Lead User-Centered Ideation

by Megan Fath

Observed Scenario (a conference table populated with creative minds, post-its and sharpies): The team has gathered to brainstorm new ideas to address a current problem. The group has been debriefed on the needs of the intended user and other research findings. Momentum builds in the room. Ideas are flowing…

And then someone brings out that same concept he’s been pressing for years. Others suggest paths that are appealing to them, thereby replacing the users with themselves. Someone pushes for the “one great idea” that can be implemented quickly. Slowly the ideation has crept from user-centered to idea-centered. “Wait, wait“ you think to yourself. “How does this connect with our user?”

The next time your brainstorming session takes a turn, try some of these principles and suggestions to keep the user top of mind during ideation—and yield ideas meaningful to the intended user.

Don’t be adverse to structure.

 We typically believe that structure stifles the free flow of ideas. Embrace structure while acknowledging the varying processes to idea generation. Let the user findings provide the structure. User-centered models and frameworks can help participants navigate through the ambiguity of the activity and keep the activities focused on the user.

Challenge: Frame ideation goals to focus around the user, not organizational need (that can come later in subsequent sessions).

Confront personal bias. 

The ideation team is rarely the user. Yet it is natural for team members to create relationships between what they do and user behaviors and needs. This creates a personal bias during ideation. 

Challenge: Minimize “I” or “we” statements during concept generation. Help the team see that they are not the user.

Get creative and industrious. 

Consider your resources. Take inventory of research assets, like photos and videos, and imagine how they might be integrated or repurposed as ideation tools. 
No primary research? Avoid the temptation to create personas. Your resources might be better allocated. Do the math: compare the time invested in creating generic scenarios (billable hours) verses inviting a represented user for an hour to jumpstart the ideation (small participant incentive).

Challenge: Create tools and immersive environments to keep users top of mind during ideation activities. 

Planning is an iterative experience. 

Concept generation should go beyond one brainstorming activity. Add pre and post session activities to extend user connection. Re-review all of the concepts you’ve rapidly generated. Frame the goals for ideation beyond yielding a single actionable idea. 

Challenge: Move beyond planning an activity. 
Script an experience for your team.

With a bit of creative planning, your brainstorming sessions can yield ideas meaningful to your intended user. Happy Ideating!

User-centered ideas generate innovation and increased end user satisfaction
User-centered models and frameworks for idea development can help creative-team members navigate through the messy process of brainstorming and keep the focus on the user.

Have members of your team play the part of actual users
Ask each team member to represent a different research participant: “Today, you’ll be Maggie from our research. Your mission is to keep Maggie top-of-mind.”

Get beyond a room supplied with post-its and sharpies. Create custom tools and immersive environments to keep users top-of-mind during ideation activities.

Evaluate ideas with the user in mind. Suggest team members vote on ideas that will resonate most with the end user.

Quick Tips
1. Try immersing team members in a user profile. If user research exists, appoint each team member to represent a different research participant (i.e. “Today, you’ll be Maggie from our research. Your mission is to keep Maggie top of mind.”) 
If research does not exist, each team member can find a friend who fits the user profile and spend some time chatting with them. Suggest that they document their surprises.

2. Invite a represented user to share their experiences.

3. Post photographs on the walls that depict the users’ environments, products, and experiences.

4. Assign a bit of homework that helps attendees to connect to the user.

5. At the end of the ideation, suggest team members vote on ideas that will resonate most with users.

Dig Deeper!
1. How to Make Collaboration Work: Powerful Ways to Build Consensus, Solve Problems, and Make Decisions by David Straus

2. “Persona Non Grata” by Steve Portigal, Interactions Magazine, February 2008

3. “In Their Shoes” by Alexa Andrzejewski