‘Design’ is a much misunderstood word. The best design does two things: it solves real problems that people actually have; and in doing so, elegantly blends form with function.

Chris How
Chris How
one week ago

I’ve seen many designers in organisations get stuck in a delivery role merely adding polish to fully formed and rigidly set ideas. Whilst designers have a role in creating beautiful looking artefacts and interfaces they also have a huge amount to offer in framing and exploring opportunities through design thinking.

If you’re in such a situation, and you’re feeling frustrated that your craft and creativity could be better used to make more of an impact, then don’t wait for permission to make things happen. Take the lead, become an undercover innovator.

Start to innovate from the bottom-up

This article will give you some tried and tested tips on facilitating the team around you to generate and extend innovative ideas to solve identified challenges. It is a follow up article to Become an undercover innovator - how to spot your opportunities which covers ways to identify areas ripe for innovation.

Undercover innovation is a mindset that’s all about being proactive in order to demonstrate the value of design thinking. It’s about starting small but thinking big. It’s about introducing others to the power that design offers. It’s about going under the radar to kickstart a move in your organisation to use design to identify, investigate and incubate new revenue streams and processes for cost-savings.

For the purposes of this article, and for want of a simple single sentence on the matter, I’m going to define innovation as ‘you or your organisation doing something new or different’. It is a way to move from where you currently are to somewhere better.

Three considerations for the undercover innovator

For the undercover innovator there are three key things to remember when looking to turn insights into innovative solutions:

  1. Innovation is a team game. If you want to change the perception of design, then invite people (especially non-designers) into your world, involve them and de-mystify your processeses. You are looking to create design advocates, so play nicely. You’ll also get more diverse ideas by asking a range of people with different skills sets and perspectives to take part.
  2. Innovation is a muscle that needs regular exercise. Doing something new is the path of most resistance. As you’ll initially be doing this on top of your day job, think about small but frequent activities. First, develop some momentum and traction; then push harder to accelerate the habit of innovation in your organisation.
  3. Innovation is a process that can be coached. Debunk the idea of the eureka moment being the exclusive preserve of the genius thinker. Beyond the specific challenges you might investigate, remember that the bigger aim is for you to introduce and embed design thinking as a structured and methodical way to reach desired business outcomes.

These three principles will help change the perception of design from merely the aesthetic layer to a vital method used by businesses who successfully develop new products and services.

Get the best results from your ideation sessions

Before we look at the techniques, let’s take a whistlestop tour of advice on successfully running your workshop sessions.

Invite the right people. Have an open invitation to see who is interested as well as targeting certain people you want to influence. Make the effort to identify and personally invite the stakeholders and influencers who can give you the time to further develop ideas. Look to encourage managers who are cynical about the value of design to get involved in the process. Bring in people who’ve recently started in the organisation who might be open to new ways of thinking and working. Finally, ensure you have some allies who know what to expect and are willing to enthusiastically jump into your design games.

Make it easy (and fun) for people to attend. As you’re looking for people to volunteer their time, incentivise their participation. Provide lunch or refreshments, make the sessions less than an hour long, tell them what new skills they will learn and how much fun they will have!

Prepare your participants. Let them know what to expect, give them a preview of the activity you’ll be taking them through and provide any insight to the challenge. Recording and sending out a very short video is a way to introduce yourself and to show the activity in action.

Prepare yourself. It’s your party and you are the host so it’s your responsibility to ensure everyone has a good time. Prepare how you’ll frame the challenge and explain the design activity. Get to the room early to set it up. Have any materials out and ready to use. Have an activity for people to do whilst waiting for the latecomers to arrive.

Structure your session. Be strict in timeboxing the phases to ensure in the time you have you can articulate the challenge, generate a quantity of ideas, then share and build upon these ideas without people feeling rushed.

Follow up. Make sure you capture the outputs of the session and share this with both the participants and the decision makers you want to influence. A quick ways to do this is to create a slide deck framing the challenge with annotated photographs of the ideas generated in the session. Remember you don’t have to have fully completed solutions just enough thoughts to gain interest in doing more. Include your contact details with the offer for you to come and talk people briefly through the activity or the outcomes. Distribute the outputs widely. This might include posting it on your intranet or printing it out and putting it up in communal workspaces.

Six proven innovation activities to try out

The intention here is not to create an extensive playbook, but to give you a handful of my favourite ways to introduce non-designers to ideas generation. Each of the following techniques can be used in under an hour to go from insight, to idea generation, to iteration.

The main commonality is that they all have structure and constraints to help focus design thinking. This helps you move from obvious solutions to more radical and potentially interesting ones.

Technique 1: Run a super lightning design studio

Pose a challenge and get your participants to sketch out as many ideas as they can come up with to solve it. One way to phrase the challenge is to start it with ‘How might we …’ and focus the statement on the outcome you want to achieve rather than hinting at a solution.

Then get people individually to sketch as many solutions as they can in two minutes. The focus is on quantity of ideas over quality of drawing. Let people know they will be talking through their sketches so they can keep the drawing very lo-fi.

At the end of two-minute briefly share each idea and get the group to decide on the aspects of the sketch to develop and exaggerate further. Don’t get caught up in the practicalities of building the ideas at this stage encourage the big, the bold, the crazy. You’re after sparks to innovate around not fully formed solutions.

Once everyone has shared their sketches do another round of sketching and share again. This time the group is encouraged to suggest aspects of others people’s ideas to combine into the sketch. Continue to sketch, share and repeat.

Avoid the temptation to extend the time to be able to work in more fidelity. More iterative rounds is better than more visually detailed sketches. Do at least three rounds of sketching but it works best with more as this helps you move away from initial (and often obvious) ideas to a new space.

It is a great exercise to get non-designers to surprise themselves in being able to create imaginative answers to the challenge and to show them the power of iteration to step beyond initial solutions.

The 'how might we...' challenge. Illustration by James Gilyead.

Technique 2: Re-imagine solutions with S.C.A.M.P.E.R

The acronym stands for (S) substitute, (C) combine, (A) adapt, (M) modify, (P) put to another purpose, (E) eliminate and (R) reverse. It’s a great framework to reimagine experiences and arrive at untypical solutions by being forced to think about and change elements of it.

I’ve seen this technique mostly used when you have an existing product or process and you want to find ways to enhance it. However, it also provides an interesting framework to get people to create a new product or service based around known user tasks.

To use it in a workshop pose the group a design challenge such as ‘How could we reimagine how people decide where to go on holiday’ or ‘How could we reimagine the experience of going to a restaurant’. To run the activity write out the challenge statement and surround it with seven circles containing each of the words from s.c.a.m.p.e.r. Then set a time limit to explore and generate ideas for each word in the acronym. The words can be used in any order.

Get the participants to write one idea per Post-it® note and stick them up next to the word they are exploring. Then get the participants to vote on the most interesting three ideas for future exploration. Once all seven words have been explored have a vote of votes to select the favourite five ideas from the shortlist of candidates created from each word.

Technique 3: Step along the delight curve

I’ve long used the Kano model as a means to think about product features. I find it an invaluable model to ensure I spend time in a project finding and creating the ‘delighters’ that will distinguish and differentiate the end result. A super useful extension to the Kano model comes from Dana Chisnell where she breaks down the delight curve into three progressive parts: pleasure, flow and meaning. It’s best explained by Dana herself in this video

The structure proves a useful framework to step through a number of identified frustrations your audience have to generate ideas for how you could turn these around.

In a ideation session spend a little time to introduce what you mean by pleasure, flow and meaning. A deck with some digital and non-digital examples is a quick way to explain the concept. Ask the participants to also contribute examples they think fit the descriptions.

For the ideas generation exercise get people into teams. Introduce a customer frustration and brainstorm in turn what we could introduce to increase pleasure, then flow and finally meaning for the user. Get the teams to write each individual idea on a Post-it® note and to share their most interesting ideas with the group.

Once you get into the swing of it you can get through three to five user frustrations in a 45-minute session.

Introducing and explaining models for innovation in your sessions allows the audience to think of design as a form of structured thinking and it teaches them a new technique to bring to their work.

Technique 4: Pitch the idea

Another technique where no drawing skill is required is to create a product pitch. These crafted statements sum up the essence of a product or service and the value it provides for end user. If you get them right they act as a strong hook to design features off.

There are plenty of suggested outlines available if you search for value proposition templates. In essence they all work like an ad-lib with a sentence with blanks to fill in. Here are three different ones I like to use. In a session provide printed templates and get participants to explore an idea using more than one statement format to see if it sparks new possibilities and ideas.

The elevator pitch popularised by Geoff Moore in his book Crossing the Chasm.

For _____________(target customer) who has  _____________(customer need), our  _____________(name of product/service) is a  _____________(market category) that  _____________(one key benefit). Unlike  _____________(competition), the product  _____________(unique differentiator).

The Minto pyramid principle which uses four short sentences to identify areas for innovation.

Situation - describe the current situation (even better with figures). Complication - describe the issue in the situation. Question - describe the question in response to the issue. Answer  - suggest a way to solve or mitigate the issue.

In a short session you might want to give the same situation and complication as a start point to all participants. 

To give you an example:

99% of all the music ever recorded is available to stream online. This has led to less consumption of music by new artists. How can we help the listener to discover their next favourite artist? Our weekly ‘chosen for you’ feature will give a recommendation to the user from an artist they already know and like.

The third template is the high concept movie pitch. Think ‘Jaws on a spaceship’ as a pitch for Alien.

The format is [Successful industry example] for [new domain or audience]

When you run your session you might want to introduce red cards for certain examples. After all, who needs another pitch for ‘tinder for homebuyers’. 

Technique 5: Write the press release

A technique credited to Amazon is ‘working backwards’. In it you write the press release to test if an idea is exciting and compelling to take into development. Obviously writing a press release is quicker and cheaper to create and iterate upon that unleashing a whole development team.

The press release is no more than two sides of paper and follows the format:

  • The product name in a way the target customer will understand.

  • A sentence to describe who the audience is and what benefit they get.

  • A summary of the product and the benefit.

  • A description of the problem your product solves.

  • A description of how your product elegantly solves the problem.

  • A fictional quote from a company spokesperson.

  • A quote from a hypothetical customer that describes the benefits they experienced.

Although the process is easy to understand, to get right takes effort. In a short session I’d recommend to get people working in teams to help provide momentum and starting with bullet points rather than crafting sentences.

Technique 6: Design the advert

This one requires a little more drawing skill but not much. It’s another technique where you start at the product launch to help identify the killer features and benefits for the audience.

Decide on an advertising medium to design for and the context someone will encounter it. This could be a billboard passed whilst driving, an advert seen whilst travelling up an escalator in a tube station, or the advert placed in-front of a video on YouTube. Setting the medium helps provide different constraints and situations to focus on.

Get the group to shout out some considerations, both positives and negatives, to think about when designing for the chosen medium. Then give a challenge statement to design for and give the participants 15 minutes to create an initial advert. It’s often easier to get people to start with Post-it® notes or index cards to write down and re-arrange snippets of text and visual thoughts before designing the whole poster or screen.

After 15 minutes get everyone to do a show and tell of their advert. Get the audience to feedback framing all responses with ‘Even better if …’. This forces positive critique on the building upon ideas. Repeat the exercise either using the same medium or if you want to really challenge your participants swop to a different medium to see if new ideas emerge.

Closing thoughts

As a designer the best way to move from a delivery role to one that includes innovation is to show non-designers how design thinking can be used to identify, investigate and incubate valuable ideas.

What activities in your design toolkit do you favour to help get non-designers exploring and creating innovative solutions? I’d relish the chance to hear your stories and advice on building a design-led practice of innovation, or to discuss further how design can be used to create greater value for your customers and your organisation. Drop me a line at chris@clearleft.com

Read Part 1: ‘Become an undercover innovator - how to spot your opportunities’ here.

Join the conversation about design thinking and undercover innovation on Twitter, by tweeting us @chrishow and @clearleft.