Design Process for Pros — Ideation | Comprehensive Guide 2023

Design Process: Ideation - Midjourney illustration

After the Project Setup and Discovery phases, you should have a fair amount of data and research in hand to generate product ideas and filter them into the most promising ones. This is the very core of the ideation phase.

In this chapter, you’ll learn about:

  • What is ideation?
  • How to conduct an ideation exercise
  • Different ideation techniques or methods

Similar to other chapters, we’ll also cover the following:

  • Desired outputs of this phase
  • Questions to ask yourself at this stage
  • Questions the client may ask
  • Supplementary reading

What is ideation?

As part of any design process, ideation is the exercise of generating and developing ideas. Ideation is crucial to design thinking because it facilitates the exploration and refinement of several possible solutions to a given problem. It's a chance for design teams to come up with novel approaches that address user problems and enhance their overall experience.

Allotting time for design ideation enables designers to discover patterns and trends that may not be obvious at first glance. By considering different perspectives, project teams can gain a better understanding of customer needs and create solutions tailored to these needs. Ideation also encourages collaboration among team members, creating opportunities for constructive feedback, which leads to more refined solutions.

As a matter of practice, the Ideation phase is the opportunity to describe the following in detail:

  • Who (or what user groups) is the product going to help?
  • What problems is it going to solve (or what needs it is going to fulfill)?
  • How (or by what means) is the product going to do so?

How to conduct an ideation exercise?

Conducting an ideation exercise is a creative process that involves generating ideas, identifying the most promising ones, and refining them further. An effective ideation exercise should provide a platform for open collaboration and communication between project stakeholders, allowing them to work together in order to generate the most successful outcomes. Here are the steps involved in running an ideation process:

  1. Define the problem based on the Discovery phase: The first step of the Ideation phase of design thinking is to clearly define the problem that needs to be solved. This should follow the findings from the Discovery phase. It’s important that all participants have a shared understanding of what the problem is so that everyone can come up with ideas collaboratively.

  2. Gather more data or conduct further research (if necessary): Ideally, the bulk of research and data gathering occurs as part of the Discovery phase. However, the design process doesn’t preclude obtaining more information in any phase. If the ideation technique you’ve chosen requires you to gather additional data about your users, competitors, and the industry at large, then do so.

  3. Run the relevant ideation techniques: There are various ideation methods to choose from, including traditional brainstorming, mind mapping, worst possible idea, and more. We’ll discuss some of the most popular ones in the next section.

  4. Evaluate & refine: As a result of the ideation techniques, evaluate the most promising concepts. Ensure that only viable ideas will move forward while others should be discarded or reworked. Remember that the next phase in the design process — Wireframing — would likely be the first form of design implementation. While there’s no need to be fully confident about your product concept, it’s important to be selective about what you push on for further implementation.

  5. Document findings & artifacts: Finally, it’s important that all findings from the ideation sessions are documented properly, along with key artifacts created during the ideation workshops, including notes or sketches. These documents should include key insights from the workshops as well as recommendations for further action so that stakeholders have a complete picture of how the most viable ideas were presented, evaluated, and refined.

Different ideation techniques or methods

Ultimately, the right ideation technique will depend on what you need out of any given ideation session — whether you’re looking for ambitious ideas or targeted solutions with resource constraints. Hence, it’s important to determine which approach would be most effective given your team’s objectives before beginning an ideation workshop.

Outlined below are the most common ideation methods or techniques you should consider. Remember that you don’t have to choose only one, and you can run a series or combination of these methods.

  • Brainstorming: This method encourages participants to think outside the box, come up with as many ideas as possible, and build on top of each other's perspectives. Brainstorming also allows teams to generate ideas quickly and without judgment — making it an effective way to jumpstart a series of ideation exercises.
  • Role-playing: This technique requires participants to play various roles (different user personas, e.g., storefront sales staff, customer support, etc.) and toy around with a few product ideas. While one group is playing out a story, the rest observe to draw insights on the different product concepts. Role-playing enables teams to conceptualize ideas from multiple perspectives.
  • Mind mapping: This design ideation process involves creating visual diagrams mapping out various concepts related to your project’s objectives, such as customer needs, desired outcomes, or specific tasks needed for completion. Mind mapping allows teams to easily identify relationships between topics and explore new paths of thinking when it comes to finding meaningful solutions.
  • Worst possible idea: This approach involves coming up with outrageous or far-fetched ideas. It can lead participants away from established patterns of thought and open new possibilities for innovation within the design project.
  • Cheatstorming: This is a method to discover solutions based on what competitors are doing. Unlike most other ideation techniques, cheatstorming does not rely on generating ideas from inception, but drawing from what others are doing and exploiting those ideas. It can be viewed as the practice of reusing what has been done before and building on it.
  • Crazy Eights: This is a fast-paced ideation technique that encourages teams to brainstorm and come up with eight (8) different ideas in an allotted amount of time. This method helps move away from perfectionism, but filters the creative thinking into eight ideas only. By using Crazy Eights, teams can spark creativity and come up with innovative solutions efficiently.
  • Gallery Walk: This is an interactive exercise in a group setting requiring each participant to share their ideation results with the rest of the team. After the participants draw out and explain their ideas, they all walk around as if at a gallery to look at the other outputs. This gives all members a chance to have their ideas heard, see how the other team members are thinking, and provide feedback on each other’s concepts in an organized manner.

Desired outputs of the ideation phase

The outputs for an ideation process should be a summary report and supporting artifacts.

  • A summary report typically comes in the form of a client presentation. In addition, be prepared to write an official written report should it be requested. Produce these reports to communicate the process, top ideas generated, and recommendations from the ideation sessions. Aside from the conceptualized solutions, the summary reports can also include select insights, such as observations about user behavior, new problems encountered, as well as any other relevant information.

  • Supporting artifacts are the visual representations of the ideas generated, particularly from the ideation techniques, such as sketches or drawings, user personas, visual maps, etc. This may prove useful when revisiting ideas in future development stages.

Questions to ask yourself at this stage

  • Have I taken into account all the data gathered from the previous phases (Project Setup and Discovery)?

  • Could incorporating more data increase creativity for the product design ideation process?

  • Is it clear exactly which problems of which specific user groups the product will be solving?

  • Which ideation techniques would be most effective for this project?

  • Are there existing patterns of thought that we should move away from?

  • Did I manage to form a clear concept of the product in a presentable form?

  • Has the concept been defined well enough?

  • Do I understand the product and its features?

  • Do I understand the product’s business goals?

  • Does the proposed direction for the next phases take into account the client’s timeline and resources?

Questions the client may ask

Q: Why do you have to spend time on design ideation instead of jumping straight into design implementation?

A: Taking time out to properly ideate is key for successful outcomes in any design project. It gives us invaluable opportunities to explore different possibilities and distill them into the best possible solutions that meet user needs.

Q: How long does the Ideation phase require?

A: Ideation is an important part of the UX design process that requires dedication and commitment from all team members. Some basic project concepts can be delivered in less than two (2) weeks, particularly through a product design sprint. The length of time it takes to complete this phase, including the ideation workshops, depends on several factors, including the size and complexity of the project, the amount of data available for analysis, and how quickly the team can come to an agreement on a concept.

Q: We know very little about product conceptualization! Does it make sense to continue this project?

A: This is why we’re doing this phase — to form conclusions from the data gathered so far and crystallize it into a clear vision of how to build a product that solves your customers’ problems. We will leverage all our data to facilitate creativity and come up with solutions tailored to your users' needs.

Q: What are the benefits of ideation exactly?

A: There’s a range of benefits in allotting time to ideate product ideas, which include the following:

  • Product concepts will be based on hypotheses backed by data rather than guesswork.
  • Ideation in design thinking helps project stakeholders explore different possibilities, generate creative solutions, and choose the best ones.
  • You will be able to share the results of this work internally and externally (for example, with investors).
  • The wireframing phase will be easier and faster to execute because many of the important questions about your product idea will already have been answered.
  • Any new member of the team will be able to get to know a comprehensive vision of the product more easily and efficiently.

Supplementary reading