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Ideas

How (and Why) You Should Run an Ideation Workshop

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Danbee Kim

Need an exciting way to engage your team and generate innovative product ideas? Run an ideation workshop.

After creating a plan, conducting the research, and synthesizing, you have made it to the final step we covet as researchers. You finally got your insights!

Now what?

Writing a report or creating infographics is a fantastic next step, but often, these pieces of work get handed over to teams and aren't acted on. How do you ensure your insights light a fire and result in positive change in a team and a company?

One fantastic way to create a whirlwind of excitement around your insights is by moderating an ideation workshop.

What is an ideation workshop?

As defined by the Nielsen Norman Group, "Ideation is the process of generating a broad set of ideas on a given topic, with no attempt to judge or evaluate them." It's the perfect opportunity to explore all sorts of new, unusual, and crazy ideas based on previous research!

An ideation workshop is a safe space that allows for this generation of ideas. The main goal of an ideation session is to spark innovation and draw out a sense of creativity. You bring a team together to openly discuss and share ideas without any judgment. This setting fosters collaboration and allows all team members to contribute creatively to idea generation. The ideas produced in an ideation workshop aren't evaluated until later, so participants are free to explore without considering plausibility or feasibility.

During this workshop, you aim to brainstorm as many ideas as possible surrounding a topic. For once, in our jobs, it is about quantity rather than quality! This topic has been chosen based on user research, which has highlighted a clear problem statement.

Why are ideation workshops important?

Ideation workshops are a great next step after synthesizing research, and they help empower teams to take your research to the next level. There are several reasons I keep going back to ideation workshops:

  1. You can help your teams. As per the above example, ideation workshops can really help your teams get unstuck. If you deliver great insights and have no idea what the next steps should be, ideation workshops can generate many new ideas for usability testing. These workshops can give your team a much-needed direction.
  2. Collaboration and perspectives. How many excuses do you have to bring your team together to brainstorm? Design typically gets stuck in a room with a designer, and maybe a product manager and user researcher. With ideation workshops, you can bring together many unique and different perspectives on how to solve a particular problem. Within a group, people are more likely to think outside the box and build off each other's energy.
  3. A safe space for creativity. Ideation workshops should always be a safe space that is completely judgment-free. You can even go as far as banning the word "no." In an ideation workshop, you can explore every idea with no worry about it being a "bad idea" or "stupid." The opportunities within an ideation workshop are endless and adventurous and often lead to innovation!
  4. Based on user research. Since you base an ideation workshop on previous user research, you can be sure you are focusing on a real customer problem. Instead of debating what should be done next through gut feeling or focusing on business problems, this workshop is all about the user.
  5. Fun and exciting. I have seen many people hesitant to join this type of workshop, and, by the end, they were asking me when the next one was. Previously quiet people ended up presenting ideas and getting excited about the next steps. The majority of participants who have joined these workshops genuinely enjoy them, and end up seeing the value by the end.
  6. You are closer to a new solution. Since you come up with so many ideas during ideation, this workshop will bring you one step closer to a viable and user-centric solution. With this in mind, you can choose the best ideas and prototype them to ensure you are aligned with the user's needs, goals, and expectations.

Ideation workshops are a great way to get creative juices flowing in your team and rally all the brains to create innovative ideas. Not only is this exercise energizing, but it also provides an excellent outcome of concrete ideas that can be tested.

How to run an ideation workshop

There are some best practices when it comes to running a successful ideation workshop. I wrote another article with some remote workshop facilitation best practices, so I won't detail general best practices. Instead, I will focus on ideation workshops.

First, conduct user research. User research will give you a clear topic and problem statement to explore in your ideation workshop. If you skip this step, you may risk exploring an invalid topic with nothing to do with your user's needs, motivations, or pain points. This situation can be a waste of time and effort if you generate many ideas that don't land with users.

Create expected outcomes for the workshop. By the end of the workshop, you should have covered four main areas:

  1. Have a strong understanding of the problem/topic
  2. Generate many different ideas
  3. Vote on the top 1-3 ideas to test
  4. Decide on the next steps for testing the ideas

Define a problem statement. A problem statement identifies a current problem a user is encountering and the goal the user would like to accomplish. It is completely focused on the user, not on the product or on the business. It is broad enough to generate multiple relevant ideas but focused on only 1-2 user needs/problems in one statement. Here are some examples of problem statements:

  1. Focus on the user's perspective. "I am a student who loves to travel, but I am struggling because of my limited budget and trying to find flights that are cheap but safe. This makes me feel frustrated because I want to travel, but I feel stuck."
  2. Looking at the four W's (who, what, where, why). "I am a writer, but I also work a full-time job, making it hard for me to find time to write. I don't know how to properly manage my free time when I am not at work, so I end up wasting a lot of time and feeling bad."
  3. Looking at needs. "I am a doctor, and I need a way to stay updated on the patient's charts. I don't have time to look through the computer program or go into the patient's room, so sometimes I miss important updates."

Pick your ideation technique(s). Now comes the fun part! There are several different ideation techniques you can pick for your workshop. I linked to several different resources at the bottom of this article. Here are some of my favorite ideation techniques:

  1. Flip the problem. Take the original problem you wrote and invert it. For example, the student who wants to travel by budget would be flipped to the student who only wants the most expensive travel options. Spend several minutes ideating around the new question. Once you have collected all the negative ideas, take 1-3 of them, and ideate ways to invert that solution to solve the original problem.
  2. How would Google do it? Explore your problem space as if you were the CEO of a company like Amazon, Google, Apple, Etsy, the FBI, Walmart, Netflix, Disney, etc. Bonus points on picking a company that is completely different than your industry!
  3. Crazy 8's. This is a sketching technique that generates many ideas and is great for designers and non-designers. Fold a piece of paper eight times (or create a grid of eight on a virtual board) and set a timer for eight minutes. Each person has eight minutes to draw eight different ideas. As the moderator, let people know as each minute finishes!
  4. Method 6-3-5. Six people write down three ideas in five minutes. When the five minutes is up, team members pass their sheet onto the next person so peers can build on ideas. You can pass this around for as many rounds as you want, but I generally stop at 5-6 rounds. This way, teams are collaborating silently and bringing different perspectives to ideas. It is a little like that game "telephone." It is funny to see where ideas went!
  5. Worst possible idea. Each person creates as many terrible, stupid, bad, or illegal ideas. Then challenge the group to turn those horrible ideas into good ones by considering its opposite or finding some aspect within a terrible idea that can inspire a good one. For fun, you can combine this with the Crazy 8's and Method 6-3-5.

I pair all of my ideation techniques with sketching to be turned into prototypes after the workshop. Also, I prefer a mix of divergent and convergent working, which means each person brainstorms initial ideas alone, and then they share back to the group.

Allow for voting. If you use an ideation technique that has an outcome of over three different ideas (which the majority do), you will have to narrow them down. The best way to narrow down ideas is to allow workshop participants to vote. Depending on how many ideas you have to choose between, give each workshop participant 1-3 votes.

Always follow-up. Now that you have some ideas sketched out, it is imperative to follow-up with the designer and product manager to plan usability testing. Of course, the workshop alone is exciting and fun, but you do need to follow through. Running a successful ideation workshop ensures the ideas are prototyped and tested to provide further direction!

Resources:

Here are some great resources when thinking about different ideation techniques. Additionally, a quick google search will get you a plethora of ideas!

Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.

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