not only fun, it’s a great way to get the creative juices flowing

Go crazy

A good way to kick off the ideation process is by trying to come up with some really creative, wacky and outlandish ideas. This could also be a fun way to kick of a group ideation session. The ideas themselves might not be suitable but they might lead on to other ideas that might well be. You could also think about the worst possible solution and turn it around to find positives. For example, what would the worst mobile check-in app look like?

Push the boundaries and remove constraints

It can be all too tempting to focus on what isn’t possible, rather than what might be possible. This is why it’s a good idea to try to push the boundaries and perhaps remove some of the design constraints. For example, what if we didn’t have to worry performance, or content not being available? What sort of blue sky ideas can we come up with? Sure the solutions might not be wholly practical, but there are sure to be ideas and elements that might be. I think that it’s much better to rein ideas in, rather than overly constrain thinking from the start and risk never coming up with any innovative ideas in the first place.

Capture ideas for another day

An ideation process will invariably generate lots and lots of ideas. Some will be worth pursuing today, and some will have to wait for another day. You obviously don’t want good ideas to go to waste which is why it’s important to capture and log all the ideas (no matter how bad!). It’s a good idea to scan or photograph sketches and to generally digitise the outputs, since it’s much easier to store and retrieve digital rather than physical copies.

Don’t be afraid to change the problem

Sometimes you’ll starting looking at a problem and realise that you’re actually looking at the wrong problem, or that there is bigger or potentially more fruitful problem elsewhere. Don’t be afraid to challenge and if necessary change the problem that you’re tackling. However if you are going to change the problem, make sure that you have a good reason for doing so.

Leave the evaluation for another day

As I have said previously the initial focus should be on quantity of ideas over quality of ideas. To encourage free thinking and to focus the ideation process it’s always a good idea to leave the evaluation for another day. Don’t try to come up with ideas and evaluate them at the same time but instead come up with ideas, take a break and then come back to evaluate them. What seemed like the best idea ever at the time can often be not quite so great on further reflection.

If you’re running group ideation sessions it can be a good idea to go through the ideas as a group and then ask for people to vote for the best ones. A good way to structure this is to give everyone a set number of votes (e.g. 5) that they can each cast. This won’t necessarily identify the best idea, but should give a feel for the ones that people think are worth pursuing. Don’t forget that ideation is not about coming up with the final solution. The real goal of ideation is to come up with ideas to take forward to the next stage of the design journey.

Don’t worry if there are no eureka moments

My last piece of advice is to not worry if you or the group don’t come up with any real eureka moments first time around. Inspiration isn’t something that you can switch on or off like a tap, it’s an unpredictable and mysterious mistress. Innovative thinking is surprisingly draining (after all the brain consumes a whopping 20% of your calories) and sometimes it’s best to take a break and come back to the problem afresh. However, always be prepared for when inspiration might strike. This is why it’s a good idea to always carry around a notepad and pen to jot down and sketch out ideas. After all, you never know when or where the next brilliant idea might come!