Ideation: How to Excel at the Most Important Stage of Design Thinking


There’s no better moment than the ‘lightbulb moment’.

The one where you finally figure out a solution to a tricky problem, or just come up with an ahead of the curve plan, scheme, or proposal. The euphoria is intense enough to make you get out there and shout about it from the rooftops. Or, do a song and dance on the street, à la Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

OK, perhaps the latter is a little hyperbolic. But the point remains that coming up with a great idea is a wonderful feeling.

The only problem is that, at some point in the relative future, more ideas need to be thought of. And for those working in creative fields such as advertising, design, and software engineering, ingenious ideas need to be generated on a regular basis. We’re talking daily, here.

So how can you and the rest of your team continually think of stellar ideas?

Through ideation.

That’s why, in this Process Street post, I’m going to spell out what ideation is, the benefits of ideation, 7 different ideation techniques to use, and what to do before undergoing ideation for the first time.

Read the following sections to get completely clued-up:

Let’s not make this a song and a dance.

It’s time to get straight into it!

The definition of ideation

ideation definition

Ideation is a creative process where people come up with and develop new, interesting ideas. To facilitate the generation of ideas, ideation techniques will be used during an ideation session.

These techniques include approaches known as:

  • Brainstorming,
  • Brainwriting,
  • Storyboarding,
  • Worst possible idea,
  • Challenge assumptions,
  • 5 Whys,
  • Crazy eights,
  • And many more.

Each include a different set of tasks (and even settings) to help place the brain in a certain state of mind. This helps folks to simultaneously think outside the box while focusing on a specific set of issues to be resolved.

As Stanford’s design lecturers wrote in their well-read, well-referenced guide, An Introduction to Design Thinking Process Guide:

“Ideation is the mode of the design process in which you concentrate on idea generation. Mentally it represents a process of “going wide” in terms of concepts and outcomes. Ideation provides both the fuel and also the source material for building prototypes and getting innovative solutions into the hands of your users.”Stanford University, An Introduction to Design Thinking Process Guide

Now, the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed the words “design” or “designer” appear a few times already in this post. That’s because the ideation process is frequently used by designers in design teams to tackle design problems.

In fact, ideation is a process that is part of a larger process called Design Thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a 5-part approach used for creative problem-solving.

It starts with the emphasizing stage, where you conduct some kind of user research to understand, on a human level, what users are having issues with and how they feel about it. Perhaps there’s a part of your product that’s defective, or perhaps there’s an integral webpage that loads really, really slowly. You then emphasize and feel how they feeling regarding those issues.

Then comes the defining stage. It’s here where, after you’ve done user research, you state the users’ needs and define what the core problems are.

After that comes the middle and most important stage: The ideation stage. After all, without being able to come up with solutions, the problems can’t be fixed. It’s during the ideation stage that the aforementioned ideation techniques will be used, most likely in a group setting so many diverse ideas are brought to the fore.

Once enough plausible ideas have been thought of, it’s then time to move onto the prototyping stage or idea management. This is when you start acting on your ideas, and create rough drafts of your solution. For instance, this could be a storyboard for how a new product feature works, or even a quick in-app mockup. (This is how many of Process Street‘s own features, such as Approvals, started life.)

Last but by no means least is the testing phase. You test (didn’t see that one coming, right?) your prototype to see what works and what doesn’t, and even offer feedback to the users you originally got in contact with to get their thoughts and opinions on the matter. If everything works, gets a positive reaction, and seems like a go-er, then good news — you’ve found a solid solution to the initial problem! But if there’s a hiccup along the way, then you’ll need to return to the drawing board and to a previous step in the iterative process to try again.

That’s Design Thinking in a nutshell.

As I’m sure you can tell by now, the ideation stage is crucial. But in order to go about the ideation process successfully, the two previous stages must be done correctly first. Otherwise, no matter how good the ideas that are generated are, they just won’t align with the problem(s) at hand.

With all that covered, let’s turn our attention back to ideation itself.

The team and business benefits of ideation

ideation benefits

If you assumed that dedicating a specific amount of time to thinking outside the box and being creative would be beneficial, then you’re completely right.

Not only does it mean employees can take a break from the daily grind and return to their creative roots, but personal, interpersonal, and business benefits are directly linked with ideation sessions.


  • Ideation provides an opportunity for team members to think freely (read: creatively).
  • When an ideation session takes place, it’s a safe space. There should be no judgment from anybody — including yourself. That inner critic that’s always telling you not to say an idea out loud in case it sounds stupid, or that your idea isn’t good enough when compared to the ideas of others? Tell it to hush up for a while as you conjure up ideas without limitation and without holding back. Ideation gives you and your mind the opportunity to be free of constraints and uncertainty for a little while. And it’s this freeness that causes truly creative, truly innovative ideas to come about.

  • Ideation trains people to think divergently.
  • Due to the aforementioned freeness of ideation, people are able to think of, put forward, and discuss ideas that in other contexts may seem too left-field, but perfectly suit an ideation session. And the more and more ideation sessions that happen, the more and more trained people will be in thinking divergently — which means tackling problems from new and unthought-of angles. Great for personal development, and great for the team-at-large.

  • Ideation helps strengthen team dynamics.
  • Team dynamics are notoriously tricky. From the extrovert who unknowingly dominates the conversation, to the introvert who’s too shy to speak up, it can be hard to ensure everybody in a team is present and involved. Luckily, an ideation session is an equal opportunity event where everyone has the right to bring their ideas and thoughts forward. What’s more is that ideation is also an inherently collaborative process in a group setting. One person can think of an initial idea, then another can build on it, and then another can tweak it further until the idea becomes a well-rounded, actionable solution.

  • Ideation enables businesses to retain customers and clients.
  • At its core, ideation is about problem-solving. It’s about taking those product or service pain points and rectifying them, so that customers and clients will carry on using your product or service, and not opt for a competitor instead. For businesses, having the chance to actively combat those product or service issues effectively is something of a holy grail. And you’d be silly not to implement ideation sessions because of this, let alone all the other nifty benefits that come from ideation!

There it is.

A short but poignant bullet-pointed list of ideation benefits.

If, after reading through, you’re wanting to start the Design Thinking process so you can reap the rewards of ideation, then hold your horses for a second. (Or two. Or three. Actually, you’ll need to wait a few minutes. Sorry.)

That’s because the section below includes a selection of the 7 best ideation techniques to use, ensuring that your ideation sessions are useful and not useless.

The 7 best ideation techniques to use

ideation techniques

I cannot tell a lie: There are more than 7 ideation techniques out there. In fact, there are so many I’d need more than two hands to count them all. (I’d wager there are around 15-20 widely-known, defined techniques.)

So why am I about to discuss only 7?

Because they’re the most popular.

Sure, popularity doesn’t equal greatness, but in this instance when I’m talking about specific, business-orientated techniques, it means they’re effective for enough teams to deem worthy and use over and over again.

With that cleared up, let’s take a look at the 7 techniques in-depth, shall we?

Ideation technique #1: Brainstorming

Out of all the ideation techniques in the world, this will be the one that you have probably heard of before — and maybe even used, too.

Brainstorming is when a group of people (but not too large a group, mind you) get together and bounce off each others’ ideas to come up with a solution for the problem(s) in question. It’s a kind of free-for-all, say-anything-that-comes-to-mind-and-then-we-can-improve-it situation. You’re leveraging the combined power of the group rather than letting one person do all the work.

With brainstorming, it’s handy (read: necessary) to use some kind of tool to write down what’s being said and what ideas are being put forward. Be it the pen and paper method of olde, or the Notes app on your iPhone, just make sure that the ideas don’t disappear into the ether once they’re put out there. Especially as it may be beneficial for the group to return to an idea that was mentioned earlier on.

If you or your group are new to ideation, starting off with the brainstorming technique is a good shout. It’s (probably) familiar, and it fits a whole range of contexts and scenarios.

Ideation technique #2: Brainwriting

Instead of storming your way through ideas, why not try the more relaxed brainwriting technique?

Simply put, brainwriting is a variant of brainstorming, but instead of improving on others’ ideas verbally, it’s done via written notes. So, one person will write down their initial idea on a card, piece of paper, or digital note if working remotely, and then pass it along to another person, who’ll then try and improve on that initial idea. Then, it goes to the next person. And then the next.

You get the picture.

This round-robin process happens until either the note gets back to the original writer, or until the allotted time is used up (10-15 minutes is enough, depending on group size, of course).

Brainwriting is an excellent technique for new teams or teams that haven’t worked together before. There isn’t the awkwardness that can arise when brainstorming as a group that doesn’t know one another.

Ideation technique #3: Storyboarding

As humans, we all operate differently. And for groups that are made up of folks who learn better, do better, and achieve more when working with visual stimuli, then the storyboarding ideation technique is a great choice.

Storyboarding is where a person or a group of people illustrate a sequence. In a business and SaaS design context, the sequence shows a user navigating through a series of steps. The storyboard could illustrate an ideal scenario, depicting the preferred/intended steps a user takes to achieve a specific goal, such as signing up for a newsletter or a free trial after reading through a good landing page. Or, it could depict the issues in the user’s current journey, thereby seeing what the issues are that are stopping them from signing up, and then using this visual stimulus to think of ways to unblock the user’s path.

From post-it notes to small-scale illustrations to full-throttle comics, however you and your team want to go about creating the visual stimulus for storyboarding is down to you.

Ideation technique #4: Worst possible idea

You know how, sometimes, there’s a voice at the back of your head telling you not to say something in case you sound really stupid? Something so stupid that everyone else, ever — even if they weren’t there at the meeting — will think you’re not worth your salt and should quit your job?

The thing is, a lot of us have that voice.

And using the worst possible idea technique spins the whole concept of saying the wrong thing on its head.

With the worst possible idea, group members put forward ideas that simply won’t work. And the worse, the better.

By putting bad ideas forward, it helps to alleviate the anxiety of saying or doing the wrong thing, and it also helps group members to later consider good ideas — i.e. ones that have a higher probability of working.

It’s fun. It’s effective. And it’s a great warm-up technique for those of us with anxieties around speaking.

Ideation technique #5: Challenge assumptions

The challenge assumptions technique doubles up as a problem-solving strategy. It basically tasks teams to get to the core of an issue by ripping it apart — and any assumptions that could be stopping them from achieving a solution along the way.

Sound confusing?

It isn’t once you get the hang of it.

Instead of me harping on and writing a small thesis about it, watch and listen to this conversation between Tom Breeze and Elizabeth Halford below, where they go over what challenge assumptions is, the process of going about it, and what it’s useful for.

Trust me. It’ll be far more helpful.

Ideation technique #6: 5 Whys

At Process Street, we’re big fans of the 5 Whys technique. Not only have I written about it a couple of times already, but we even use our 5 Whys checklist template internally. Most recently, it was used to solve an annoying software bug.

To explain what 5 Whys is, I’m going to quote myself (please forgive me):

“5 Whys is an iterative problem-solving process that aims to get to the root cause of an issue or problem by asking ‘why?’ 5 times.

First, you state the issue/problem you’re facing, and ask ‘why?’ – why did the issue or problem occur? Then, you ask ‘why?’ four more times, with each question of ‘why?’ in response to the last answer you gave.”Thom James Carter, How Asking ‘Why?’ 5 Times Can Potentially Save Your Business (Free 5 Whys Template)

It’s an incredibly simple method, really. In a group setting, problems can be solved even quicker, making it a wonderful ideation technique to use seeing as, at the end of it once the root cause is found, you need to think of ways to stop the issue from ever occurring again. That’s a two-birds-one-stone technique right there!

Ideation technique #7: Crazy eights

Seeing as ideation is the middle step of the Design Thinking process, it feels appropriate to round off with another sketch-based technique that designers will be interested in.

Crazy eights is a quantity-focused idea generation approach where each person in the group gets a blank sheet (or digital equivalent).

The sheet is then divided into 8 squares. A timer is set (for around 5-10 minutes) so the participants can roughly sketch ideas or solutions in each square. When the time is up, the sheets are put in a location that can be accessed by everyone. Each participant then chooses their 2 favorite ideas/solutions, and votes on it as their choice to prototype and test.

Easy, and not to mention fun, huh?

Undergoing your team’s first ideation session

ideation session

I know, I know.

I said that you only had to hold onto your horses for a few minutes. And I know that I’m keeping you from starting the Design Thinking process so you can undergo the ideation stage.

But before you get going, I want to give you a handful of tips to really make sure that the ideation session is a good one.


  • Reiterate that it’s a safe space. For good ideas to come to fruition, everyone needs to feel comfortable with sharing their thoughts.
  • Establish any ground rules. Telling people what the aim of the ideation session is, which techniques will be used, and how long each activity should take will help people know what to expect and what to do.
  • Keep the conversation open-yet-focused. This may initially seem a little oxymoronic. But what I mean is that while you’ll want to keep the conversation open enough so ideas and thoughts can be discussed properly, you want to keep the conversation related to the topic at hand.
  • Choose the right setting. Now, what’s a ‘right’ location for a group will wildly differ. But don’t always assume that ideation sessions should happen in an office setting. After all, for new ideas to come forth, you may want your group to be in a new or at least differing location.

That’s it!

With everything you’ve learned in this Process Street post about ideation, you’re ready to excel at ideation — and even host a great ideation session, too.

Here’s to having great ideas. All of the time.

Do you have a preference when it comes to ideation techniques? Or do you have any extra ideation tips and tricks you’d like to share with the Process Street community? Write your comments below.

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Thom James Carter

Thom is one of Process Street’s content writers. He’s also contributed tech-related writing to The New Statesman, Insider, Atlassian, G2, The Content Marketing Institute, and more. Follow him on Twitter @thomjamescarter.

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