Congratulations! You’ve reached one of the most exciting phases of the design and development process - the ideation phase!
Now that you’ve gathered all of the pertinent information about your ideal user and the problem your product will be solving you’re ready to begin narrowing your strategic focus and generating solutions with your team.
The ideation process is important because it:
- Brings together the varied perspectives and strengths of your team
- Creates a large volume of ideas and potential solutions
- Allows you to move beyond obvious solutions and towards more innovative solutions.
- Uncovers unexpected areas of innovation.
This phase of your development process is all about generating ideas - you’ve chosen a goal and now it’s time to approach it from every angle possible. Your objective here is to uncover hidden insights and generate as many potential solutions as possible.
This is the phase where everyone gets to participate - it’s important to include people with differing perspectives. Oftentimes it’s the person you least expect who sketches out the game-changing idea which ends up getting prototyped.
How do I start the ideation process?
You’re going to want to start by getting your entire team together for one or more ideation workshops where together you’ll brainstorm as many ideas as possible, ultimately sketching out what your finished product will do and how it will do it.
Some of these ideas will go on to be potential solutions while others will end up on the reject pile. At this stage, the focus is on quantity of ideas rather than quality - later on you’ll get selective, and throw out ideas that aren't feasible.
There are many exercises and methods that you can use to help your team ideate solutions - our favorite is called "Crazy 8's".
The intention of this exercise is to generate as many ideas as possible within a short time frame - the emphasis here should be on quantity over quality of ideas.
By giving individuals 8 minutes to generate 8 ideas you help push them to move past their first idea, which is frequently the least innovative.
- Begin this exercise by handing out sheets of paper to each individual participating, which they should then fold their paper into eight sections.
- Set a timer for eight minutes - each team member should then sketch one idea in each of the eight sections. Remind everyone that these ideas are just sketches - they don't have to be works of art.
- To help team members who don’t have a background in design, you might want to hold a quick how to sketch session. It's also important to remind everyone that their ideas don’t have to be great - this exercise should be about quieting everyone's inner critic and allowing the creative juices to flow.
- Once your team has completed their individual ideation process, and you have many divergent ideas on the topic, each individual should present their ideas to the team and tape their sheet to a wall or whiteboard.
- Once everyone has presented the team can dot vote for their favorites.
Remember, it may take several ideation sessions to pinpoint and refine the idea you’ll want to move forward with. If you find that your team feels stuck it’s always a good idea to try different ideation techniques, such as “reverse thinking”.
Reverse Thinking allows you to flip your problem on its head by asking your team to solve a new, “backwards” challenge. As an example, if your original challenge is “How can we encourage teenagers to go to the gym?”, you can flip it to “How can we make the gym as unappealing as possible for teenagers?”
Not only is this fun; you’ll also draw lots of inspiration from the “anti-solutions” you come up with. Once you’ve brainstormed how to solve the reverse problem, you can then turn these into solution ideas for the original problem.
Product Roadmapping and Prioritization
Once your team has decided on the ideas and features they’d like to move forward with it’s time to set up a Product Roadmapping Workshop.
What is a Product Roadmap?
You can think of your Product Roadmap as the blueprint for your app - it will outline the vision, direction, priorities, and progress of your product over time. It's a plan of action that will align your team around short and long term goals and how they will be achieved.
At any given time your product roadmap should allow you to answer two crucial questions:
1. Are we heading in the right direction?
2. Are we prioritizing the right things?
One of the most important things to remember about Product Roadmaps is that they are constantly evolving documents - even the most comprehensive product roadmap can't see a product through until the end of time. Technology evolves quickly, business needs shift, and budgets can change overnight - continued roadmapping is imperative to ensure a great product maintains its momentum.
Because Roadmaps should be constantly evolving documents, it’s best to create them using a product roadmapping tool that allows for easy editing and updating as priorities change. These are some of the tools that we’d recommend getting started with:
This roadmapping tool has drag-and-drop functionality, allowing non-technical contributors to add and shift elements as necessary. It integrates with JIRA and exports to PDF or PPT formats for easy stakeholder presentations.
Aha! offers easy visualization of goals for both traditional and agile development teams. The software tracks roadmapping milestones, performs business modeling, and assists with resource planning.
ProductPlan enables you to create customer-planning boards and prioritize effectively. It also integrates with JIRA and can export files to PDF or PPT formats.
What Does A Roadmap include?
In order for your roadmap to be an effective tool, it will include quite a bit of detailed information. You’ll want to dedicate a significant amount of time understanding, breaking down and documenting your timeline, themes, epics and user stories.
The timeline is one of the key features of your product roadmap. A good timeline will give you a clear idea of how long you should be spending on each phase and areas where potential delays or bottlenecks might pop up. Overall, your timeline should provide you with a sense of what lies ahead.
We like to create product roadmaps that are organized by month - this allows us to plan into the future while maintaining flexibility. Once you’ve established your themes, epics and user stories, they’ll be placed on your timeline.
A theme is a broad strategic goal for your product - for example one of your themes might be to ensure that your app is ADA compliant.
As you build out your product roadmap each theme will consist of “epics” that support the themes strategic goal. By including themes in your product roadmap you’re providing your team and client with a clear understanding of what the more granular tasks you’re working on are actually building towards.
Epics are large chunks of work - such as creating an onboarding flow for your app - that consist of a series of user stories that share a broader strategic objective ( when several epics share a common goal they are then grouped under a theme).
A user story is a self-contained unit of development work - think of it as a single task that a developer must complete.
User stories are written as short and simple descriptions of a feature, told from the perspective of the user, who desires the new feature. The purpose of a user story is to explain how a piece of work will deliver a particular value back to the user.
User stories are a few sentences in simple language that outline the desired outcome. They don't go into detail. Requirements are added later, once agreed upon by the team.
For example, one of your epics might be “ As a user, I want to be able to back up my work”. In this case a few of your user stories might include:
- As a user, I can specify files to backup based on file size, date created and date modified.
- As a user, I can indicate folders I don’t want backed up so that my backup drive isn't filled up with things I don't need saved.
Writing a user story in this simple format is helpful in multiple ways: it allows you to continuously express the business value that your work is delivering, it leaves all of the technical functionality to the experts - the developers, and it prevents you from introducing detail too early in the process, keeping design and development options open.
Here's an example of how your Themes, Epics and User Stories all fit together.
Fill empty seats in theaters
Use a mobile app to drive last-minute ticket sales
Create and assign promotional codes for last-minute purchases
Add text-message capability to the mobile app, to send last-minute promos and coupons
Develop creative for promo emails and SMS texts
Once you've chosen the best ideas formulated during your ideation and created your epics, it’s time to start strategizing how to efficiently and effectively build your product.
- What needs to happen first?
- What are the most important epics the product needs to be successful?
With your team, go through your list of epics and prioritize them by feasibility, desirability, and viability.
This is a great opportunity to get a range of team members involved. Product managers will provide opinions on how the epic helps the business needs. Designers will represent the user needs, and developers will be able to speak best on the technical implications of the epic.
This is where your product roadmap all begins to come together. On a whiteboard, draw three large boxes that represent general timeframes. We often use “Now,” “Next,” and “Later,” but you could be more specific with boxes labeled “Next 2 Weeks” “Within 3 Months,” and “In 1 Year.”
Drawing dependency diagrams that span the duration of your project can help you visualize the sequence of tasks and allow you to identify the project's "low-hanging fruit" and which features will be more difficult to implement.
If you find yourself running into difficulty with the prioritization process, the Priority Star Process can be extremely helpful. It will allow you to understand what should be done first, and help define metrics for success for each of your priorities.
- Make a list of the epics that you’d like to prioritize
- Write each one on a separate sheet of paper, giving each epic a name/title.
- Define what success looks like for each priority by writing down what key metrics would indicate success.
- Brainstorm ideas for the things you can do to achieve success for each priority - you should try and fill the page with ideas - you’re going for quantity over quality here. This should help you to really understand what it will take to complete this task successfully.
- Start the Star Process by plotting your priorities in a pattern something like this, using the title you created in the previous steps. This can be done on a whiteboard or a sheet of paper.
- Begin understanding the relationships between these priorities by asking your team “Does A drive B or does B drive A?” Another way of thinking about this is asking “If I do A does it make accomplishing B easier, or vice versa?”. Draw arrows to indicate which task is driving the other.
- Continue focusing on A’s relationship to the rest of the priorities by asking the same questions of A and C, A and D etc.
- Continue the same exercise with each of the priorities.
- Next, you’ll count how many arrowheads are pointing to each priority. The item with the least number of arrowheads pointing to it is your number one priority - you’ll want to focus on completing this first. The item with the next least number of arrows is your second priority, and so on.
Congratulations! Once you’ve completed the ideation, prioritization and roadmapping phases you should have a solid idea of what your product will actually look and feel like! You're now ready to start planning your MVP, and soon afterwards, building a prototype!