How to Succeed in the Ideate Stage of Design Thinking

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
May 26, 2023
A group of people gathered around a table
How to Succeed in the Ideate Stage of Design Thinking
Written by 
Bryan Kitch
May 26, 2023
Ideation isn’t always easy for teams suffering from groupthink or creative blocks. Learn how to get the most out of your ideation for design thinking.

Think of ideation as a firework. What starts as a single flare shooting up into a blank night ends up filling the sky with color, patterns, and light. 

The same applies to ideation in design thinking. The process starts as a blank canvas, but it ends up as a colorful solution with endless possibilities from every angle.

The ideation stage of design thinking enables your team to come up with ideas that spark innovative solutions. By understanding how to collaborate on ideas, your team will create successful outside-the-box solutions to delight your users.  

What is the ideation stage of design thinking?

Ideation is the third stage of the design thinking process. The first steps in design thinking are Define and Empathize — these pave the way for effective Ideation, which is followed by Prototyping and Testing. The goal of the ideation stage is for teams to gather different perspectives and brainstorm solutions for design challenges.

Ideation is the stage where the importance is “quantity over quality.” In this stage of design thinking, there’s no need to come up with concrete solutions or plans. It’s time to focus on potential solutions.

For example, imagine a product team gathering to find a solution for converting free users into subscribers in an app. ​​Ideation for this problem might include a team-focused brainstorming technique where participants work together in groups to come up with new ideas. Then they’d be able to challenge each other's ideas until you find a handful of workable solutions for the next stage.

Why is the ideation stage of design thinking important?

The ideation stage helps teams go from understanding the problem to identifying different solutions. The ideas from this stage set teams up for success to be as innovative as possible. 

Because the ideation stage comes after the empathize and define stages, teams should have a strong understanding of their customers’ needs by this point. They’re able to empathize with their struggles and are knowledgeable about the product. For these reasons, ideation is one of the core characteristics of design thinking. The process of redefining problems and challenging assumptions to create alternative approaches helps the team convert the user's struggle into a workable solution. 

The ideation stage is also instrumental for the next stages of the design thinking method: the Prototyping and Testing phases. However, it’s also important to remember that design thinking isn’t a linear process — it’s common to see teams go back to the define stage to tighten an idea.

Related: Common challenges of design thinking teams face

Benefits of ideation in the design thinking process:

For teams participating in ideation, it helps them:

  • Consider different perspectives: Each team member brings their own insights, experiences, and even biases, allowing for a comprehensive exploration of potential solutions.
  • Improve team collaboration: Ideation flattens the hierarchy and allows teams to brainstorm and share knowledge with a common goal. 
  • Generate a big cloud of ideas: By encouraging participants to generate a large volume of ideas, design thinking helps to overcome the fear of judgment and encourages the exploration of unconventional possibilities.
  • Increase innovation potential: Ideation fosters an environment where innovation can thrive, empowering teams to develop disruptive and transformative solutions that meet the evolving needs of people, often end-users or customers.

How to prepare for successful ideation in design thinking

For ideation to be successful, teams must first go through the empathize and define stages. These previous stages help take on the user's perspective and have a clear goal of the problems to be solved. 

Only then can the ideation session take place with clear direction and context. And, while the goal is to encourage outside-the-box thinking, the more organized and structured the meeting is, the higher the probability employees will engage and participate in brainstorming sessions

Preparation helps give meetings direction. Meeting agendas also keep teams in the loop on the past stages and findings of design thinking, and set a clear goal needed to move on to the next stage.

To successfully prepare for ideation meetings: 

  1. Set some expectations: Establish some ground rules for the brainstorm to ensure teams understand the goals, norms and expected etiquette for the session. Here you can establish concepts like “there are no bad ideas,” or, “don’t comment on the quality of ideas during idea generation,” to ensure that your team understands the goals of the creative process.
  2. Define the problem: Choose a problem identified in the empathize and define stages to tackle in ideation, such as “increase active monthly users,” or, “improve customer loyalty.” From the previous stages, you may already have a problem statement to ideate around.
  3. Choose a ‌technique: Choose a brainstorming technique to help organize team participation that fits your goal. (More on that in the next section.)
  4. Rank the ideas: Once you have several ideas, prioritize them based on how well they take into account the customer’s needs.
  5. Choose the best solution: Choose the best ideas to move forward to either the define stage or the prototype stage.
Pro-tip: You don’t always need a dedicated facilitator to help with this ideation phase, but it can help the ideation process go more smoothly.

3 techniques to succeed in the ideation stage

Different ideation techniques help you approach ideas from many angles and make collaboration more productive..

Standardizing the ideation session with a framework adds structure so teams can focus on coming up with ideas. Ideation techniques guide users through different prompts, which break up thinking patterns and nurture creativity. 

Here are some reliable ideation methods that help teams come up with the largest number of ideas as possible during the ideation process. 

1. Round-robin 

The goal of a round-robin is to have many different and original ideas. A round-robin invites input from all team members, which reduces the risk of one person owning the conversation. As a result, the whole group has ownership and participates in the process. 

And, as a round robin is based on a feedback and improvement loop, it pulls in the expertise and perspective of each member to identify weaknesses and opportunities. 

How to do a round robin 

  1. Use the round-robin template from the LUMA Institute to get started.
  2. Create teams of up to five people or stakeholders.
  3. Instruct each employee to add a solution to a post-it note, then move to the next step.
  4. Each person must add a reason it would fail.
  5. Move to the next section and ask them to resolve the problem. 
  6. Continue until the team reaches the time limit and the round is complete.

Once all the ideas are in, join the other teams and do the same process. The goal is to get as many ideas and perspectives as possible.

Check out the Mural round robin template to get your team started on ideation.

2. Creative matrix 

A creative matrix is a cross-functional collaboration method that uses intersections of themes and categories. 

For example, the challenge could be, “How might we have 100% client retention next year?” The intersections included in the matrix could be digital spaces, people and interactions, communication, surprise and delight, and wildcards. In that instance, all of these intersections in the matrix would improve client retention in their own way. 

Creative matrix encourages divergent thinking and requires the input of different levels of expertise to solve a design challenge. Outcomes often reflect different and new opportunities as a whole.

How to create a creative matrix

  1. Define the problem you want to solve using the empathy and define stages.
  2. Select different perspectives and intersections to consider for the challenge. 
  3. Design the matrix using a grid of perspectives and a “how might we” question.
  4. Generate ideas inspired from each perspective.
  5. Choose, refine, and select ideas.

Once all of the ideas are chosen, it’s time to move onto the prototype stage or back to the define stage.

Check out Mural’s creative matrix template to get started.

3. Mind map brainstorm

Mind mapping is an ideation technique used to organize thoughts. It helps teams visualize concepts and organize them into categories. 

A mind map brainstorm starts with a central idea with branches built out from it. Each branch represents a different expertise or idea category, which then divides into smaller branches.

For example, if you’re doing ideation for a new feature, your branches could be “user experience,” “sprints,” and “resources” with different ideas for each.

How to do a mind map brainstorm

To do ideation with mind map brainstorming:

  1. Determine the challenge or idea you want to solve.
  2. Add sticky notes with your ideas and throw them onto the digital whiteboard canvas.
  3. As ideas pop up, divide them into main categories.
  4. Connect related ideas with one another
  5. Once you have a base for your mind map, explore each branch in detail.

Use Mural’s mind map template to help visually organize ideation.

Make your ideation actionable with Mural

The ideation stage of design thinking offers numerous benefits that go beyond coming up with lots of ideas and choosing the best solution. By embracing diverse perspectives, fostering collaboration, stimulating the creation of a large number of ideas, and unlocking innovation potential, ideation becomes a powerful problem-solving tool for teams to tackle complex challenges effectively.

Try Mural for brainstorming and ideation to push ideas forward without sacrificing creativity, bring out the best ideas from everybody, and fix how your team collaborates.

Now that you've learned how to successfully ideate with your team, you're ready to move onto the Prototype stage of design thinking.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.