Your organization (or client, if you’re inside an agency) is about to embark on the process of designing a new product, feature or service, and you have a mandate to come up with a great design solution.  A design ideation workshop is a great way to generate lots of ideas early in the process, bring your broader project team along, and set direction quickly.

Design workshops have been in the UX toolkit for a long time, and they’re an important part of the design process.  I’ve found that a great workshop is tailored to the needs of the team, and knowing what approach to take is key to success. Asking yourself these questions before you start can set your team up for an efficient, productive workshop, even if you have just a few days to produce an outcome.

1. What Do You Know About Your Customers?

We’ve all seen the dreaded demographic presentation, containing slide after slide of faceless customer data and awkward “segments.”   While important to understand the broader market for a product, such presentations don’t help designers and stakeholders understand the customer from a human point of view.  For a great rapid ideation workshop, you need everyone to get on the same page regarding who you’re designing for and what they need – fast.

Kicking things off with an exercise to discuss existing research, assumptions and gaps in knowledge will go miles toward laying the foundation for design ideas that are relevant to the target audience.  In the agency world, we find that some clients know a lot about their customers and can bring it all to the table; but many need help defining who they should be targeting.  Prioritizing user groups is another key aspect of this exercise.

There are many ways to conduct this kind of exercise, but the main points you’re trying to gain consensus on are:

  • Who are we designing for?
  • What do we know about their motivations, opinions, and characteristics?
  • What do they need from the experience?
  • Who is most important, and who is secondary?

2. Who Will Be In The Room For The Working Session?

There’s nothing worse than getting through weeks of design, only to be set back because someone’s input wasn’t heard early in the process.  Avoid this by inviting a broad group to the table: executives, designers, developers, marketers, customer service representatives, and anyone else who could provide input.  Think about your organization: who will have strong opinions that need to be heard early?  Who has a valuable perspective that perhaps isn’t typically at the table?

It can seem logical “not to bother” individuals like a lead developer who won’t be fully engaged in a project until the details are more concrete, but their perspective is critical in the early stages.

3. Do You Know What The Competitors Are Doing?

I’ll never forget the day my team published an outbound email for a high-profile consumer brand client, sending the email to thousands of subscribers with a headline that we quickly learned was almost identical to a competitor’s slogan from the prior year.  You do not want to make that kind of mistake!  After that day, we plastered the office with screenshots showing every competitor’s home page and key outbound communications.

Knowing what’s happening in the space you or your client operate in is an essential part of the ideation process.  It grounds you in what already exists, and challenges you to raise the bar, rather than replicate what others are doing.

4. How Will You Get Participants To Think Creatively?

Often, participants in a design ideation session fall into two groups: those who already have a strong perspective and idea that they want to get onto the table, and those who are experts in what exists now.  Both types of people are well served when you bring examples outside your core business for discussion.

For example, in a recent ideation session for a health insurance organization, it was decided that the target customer had a high priority need to find the right health care plan for their unique health situation.  It’s valuable to look at other health plan finders (see #3), but also examples of product choosers from the retail space.  Seeing these examples helps participants get out of their pre-conceived ideas and makes them more receptive to new ideas.

5. Looking For Blue-Sky Thinking, Or Something More Targeted?

There’s a time and a place for blue-sky ideation.  For example, you might want to brainstorm a lot of ideas around how to bring more customer delight into your service.  But more often you need to operate within constraints and, in fact, constraints create better design.  Clearly identifying the constraints and staying within those boundaries will prevent your team from going “off the rails” into territory that is interesting, but not relevant to the project/initiative.  Be up front with your team from the outset, and agree upon the guardrails.

6. How Much Time Do You Need?

Design ideation is a team activity, which means you need to bring a diverse group of people together Design ideation is a team activity, which means you need to bring a diverse group of people together for an extended period.  But it can be challenging to line up whole-day working sessions with people outside the design team; and even if you could calendar those kinds of meetings, long meetings can wear down the team, no matter how interesting your workshop.

One way to solve this is to break your ideation workshop into several chunks.  You can schedule several two-hour sessions, with breaks; or spread the session out over an entire week.  Just remember that most people in the organization have other commitments, and don’t expect that you’ll be able to get an entire day of anyone’s time (other than your own).

7. What Format Will Your Ideas Take?

I’m a believer in low-fidelity sketching to communicate ideas.  As we typically design digital products, we start most of our engagements with sketch ideation based on the outcome of a requirements workshop.  It’s fast and efficient to create sketches and we can generate many ideas quickly.  Sketches are also open to interpretation, so they encourage workshop participants to see and discuss possibilities, rather than focus on details that aren’t yet relevant.  In this process, generate as many ideas as possible, then winnow them down to five to seven core concepts, which can be presented to stakeholders on the final day.  Their feedback and ideas are then rolled into the next phase of the project.

Other deliverables from a workshop of this type can include audience profiles, visual mood boards, a journey map, or a design pattern collection – whatever the team needs to envision the experience.

8. Who Will Produce The Ideas?

Some teams might ask everyone in the room to design – including project managers, developers, marketers, writers, etc.  But I’ve found this approach to be inefficient.  Professional designers flex their “design muscles” every day, and a good designer can generate a high volume of ideas quickly, while someone whose core skills lie elsewhere will find this activity challenging and will produce little usable design.

Typically, I don’t ask clients to sketch ideas.  However, there are exceptions.  Recently, a large social media platform client wanted to explain their advertising model to their small business customers.  The model was so complex that we, as consultants coming from outside the organization, couldn’t explain it without their help.  So instead, we held an ideation workshop where the clients did the sketching, presented their sketches to us, and the best ideas were taken forward into the design work.  The experience was fun, enriching, and got us what we needed to move forward.

If you have a team of designers ready to ideate, don’t ask them to brainstorm all their ideas together as a team.  Individual ideation – interspersed with checkpoints to get feedback and work together – is actually more productive than working as a group.

9. How Will You Drive Consensus Toward A Direction?

Your team came up with a concise description of your customers and their needs, you’ve reviewed the research, competitors and inspirational material, and your design team has generated a ton of great ideas.  How do you get your broader team to align with the ideas that have legs, and which are destined for the cutting-room floor?

Strategies vary, but I take three steps over about two hours:

  1. Present: Quickly remind everyone of the goals, user needs and priorities they agreed upon.  Quickly present ALL concepts so everyone can see the breadth of ideas.  Otherwise, you risk getting caught in a lengthy discussion of the first concept, with limited time to discuss others.  Have the team take notes on points of interest in the work.
  2. Listen: Structure the discussion to ensure everyone has the opportunity to weigh in on each concept.
  3. Guide: This is where the facilitator’s skill matters.  Driving a large group to narrow down the options requires the facilitator to have a strong grasp of the goals, users’ needs, the competition, and the constraints, but also requires they’ve done a great job listening to everyone’s concerns in step two.

10. How Do You Ensure Your Ideas Don’t “Collect Dust” After The Workshop?

It’s important to show additional fidelity quickly once you have a basic direction.  Typically you would use the following four to five days to create a final storyboard – including revised sketches and light narratives – to show a cohesive vision of the planned design execution.  If your workshop included a collaborative visual exercise, a revised single mood board might be appropriate.  The key is to take the results of the workshop and continue building on them right away, while your broader team is still energized to move forward with your bold ideas.