October 6, 2020

5 Ideation Techniques Adapted for Remote Teams

Valentina Salvi

Valentina is a UX researcher and service designer who loves shaping meaningful experiences that people love. She leverages creative facilitation as a way to foster collaboration and instill human-centered design for teams to innovate effectively, with the end-users in mind.

5 ideation tools to unleash creativity from anyone

If we would compare a workshop session to an episode of Murder, She Wrote, the ideation phase would be equal to the recurring moment where Jessica Fletcher, the main character, feels suddenly inspired and somehow certain about who the killer is. The scene takes place in all 264 episodes, and for a service designer — with a bit of imagination — ideation can feel pretty much the same.

Ideation, in fact, is a creative process’ milestone, a turning point, a vital asset of every well-structured innovation project. As service designers, we take on this phase extremely often. However, unlike the TV series mentioned, the solution, in reality, doesn’t come overnight nor by a sudden, “magical” intuition. On the contrary, ideation takes a specific process and tools that allow teams to get creative and collaboratively open to generate ideas.

Let’s quickly review the ideation essentials.

The three most typical ideation scenarios

  • Developing directions for new products or services
  • Exploring new revenue stream opportunities and business strategies
  • Finding solutions to intricate customer-centric challenges (i.e., transforming customers’ pain points into delights)


The three must-haves for a successful ideation session

  • Co-creative: It’s essential to include a diverse group, best if with different skill sets and perspectives to build on each other’s ideas.
  • Time-boxed: Good rhythm and a fast pace are extremely beneficial to create a pressure cooker effect and less room for self-censorship.
  • Facilitated: A facilitator ensures time management, human encouragement, and drive for the group, round after round.


And lastly, the five golden rules of ideation

  1. There are no bad ideas 🙅🏽
  2. Quantity over quality ✏️
  3. Document everything 👀
  4. Use and enrich others’ input for stronger ideas 🤜🏾🤛
  5. Keep an open mind and a non-judgemental attitude 😎


Remote ideation for everyone

Ideation is not just for service designers. To the contrary, it concerns literally anyone in the process of making an impact toward better solutions.

In this article, I've curated five hand-picked, mostly well-known ideation techniques that I have been applying in my practice. I aim to share my tips and tricks for adapting them to remote dynamics and getting the most out of them online. I hope this toolkit will inspire your remote ideation workshops, help you pick the right tools, and encourage the testing of new formats. To guide you along the process, I’ll be sharing existing templates out there as well as showing my personal setups.


1. S.C.A.M.P.E.R.

📝 HOW IT WORKS

Step 1: Given a challenge to tackle, each participant can pick one action out of the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. list below as a trigger to utilize toward shaping a variation of an existing idea. Note: Using others’ ideas from previous rounds as a starting point is a crucial part of this exercise.

  • Substitute: What can I substitute to make an improvement?
  • Combine: What ideas, features, processes, or components can I combine?
  • Adapt: What processes, features, or components should I adapt?
  • Modify: What can I make larger or make smaller?
  • Put to another use: What else can it be used for? Who else could use it?
  • Eliminate: What would happen if I removed a feature or part of it?
  • Reverse/rearrange: How can we rearrange the current status for an improved solution? What would happen by reversing the process?

Step 2: The facilitator gives participants six minutes to pick one S.C.A.M.P.E.R. action each and sketch the resulting idea.

Step 3: While pitching back the ideas to the team, each participant should also clarify which S.C.A.M.P.E.R. action was used to ideate.

💡 TIP

Depending on the time available, consider also letting participants come up with ideas for all the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. actions of the list to push them even further. A template listing all the actions with input fields might be a handy way to speed up time and have consistent results from everyone participating.


🚨 RED FLAG

The degree of interpretation and overlap among some of the actions can at times create confusion. For example, the action “modify” might generate ideas not too far from the ones falling into the “adapt” action cluster. Remember that the purpose of the exercise is to instill a different way of thinking, to look at new combinations and make ideas stronger and more interesting to pursue. The language is just a prompt, so don’t worry about it too much.

🎯 WHEN TO USE IT

This technique maximizes its potential after a couple of ideation rounds. That way, it allows to best leverage a range of available input and push ideas to the next level. It’s perfect to enhance individual creativity by building on top of each other’s contributions.

Every participant can decide which action out of the list is most inspiring to apply, so it’s a good one to pick when you’d like to leave a degree of personalization and flexibility for participants within the same exercise.

💻 ONLINE ADAPTATION

I usually ask participants to conduct the exercise in an analogue way — so, exactly as described above, by using paper and a Sharpie. The main difference is that they’ll need to upload their sketch(es) on an allocated spot in an online whiteboard.

Include a sticky where each participant can clarify the type of action they decided to focus on while developing their idea. Feel free to take inspiration from the mural setup I use below.


Online ideation set-up for the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. technique in Mural.
With the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. technique, participants upload the sketch, write the selected action, and add a short title and description of the idea.


2. Crazy 8s

📝 HOW IT WORKS

Step 1: This extremely well-known technique, brought to the spotlight with the design sprint methodology, starts with separating a piece of paper into eight sketching areas. You can do that either by folding the paper three times or just by drawing lines to create eight boxes.

Step 2: Set a timer for eight minutes. The point of this exercise is for each participant to individually draw one idea per square — so, one idea per minute in order to fill in the whole canvas.

Step 3: The facilitator will notify the team when each minute is up and it’s time to move on to the next sketching area. No matter how far you’ve gone in your previous square, make sure to follow the rules and move to the next square for optimal results, else you’ll lose the flow.

For a more visual, step-by-step guide, check out AJ&Smart’s video
here.

💡 TIPS
  • I always use this in combination with a second exercise that enables the group to consolidate the top interesting elements generated via the Crazy 8s round into a more solid concept.
  • If time is really short, you can do Crazy 4s, though the format will be weaker in pushing creativity due to the more limited number of iterations.

🚨 RED FLAGS
  • Ideas may not be very polished and well-rounded, resulting in fragments and pieces that can feel a bit disconnected and either too high level or too specific.
  • Ideas may be missing a storyline. That’s why I don’t usually ask participants to share the outcome, but rather keep it for themselves, to feed their creativity and serve as a base to the next rounds.
  • In case of a very broad challenge, it might feel less effective. The clearer the target for the exercise, the better the results.

🎯 WHEN TO USE IT

The two main scenarios are:

  • Iterating upon one specific idea eight times,
  • Coming up with a series of different ideas for the same challenge.

Both approaches can bring good results, but if leveraging the technique to meet the second scenario, pay greater attention to the red flags above.

Use Crazy 8s as a fast-paced and dynamic ideation warmup, serving as the opening to multiple ideation rounds. You can also use it to generate UI variations and diverge on initial draft directions.

💻 ONLINE ADAPTATION

Even if participants won’t necessarily be prompted to pitch their Crazy 8s back, ask them to upload and place their analogue sketches into MURAL. Doing this will surely enhance greater commitment in doing a better job. Below is my MURAL setup for this technique as a reference.


Online set-up for the Crazy 8’s technique in Mural, used as a warm-up.
With Crazy 8s, participants upload their sketch, write the research insight they focused on, and picked two of the eight ideas to refine.


3. Mash-up

📝 HOW IT WORKS

Step 1: Apply the Mash-up technique — originally created by IDEO — by starting from a mapping exercise on sticky notes around the context we were looking at. The mapping exercise invites the team to brainstorm around two to three topics (e.g., technology, user needs, existing services) to serve as an inspiration and as actionable input for the following mash-up step.

Step 2: Each participant is asked to pick one sticky note per category and place them next to their ideation canvas to serve as an idea generation fuel.

Step 3: In six minutes, participants are expected to individually come up with a solution that embodies the three elements picked up from the mapping.

💡 TIP

Repeat the process twice for ideal results. Ask participants to pick different input combinations as prompts for the Mash-up. The powerful creative boost enabled by the technique will unleash even more the second time around.

🚨 RED FLAG

Make sure to have a sequential flow in the agenda between the mapping exercise and the Mash-up. I once did an additional Crazy 8s warmup in between the mapping and the Mash-up, and by the time of the Mash-up step, the momentum gained in the mapping was kind of lost.

🎯 WHEN TO USE IT
  • The exercise creates a nice bridge between the exploration of the problem space — which is enabled by the mapping — and the actual generation and sketching of ideas.
  • Use this technique to leverage existing research in an interactive way. The “two to three themes” part of the mapping enables a triangulation of inputs that enriches the creative process towards unusual, creative combinations.

💻 ONLINE ADAPTATION

Below is the mural I used for this technique as a reference.


Mapping session in Mural, as a warm-up to the Mashup ideation technique.
The Mash-up’s mapping in MURAL, from a session my colleague Marjorie and I facilitated together.


The setup for the Mash-up technique in action: three selected insights from the mapping on one side + the final sketch/concept resulting from them on the other

4. Round Robin

📝 HOW IT WORKS

Step 1: Participants start by filling in a How Might We question as the first task of the template. Everyone can either use the same HMW question, or it can vary per participant in case multiple challenges should be tackled at the same time (speedy session).

Step 2: Then, still keeping the same arrangement, each participant sketches out a solution and passes the paper on to the participant on their left.

Step 3: The receiver is expected to review the idea and write down one or multiple reasons why the sketched solution would fail. The paper gets passed on to the left once more.

Step 4: Ultimately, in this round participants are asked to come up with solutions to prevent the failures addressed and make the idea stronger. The same participants iterating on the solution with improvements will be the ones to pitch the idea to the rest of the team.

💡 TIP

Support visual sketches with keywords and text so that when passing on the ideas to the next participants, they can more easily and quickly act upon them.


🚨 RED FLAG

Use clear handwriting for a smooth flow and optimal results. Make it clear to participants to make an effort in this sense, otherwise many questions will come up and that will interrupt the sequence of steps, which is not ideal.


🎯 WHEN TO USE IT
  • Collaborative divergent thinking in action: the tool leverages each other’s input in a highly iterative and fast-paced process, enhancing the group synergy within ideation.
  • This exercise is also useful to gather feedback and refine exiting ideas. The first two steps such as How Might We Question and idea description/sketch will be — in that case — already filled in. By involving people outside of your team into completing the other following steps, you can collect precious input to address potential failures and uncover opportunities.


💻 ONLINE ADAPTATION

When replicating this exercise in an online whiteboard, participants should get allocated, specific spots to start form (numbered or with a unique colour/letter). Whenever it’s time to switch, instead of passing the physical paper along, participants will move their focus to the next spot to their right (e.g., If I started at spot A, I will move to spot B and then spot C). Clear, visual instructions on the online template as well as guidance from the facilitator will remove any doubt on how to proceed. Below is my custom mural for this technique as a reference, or use this MURAL template created by LUMA.


Round Robin template in Mural, in case of a common HMW question for the group to tackle.
Round Robin template in MURAL, in case of one single HMW question for the group to tackle.

An example of visual guidance and written instructions on the online templates to ease participants along the process
Visual guidance and written instructions on the online template ease participants along the process. As a first step, participants are asked to sketch an idea on paper and upload the picture to the allocated spot (1).


Round Robin template in case of multiple HMW questions to tackle.
Round Robin template for when you have multiple HMW questions to tackle. Each participant gets the chance to add an HMW question before moving to the next steps.



5. Random word/image

📝 HOW IT WORKS

I tested this technique internally as an explorative way to diverge a bit from the standard approach we were using. It revealed to be effective and fun, to the point that I kept using it on multiple other occasions.


Example of physical Randow Word cards.
Example of physical Random Word cards. The same can be done for Random Image. In case of a remote workshop, you could also send the cards to participants via post, as part of a wider workshop kit to enhance the experience.


Step 1a: After handing over a piece of paper and a Sharpie to each participant — in the case of Random Word — let each participant pick one random card hiding a random word beneath. If you’re doing it digitally, open a random word generator and assign one random word to each person, one by one. It’s a fun group ritual before jumping into ideation mode!

Step 1b: In the case of Random Image, the only difference is that each card should uncover a random image instead — or, if you’ve got plenty of visual material lying around, just cut out images to recycle what’s already available. The objective here is to leverage the external trigger (word or image) as a constraint and inspiration to generate a solution to the challenge in question.

Step 2: After six minutes of individual sketching, follow with a round of short pitches for each idea generated.


💡 TIPS
  • Allow one “skip” possibility while assigning random words. Participants shouldn’t give up too easily, but they should at least be familiar with their term. Remember that you want to enhance creativity, not sabotage it!
  • If you’re up for making custom cards for this exercise — which is a fun side design activity — look into ways to make the final cards reusable to maximize efforts. I happened to go the cheap way in the past, and the result ended up being one-off to the poor durability. Go for thick, laminated cards if you can. They’ll be a bit more expensive, but you can then use them as a long-term resource for your team.


🚨 RED FLAG

In the case of framed challenges with rigid brand constraints, this technique might not be the best pick. Results could easily feel off-track and not very in-line with the purpose. Still, this can be a good idea to use as a warmup round on a different topic, to break the ice.


🎯 WHEN TO USE IT
  • Push creativity beyond known and existing references.
  • With shy participants: The fact that you are basically asked to solve a mini-game (come up with an idea that relates to THAT image or text) triggers your brain and decreases overthinking as well as the fear of others’ judgment.


💻 ONLINE ADAPTATION

Below is my Random Image mural for this technique as a reference.


Mural set-up for the Random Image exercise.
Mural setup for the Random Image exercise. Based on the challenge at hand, you can select the most relevant images to include in the collection for participants to pick from.


Zoom into the individual set up in Mural for the Random Image exercise.
After picking one image from the given collection, participants are asked to map out potential ways in which that image could inspire a solution. This micro step will ease participants in the following sketching phase.


Here below is my Random Word online setup in MURAL.


Mural set-up for the Random Word exercise.
Mural setup for the Random Word exercise. Based on the challenge at hand, you can select the most relevant words to include in the collection for participants to pick from.


Screenshot of an online random word generator free to use.
You can also assign one word per participant — exactly as you could do face to face — via a random word generator like this one.


Feeling confident about setting up and running an ideation session is a great asset for any role involved in shaping and driving innovation, at a big or small scale. Picking the right tools and methods at the right time, as well as being able to pull out an effective and context-relevant online setup for them, will make your life much easier and the results more valuable.


Learn more techniques, tips, and exercises

Read part two to learn five more techniques for your ideation toolbox.

Check out MURAL’s collection of 100+ templates.

Editor’s note: This post was
originally published by the UX Collective on Medium on July 14, 2020.