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Five Innovation Methods To Try with Your Team

How can you help your team think differently?

Companies often come to us for help developing something disruptive. They know that we have the ability as a small company to be nimble and experimental. They also know (probably from experience) that product design innovation is not easy or intuitive. Breakthrough ideas hardly ever arrive effortlessly. The mad genius with flowing ideas is largely a myth — the majority of design mortals need to work at being reliably innovative week after week.

This is why we’re always on the hunt for new techniques to help make it happen. Here are examples of the different ways we approach product design innovation:

1. Warm Up with Improv

Breaking the ice and freeing participants from inhibitions can be a significant challenge, especially if your group includes folks who haven’t ideated together before, such as clients or end users. All brainstorming sessions should include portions where anything goes, when no one is looking for deficiencies — because as soon as criticism enters the room, everyone becomes inhibited. And even if an idea won’t work in real life, it will probably inspire someone else to think of an idea that will. We’re always on the lookout for exercises that get the creative juices flowing without embarrassing or making our participants feel silly.

This is where improv comes in. It teaches listening and paying close attention. It trains you to automatically accept what people are saying and to build on ideas rather than try to poke holes in them. It also illustrates to the group the potential effect of negative versus positive reactions on collaborative idea building.

All brainstorming sessions should include portions where anything goes, when no one is looking for deficiencies — because as soon as criticism enters the room, everyone becomes inhibited.

‘Going to a Picnic’ (or it can be any imaginary event) is one such exercise. Start it with one person saying “We’re going to a picnic and I’m going to bring a _____.” On the first round of the exercise, the next person should improvise with a negative response “Yes, but…” and give a reason why the last person’s item wouldn’t work and follow with what they’re going to bring instead. And so on around the group.

For the next round, participants should respond positively with “Yes, and…” and give a reason why the last person’s item would be great and follow with what they’re going to bring.

The first, negative round of improv will feel tedious and awkward for the group while the second, positive round of improv should demonstrate how the “yes and” frame of mind is essential for successful ideation.

The More You Know: There are many improv games that work to get everyone functioning as a team and warmed up at the beginning of brainstorming sessions: Two others that we recommend are Zip Zap Zop and Fortunately, Unfortunately.

2. Co-Create with Everyday Users

In a co-creation workshop, also called a co-design workshop, everyday users brainstorm alongside product development pros.

We recently ran a daylong co-creation workshop with a longtime client interested in expanding their product offerings into a new category.  Insights from preceding contextual research provided focus but we believed that involving some “lead users” in the workshop would diversify and strengthen our ideas.

We helped our client recruit nine participants who, in addition to being the right type of end-user, were screened for being more creative and outgoing. We needed to know they wouldn’t come to the session and clam up. We split our workshop group into three teams at three tables. Each team included a mix of “real” end-users, industrial designers, engineers, marketers, and researchers, and we got them working together on four challenges derived from  the contextual research.

In a co-creation workshop, also called a co-design workshop, everyday users brainstorm alongside product development pros.

Co-creation workshops require a different skillset — more like that of a researcher crossed with a designer — than a typical brainstorm. Some end-user participants may come up with fully formed ideas while others prove more valuable contributing constructive information and building upon the ideas of others. This requires a good deal of empathy. But you need to combine that coaxing with speed to get as many ideas out as possible. Designers know that volume is often more important than quality in a brainstorm, but people who aren’t used to brainstorming tend to dwell and pontificate.

The workshop ran for four hours and we spent nearly an hour on each insights challenge. We closed the session with a ranking exercise where participants discussed selection criteria, reviewed all the idea sheets, and marked their personal top ten ideas.  After reviewing and clustering the high-ranking ideas, the internal workshop team spent the following day building out and refining the ideas further.

The More You Know: Do provide lots of relevant props when you’re working with non-designers — props encourage playfulness and help people demonstrate the physicality of concepts in their heads. Also make sure to include at every table designers who are accomplished, speedy sketchers to get the ideas on paper — but warn them they’ll need to proactively visualize the ideas of others (not just their own).

3. More Brain, Less Storm

We’re big believers in structured brainstorming sessions that are “more brain and less storm.” A structured ideation session, or series of sessions, yields more and better concepts than anything done ad hoc. People’s time is precious so the process needs to planned and participants need the right stimulus.

Here’s a look at how we implemented a structured brainstorm with students at U of Penn’s Integrated Product Design program who were working on a line of bamboo bike accessories. We led the students through two ideation sessions and assigned plenty of homework prior to each one.

We also used a structured brainstorm to innovate for Jacuzzi, which led to an award-winning product. We made sure to identify the problem first, frame the problem for the brainstorm, plan the session carefully, and make sure everyone understood the “rules”:

1) Only be critical if you can describe a better idea.
2) Be clear and concise when voicing your idea.
3) Try not to talk over other participants.
4) Describe your idea and its key benefit; even better if you can sketch it.
5) Combine and build upon the ideas of others.
6) Wild ideas are welcome.

The More You Know: An idea doesn’t live if it exists in words alone. Once you’ve chosen your winning idea, test its mettle by creating concept storyboards in which different configurations and features are underscored during different user stories.

4. Do the “In-Between” Work

The notion of human-centered design has become so widespread that few dispute the value of research.  But many still make the mistake of jumping straight from research into ideation. A more fruitful strategy is to start with observations drawn from your research, arrange them into patterns, and ask yourself what those patterns mean. Innovation happens in this in-between work of framing, questioning, and clustering.

Many of our preferred methods for this “in-between” work, including abstraction laddering, rose, thorn and bud, and affinity clustering, are featured on the LUMA Institute website. LUMA has created a useful “system of innovation” that organizes methods into three buckets: Looking, Understanding, and Making. You can pick and choose from their roster of techniques to devise your own recipe for innovation.

Here’s one of our current favorite recipes for focusing the problem, getting out a large number of ideas, and whittling them down quickly to a few:

  1. Creative Matrix: Once you’ve identified the problem to be solved, create a grid (5×5 is a good place to start) and write that problem in the top left corner. Across the top row are five challenges that might derive from your research, framed as “How might we ….?” questions. Down the left side are five potential idea catalysts (core company strengths, new technologies or materials, partnerships, different go-to-market strategies, etc.) that enable solutions to those challenges. Each participant gets a pen and a pad of sticky notes – the rule is one idea per sticky note – and 15-30 minutes to ideate around these combos. Always include a “wildcard” catalyst line to give people permission to contribute wild ideas.
  2. Importance/Difficulty Matrix: Of those hundred ideas, which are the ten best? Once you decide, make a simple 2×2 matrix to rank them in terms of importance to the customer (low to high) and difficulty to execute (low to high). Determine criteria (time, cost, etc.) depending on what you’re innovating around. This helps resolve differing opinions and allows the group to rally around a few ideas that float to the top.
  3. Concept Posters: Take those few ideas and put them into poster format. Create a template for the concept posters to encourage participants to think through and visualize their concepts’ features and benefits. Have the team work as a group on each concept to increase buy-in for all of them. Creating consistency in how the concepts communicate themselves make them easier to compare, contrast, and rank.

The More You Know: The very best ideas hold up well over time: The notions of withholding criticism and focusing on quantity during brainstorming dates all the way back to 1953 when Alex Osborn, a New York advertising exec, coined the term “brainstorming.”

5. Seek Out Inspiration 

If you’re neck-deep in a product category, exposure to a new one can jumpstart ideas. We’ve found that going to trade shows can prompt a valuable shift in mindset.

If you’re working on a consumer product, look for a trade show in a near neighbor task area but for a commercial audience. Seeing products developed for related use cases but with completely different performance expectations and for users with different skill levels will provide catalysts for fresh thinking. Different constraints result in solutions that may never have crossed your mind.

Or attend an industry conference that’s tangential to your day to day design work. Matt Ambler, one of our senior interaction designers, recently went to the Automotive Cockpit HMI (Human Machine Interaction) Conference in Detroit. We don’t have clients in the automotive industry, but he found plenty of relevant lessons to be learned from listening to experts who’ve faced and wrangled car-specific design challenges.

The More You Know: Look local. We’re lucky enough to work across the street from the Philadelphia Convention Center, and we get annual inspiration from the Philadelphia Auto Show plus others that come through the venue, such as last month’s LIGHTFAIR. My colleagues have also been known to find inspiration in architecture and nature.

Do Your Homework

We’re always looking for more techniques to add to our toolkit, and these methods are a mix of relatively new (to us) to tried and true. For more ideas, spend time exploring the LUMA Institute and IDEO’s Design Kit.

And remember — if you want lightning to strike, always err on the side of “more brain, less storm.”