If you’ve never participated in a collaborative ideation session before, you are probably wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into. Don’t worry, it’s pretty simple and a fun way to let your mind run free for a bit. And don’t stress, you typically won’t be creating any deliverables in the session. Collaborative design sessions are simply a research meeting where we’re looking to gather ideas from all participants.
Here’s a first-timer’s guide to participating in a collaborative ideation session.
What Is This Anyway?
The idea of a collaborative ideation session comes from design thinking principles on how to approach solving a problem in a user-centric way. We do this by using techniques such as user interviews and research to understand the problem at hand, ideating and iterating solutions, then testing with real users for direct feedback. These sessions are about bringing a group of subject matter experts together to explore ideas to a problem based on what we do and don’t know. It’s not about who has the best sketch or fixating on reasons why something wouldn't work. Rather, they focus on exploring each person’s solution for how it could work.
Each session will typically include a wide range of job functions and subject matter experts impacted by the problem(s) we're facing. We don’t restrict these sessions to just the technical people – we open them up to admins, regular users, managers, developers, business people, accountants, designers – a wide variety of skillsets that create a nice range of opinions and viewpoints.
We start by taking a big problem and breaking it down into smaller pieces that are key to successfully solving the issue. This process allows us to move quickly through challenges we face, finding solutions that can work together to complete the product rather than getting bogged down by looking at the whole thing all at once.
Think of it like completely restoring an old rusty car found in a barn. One wouldn’t start trying to tackle cleaning up the rust, rebuilding the engine, and repainting the car all at the same time. It would be broken down into smaller tasks that collectively work towards bringing the car back to life. It’s the same process here. We’re not going to try to find the best way to restore a car; we’re going to say “Ok, the engine and tires are essential to make the vehicle run, so how do we solve those two issues first?”
Sometimes we have already identified the most important areas before the session, other times we ask for help from the subject matter experts in the room. Using this method, we can solve organizational challenges, abstract business problems, or sometimes even just identifing the problem needing to be solved.
What are we going to do?
Each collaborative ideation session is slightly different based on the amount of time we have together, as well as other external factors such as team availability and the scope of the problem(s). Most sessions follow a similar structure: first, we start by taking a few minutes to present the issues we’re looking to solve. Then we use about 15 minutes for everyone to explore their ideas on paper. After everyone has finished their ideas, we tape everyone’s idea up on the wall (or send via email or video chat if someone is remotely participating). Finally, each person walks the group through his/her idea.
Depending on what we’re trying to solve, it’s often important to look for general trends that participants came to individually. We can do this by a simple voting process. We’ll give everyone a handful of small dot stickers that can be placed on any of the sketches or written notes that have been presented. Collaborative ideation is not about democratizing the decision into group think, voting for a specific person, or deciding a specific execution, it’s about giving everyone the opportunity to say “this is a really good idea right here” we can then evaluate throughout the rest of the problem-solving process.
It’s important to not define specific goals beforehand. Sometimes we can only get through one problem during a session, other times we can tackle three or four. It simply depends on the problems at hand and the time we have available. Ultimately, this process often uncovers incredible little discoveries and bits of knowledge that become very valuable information throughout the rest of the project. Again, our main goal here is for everyone to learn from the subject matter experts in the room, not to create tangible deliverables.
What if I can’t Draw?
No problem, really! We understand the idea of drawing even a basic stick figure unnerves some people, let alone showing their scribbles to a whole group of their peers. So don’t worry. Drawing isn’t even required to participate. These sessions are all about getting the ideas out of your head quickly, not your drawing ability.
You can do anything from written flows with arrows, simple sketches, or anything in between. In fact, simple boxes and detailed text are just as good – if not better – than elaborate illustrations during this session. Sure, there might be artists in the group that will put everyone to shame, but that's the exception, not the norm. All we’re interested in are your ideas, no matter the form they take. That’s why most of the time we’ll use thick markers and basic paper so everyone is working with the same level of fidelity.
In fact, we’ve found that some of the most valuable ideas come from those who say they can’t draw. Detailed text descriptions can often be much more valuable than a bunch of squiggly lines. So don’t worry about your drawing ability, it really won’t matter.
[su_quote]We've found that some of the most valuable ideas come from those who say they can't draw.[/su_quote]
What We’re Trying to Achieve
Let’s start with what we are NOT trying to achieve. We are not looking to create any final solution during the collaborative ideation session. That’s something that comes later after we finish this session and complete technical research. We’re also not going to get into the granular details of the technical implementation of any ideas, though our subject matter experts in the room can help keep us within realistic boundaries. Finally, this won’t be a group brainstorm. Group brainstorming is unproductive, often resulting in a mediocre generic solution, doesn’t invite everyone to participate, and is a colossal waste of everyone’s time.
What we ARE trying to do is get everyone’s ideas on how to solve a problem. This means that we’re only looking for all the ways we could solve the issue, from the immediate and simple all the way to a long-term vision. During each ideation session, we’ll work individually then come back together as a group, and all participants will talk through their solution. As a group, we’ll discuss the thought process and benefits of each idea.
By the end of the session, there is often one solid direction that begins to form. Sometimes the direction is from a single idea, other times it takes bits and pieces from multiple others. In either scenario, this direction will be iterated and tested to see how well it solves the problem(s).
Exploring Ideas, Together
We almost always schedule a collaborative ideation session following user interviews and research. This gives us critical information about the users’ needs and expectations in which to generate our ideas. These sessions are about exploring potential ideas, not absolute solutions, while considering the information we know.
These sessions often occur in two distinctly different ways:
The first, and the most common, happens when we know what needs to be built, but we want subject matter experts’ ideas on how it could come to life. At this point, we understand the general expectations of users, many of the technical and business considerations, and the goals we are trying to achieve. This allows the entire team to focus on feasible ideas that work within the defined parameters, so we are not wasting time on something that’s not relevant or possible.
The second happens when we have identified the problem but we are not sure of exactly what needs to be built or what it will take. This scenario usually occurs in a preflight project where we are discovering the budget, scope, and technical requirements for a larger product build. Ideation in this stage allows us to identify solid solutions in ideal scenarios and to build a strategic vision. That doesn’t mean we are completely blue sky ideating, though. While we may be less confined, we’re still being mindful of building a useful product.
In either of these scenarios, we don’t let unknowns stop of us from exploring ideas. We don’t want to focus on reasons why an idea could not work, because that way of thinking often shuts down our brain from exploring other avenues of inspiration. Yet, we do want everyone to consider what information we already know. If we identify an idea as being valuable, or a good solution to the problem at hand, the team can determine what it needs both budgetarily and technically to become reality.
The most important thing that is generated during a collaborative ideation session is knowledge. This may be information passed from one subject matter expert to another, from experts to designers, or even admins to technical folks. We all walk away with seeing the problem with different viewpoints, interpretations, ideas, and solutions. From here, the team can get to building prototypes for testing, identifying spikes that could cause problems during implementation, and what parts or pieces need further research before being included in the final project requirements.
We understand this type of session can sometimes be intimidating for those who have never done one. But once the the whole group goes through a round or two, apprehension melts away as the value of collaborative ideation is realized.
[su_quote]These sessions are about exploring potential ideas, not absolute solutions. [/su_quote]
Devices Down, Pencils Up
Alright, this is probably the hardest part of the whole collaborative ideation session for most people. We understand everyone is incredibly busy, with increasing pressure to be always available. But we need everyone to focus and participate, and that’s not possible when everyone has a laptop open and a phone in their hand.
So, we’re going to ask you to put all your electronic devices away for the duration of the session. That’s right, close the laptop, phone in your pocket, watches on silent. This allows everyone in the session to focus on exploring ideas and solutions to the problem we’re trying to tackle and not answering emails or instant messages.
Now, there is one small exception we’ll allow, and that’s looking up something for reference. As you are starting your sketch or write-up of your idea, if you need a little help looking at other apps or websites, it’s ok to use your phone or laptop. Just be sure to write down what you are referencing such as the app and screen sequence, or website URL so we can all reference it later. Once you are done with your research, please put it back to sleep.
What To Bring
Yourself and an open mind. You won’t need paper or pens; those will be provided. Don’t worry about the problem(s) we’re trying to solve; we’ll explain it when we begin. In fact, you should leave your phone and laptop at your desk, too.
So, quick recap – in a collaborative ideation session, we’re bringing together a bunch of stakeholders, valuable contributors, and subject matter experts to ideate on solutions to solve the problem(s) at hand. It’s not a group brainstorm or democratic process of design by committee. You don’t have to draw; you are more than welcome to write out your solutions if that makes you more comfortable. And finally, we want you to explore ideas and solutions you feel would best solve the issue, without focusing only on why something couldn’t work.
We hope this gives you a little insight into what a collaborative ideation session is all about. We can’t wait to see you in one! If you ever have any questions throughout the process, be sure to let us know. We want to make sure it’s a valuable experience for everyone and for the product we’re building.