User-Centered Design: Phase 3 Ideate

For this installment in our series looking at the User-Centered Design (UCD) process, we get to the part that most people think of when they think about designing products. This phase is Ideate, in which you brainstorm and generate ideas. 

The user-centered design process, highlighting phase 3 "Ideate"

This is the part that too many companies skip to right away; they are so anxious to jump into the solution space, that they don’t take the time to adequately understand the problem space — so they end up solving the wrong problem or missing key needs. That’s why it is imperative to explore the problem space in Discover and analyze it in Define before starting to Ideate

Ideate is another generative phase. Using the design criteria that you identified during Define, you’ll create concepts that attempt to embody those criteria. During the first part of ideation, the goal is to create as many concepts as you can, without evaluating them —- at least not at the outset. 

Unfortunately, the U.S. education system tends to focus far more heavily on evaluative thinking than it does on generative thinking, leaving a lot of people uncomfortable with creative processes, like ideation. How many times over the course of your education were you asked what might be instead of what is or what was? And unfortunately, brainstorming has gotten a bad reputation over the years as a failed corporate experiment, which isn’t at all the case

When properly prepared for and correctly moderated, idea-generation sessions can be wildly successful. At Daedalus, when we conduct these sessions for our clients, we will often prepare relevant homework for participants in advance of the session to get them thinking about the topics that we are going to cover. We plan in advance how we expect the session to go, from the introduction of the topic, to any background information that needs to be shared, to which of the myriad of ideation exercises we are going to use. We make sure that we invite participants with different backgrounds and experiences. Internally, we invite our researchers, designers, and engineers, and for clients, we explain how diversity enhances innovation and encourage them to include members from all relevant departments. On occasion, we will even bring in research participants, like subject matter experts that we’ve interviewed or observed. 

At the start of the session, we’ll offer a brief problem statement that is derived from the research, and will walk participants through our design criteria, sharing key observations and insights from the research that led to those. We will fill our space with inspiration images, in addition to key images from our research. For a design project related to a wearable medical device intended for small children, we filled our space with images that depicted the many ways that infants and toddlers move, ways in which they are carried or held by adults and by baby equipment (e.g. swings, cribs, play sets, etc), and ways in which other things are often worn or carried.

We also let our participants know about any constraints that have to be addressed. Realistically, the sky is never the limit when designing a product; there will always be constraints to the solution for any problem. More importantly, creativity actually thrives on constraints, as borne out by psychological research and real-world analyses of innovations

Only then do we ideate, and often we do so by stepping through structured idea generation activities, such as S.C.A.M.P.E.R., the Six Thinking Hats, or Morphological Analysis

As we are ideating, we try not to judge the ideas, and we try to come up with as many different concepts as possible. Here are some of the concepts that came out of the idea generation session for the child’s wearable medical device. 

Numerous early concepts for a pediatric medical device that is worn

At the end of the session, we process the ideas. We will sort through the concepts, grouping those that are similar, and will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each, and how well each meets the design criteria that were established from the earlier phases. Obviously not all of the ideas generated can be pursued, but we find that this post-ideation discussion allows us to identify the best aspects of each idea, which can then be incorporated into other ideas, producing more robust solutions. Often this discussion also sparks new ideas. 

Once the ideas have been proposed, a decision needs to be made about which solutions should move forward in the design and development process. Later those solutions will be refined through prototyping and additional research. But those are the topics for the final installment of this series, which we will discuss in an article for Phase 4 Implement