What is ideation?

Ideation is an intentional exercise to generate a high volume of ideas for a business’s products, services, and customer experience. Unlike “free-for-all” brainstorming sessions, these exercises remain structured and guided by a product team member.

Ideation represents a crucial step in the design thinking framework, which prioritizes taking a user-centric approach to prioritization and product development. Ideation comes after empathizing with users and defining their problems. However, it comes right before building a prototype and testing the solution.

For the ideation process to succeed, participants must put themselves in the user’s shoes. They can then come up with many different ideas about what might improve the user experience. Moreover, they can then find missing or underdeveloped capabilities that can add value.

The ideas generated during this session aren’t judged for their worthiness on the spot. If this were the case, it would stifle the creative flow. Moreover, participants become more reluctant to offer up more radical or unconventional ideas. Instead, the focus of the meeting remains on squeezing out as many potential enhancements and changes as possible.

Participants are free to think outside the box with nothing off the table. They can then offer suggestions far beyond the current scope of the product.

Why is ideation important?

Product organizations usually concentrate on executing against the roadmap and making incremental improvements to the core product. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this practical allocation of time and resources. These activities are core to the product’s success and meeting customer needs.

However, businesses also benefit from occasionally getting out of the day-to-day grind and opening up to less constrained thinking about what’s possible. By dedicating time and energy to this purpose in a supportive, structured setting, everyone gets an opportunity to stretch themselves creatively and let their creative juices flow, opening up the doors to true innovation.

This environment also frees participants to venture beyond their individual areas of expertise. They can come up with holistic changes across multiple parts of the organization. For this reason, more specific ideas don’t fall within their duties.

For example, an engineer may suggest a change in go-to-market strategy while a sales executive offers a new user experience design idea. These notions might ordinarily end up getting little-to-no consideration. Still, during ideation, everything gets a fair shake, and everyone has an opportunity to share their suggestions with the group, providing a platform for reaching unexpected conclusions and consensus.

As with any idea-generating activity, many suggestions offered will never actually lead to anything, but a few gems may arise that otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s critical that everyone involved understands this dynamic beforehand, as no one wants an unnecessary case of shiny object syndrome to emerge.

The range of ideas may also tend to fall into distinct buckets that may evolve into a larger theme for a future product roadmap. Ideation exercises also help reinforce the mission to ensure everything prioritized for the product will make an IMPACT.

What’s required for ideation?

The top ingredient for any productive ideation session is a pool of stakeholders and participants steeped in user research and feedback, so everyone is genuinely channeling the user base and not simply pushing their pet projects.

While each participant brings their own individual experiences with customers to the table, ideation sessions benefit from formally conducting focus groups, user surveys, and/or customer interviews—even with the unengaged ones—and then aggregating the output and circulating it among attendees before the session. Additionally, user feedback from other channels, including sales calls, customer service, and churn feedback, should be shared beforehand.

Creating a common baseline understanding of what users and prospects say increases customer empathy. It puts everyone in a mindset of trying to identify what would best benefit real-world users and potential new customers.

Integral to the success of these sessions is a strong facilitator that can coax participation while maintaining order and decorum. Some facilitators may rely on a more structured framework for their ideation to streamline the session and prompt participants to think about the problem from different perspectives.

One such method is dubbed SCAMPER, where participants are asked to consider the challenge using seven different lenses:

  • Substitute
  • Combine
  • Adapt
  • Modify/Magnify/Minify
  • Put another use to
  • Eliminate
  • Rearrange

Each lens helps participants break free from status quo thinking and attack the problem from new angles. If the product already has a user or customer advisory board, typically, the input remains well-received. Additionally, some businesses may even conduct a separate ideation session with their advisory board, finding out what blue sky ideas they’d like to see in an ideal world.

Who should participate in ideation?

There’s no perfect recipe for an ideation cohort, but some general rules exist. Ideally, the participants will be diverse, with representatives from each department or business function.

While it’s nice to have some old timers that know everything that didn’t work out in the past, some fresh blood improves the dynamic if they’re empowered to challenge assumptions and ask uncomfortable questions. And, from a DEI perspective, including folks of all ages and genders—along with a good mix of different racial, socioeconomic, educational, and disability backgrounds—is a massive plus for creating more equitable user experiences. However, not every organization boasts a rich cast of characters to draw upon.

At the same time, you want to be sure not to have too many folks from any area. Their shared perspectives could overshadow underrepresented cohorts with fewer members in the room.

Of course, personalities also play a role in who makes sense. While some people may not be optional, sidelining overbearing colleagues can create a more relaxed atmosphere. It’s vital that everyone feels comfortable stepping outside their comfort zone and contributing ideas.

Even if there are a few attention hoggers in the room, clear ground rules of “no bad ideas,” etc., and leaving criticism until afterward can hopefully set a good tone. Strong facilitation/moderation can ideally minimize any conflict. Rotating who gets to participate can also mitigate any strong personalities.

What happens next?

Ideation sessions typically yield many ideas for potential enhancements, features, and changes across every aspect of the product. Your product team needs to capture every idea during the session.

From there, it’s time to revisit each idea with a slightly more critical eye. While some may be impractical, it’s important not to dismiss any entirely too quickly. Specific ideas may inspire another, more feasible idea.

One method some companies use is letting a more comprehensive cohort vote or rank the ideation output. Though companies tend to limit it to internal staff. Direct user feedback gives teams even more data on how impactful an idea could be. Surveys and forums for voting can accelerate this process, or teams may choose to share ideas in a more controlled environment, such as polling a few key customers or putting some ideas before a customer advisory board for their reactions.

In the end, ideas that still seem promising after a few reviews can make their way into the idea backlog or proceed directly to the product roadmap if the organization deems them worthy. When those ideas come up again, participants in the ideation process may also feel energized as they see their output become part of the product strategy and path forward for the product and business.