A framework for generating, selecting, and refining novel ideas in UX work

Successive sketches of a flower with increasing levels of detail.
(Generated by the author with Ideogram)

User research is a creative profession.

We’re not artists, by any means. But our success as researchers hinges on the ability to apply innovative thinking to solve complex problems — often multiple times each day. Overlooking the creative aspects of our role can limit our usefulness: you don’t think to improve skills you don’t think you need.

This article explores strategies for generating and enhancing ideas within the context of everyday UX research tasks. From formulating research questions to navigating logistical challenges and delivering design recommendations, you’ll learn how to approach problems from multiple angles.

We’ll offer a framework for creating, refining, modifying, and maturing ideas, providing concrete examples and actionable tactics along the way. These strategies in hand, you’ll be better prepared to tackle research challenges and impress stakeholders with your ability to think outside the box.

Strategies for idea capture

The best ideas often happen outside of structured brainstorming sessions.

Cultivating environments that foster spontaneous thought is key. For example, the solitude of showers or outdoor physical activities like walking or running can engage the default mode network associated with divergent thinking by reducing distractions and providing sensory calmness.

You might find, for example, that ideas emerge spontaneously after setting aside work on a research report for the day. Capturing these might enrich the suggestions for continued research in your reports and deepen stakeholder engagement.

Develop a system and habit for capturing these ideas whenever they occur. Options include carrying a simple notebook, using a digital note-taking app, or a more sophisticated system like Obsidian. The goal is to create consistency and reduce friction with a daily routine.

Group and individual brainstorming

One technique for generating many ideas is to set a target of writing a list — for example, ten (or even twenty) ideas for a given prompt. The key is to push past your initial, obvious thoughts and reach deeper, even if some feel imperfect or ridiculous. Often, the process of documenting “bad” ideas can paradoxically lead to uncovering valuable ones.

For instance, imagine you were tasked with assessing trust and hesitations in a study on emerging tools like AI, where prior research may be sparse. A solo brainstorming session aimed at generating at least ten initial concepts could serve as a fruitful starting point.

In a group brainstorm, start by having each participant independently create a list of ideas. Afterwards, look for common themes and unique ideas by sharing together in a non-judgmental, open forum.

If you’re working alone or on a strapped team, you don’t always have the luxury of collaborators to bounce ideas off of. LLMs like GPT-4, Claude, or Gemini can help. Craft a clear prompt describing the challenge, and consider providing your initial list of ideas as an example. The output won’t usually match a human partner, but it can offer fresh perspectives and push you towards new lines of inquiry.

For example, after detailing your findings, you might prompt an LLM to anticipate potential questions or hesitations from stakeholders. Incorporating these insights can preemptively address potential issues in your final report, creating a stronger final product.

Selecting top contenders

After broadening your pool of ideas, the next step is to refine and focus on the most viable options.

First, articulate (or revisit) your goals. What are you trying to accomplish with this exercise? Defining objectives helps to discriminate between ideas. Consider feasibility, alignment with goals or KPIs, less tangible effects like emotional impact, and any other relevant factors.

For example, when working with complex data visualizations, you’ll want to select ideas that clearly communicate the intended message to your audience. Or if you’re looking for ways to recruit a hard-to-reach demographic, some of the key concerns might be budget, timing, and viability.

With goals in mind, decide how deeply you’ll analyze the options or whether a more intuitive gut reaction is best. As a rule of thumb, allocate time proportional to each idea’s level of refinement: a rough concept deserves less scrutiny than a detailed proposal. But make sure originators have a chance to properly explain ideas that may have been imperfectly worded.

A photograph of a man standing before a wall covered in yellow Post-It notes, some with clusters of dot stickers to indicate votes next to scribbled ideas.
Dot-voting on ideas (Credit: Balanced Team)

Decision-making can be democratic, where each participant has an equal vote, or it can be centralized, with a designated “decider” who makes the final call after considering group input. This choice depends on the need to avoid groupthink or when specific stakeholder approval is critical. Define these sessions with clear agendas and time limits, even setting a timer for activities like dot-voting to keep things moving.

As you refine your process over time, these strategies will enable you to transform broad concepts into actionable solutions more efficiently.

Improving ideas with modifiers

When developing ideas for projects with significant implications or long-term objectives, such as annual team goals or high-stakes research initiatives, applying creative modifiers can unearth the full potential of your most promising ideas. Here are some strategies to expand and refine these ideas:

  • Scope variations: Explore different scales of your idea. For instance, how would the project look as a minimum viable product? Alternatively, consider its form if the scope were doubled. Think about both pared-down versions and more ambitious, comprehensive plans.
  • Inversion: Flip your idea on its head for a new perspective. You might, for example, consider how one could theoretically sabotage your project. This exercise can reveal valuable insights into how to strengthen the approach.
  • Interdisciplinary lenses: Integrate viewpoints from diverse fields. How would a florist, physician, or even a medieval warlord tackle this challenge? This could involve collaborating with team members from various backgrounds or using LLMs to simulate alternative perspectives.
  • Find the core: Identify the essential attributes that make your idea appealing or problematic. Develop new concepts that amplify these strengths or address the weaknesses.
  • Use the Creative Matrix: Particularly useful when the problem space involves multiple intersecting dimensions. Separate the facets along two axes, then systematically map out ideas at each intersection point on the resulting grid.
Close-up photograph of a hand holding several cards from the Oblique Strategies deck, desk in background.
A card from Oblique Strategies (Credit: Bastiaan Terhorst)
  • Oblique Strategies: Try experimental musician Brian Eno’s method of using a (physical or digital) deck of cards with creative prompts to disrupt conventional thought. This can be a fun, serendipitous way to uncover new angles that might not occur in a more structured brainstorm.
  • Vanishing Options: It often seems you can keep squeezing toothpaste from a tube long after it’s “empty.” Similarly, once you feel you’ve exhausted all possibilities, ask what you could do if all current options were off the table, an approach popularized by Chip and Dan Heath.

These modifiers are intended to stretch and challenge your initial concepts. This step isn’t strictly necessary in all cases, but the results are often worth it for important situations with a long shelf-life.

Taking ideas to maturity

As ideas start to encounter reality, they get scrutinized from multiple angles. Like polishing a gemstone, this process wears away rough edges, revealing the concept’s inner essence and luster.

This can be as simple as the passage of time, a phenomenon known to cognitive psychologists as the incubation effect. After breaks with seemingly irrelevant stimuli like task-switching or rest, problem-solving improves — particularly for “insight” problems where solutions emerge suddenly through unexpected associations and connections.

For instance, if you’re deadlocked with stakeholders on the project’s direction, pausing the discussion can not only diminish tensions but allow new ideas to surface. It can also improve most communications. I’ve never written anything that wouldn’t have benefited from sleeping on it and returning with fresh eyes.

Another method is to iteratively discuss and refine your ideas in the context of everyday conversation. For example, when trying to name a new persona group, you might casually introduce potential names to colleagues to gauge their reactions. This feedback helps refine your choices.

Here’s another area where LLMs can serve as inexpensive sparring partners. For instance, you might seek summary feedback on a research report from the LLM. Be specific about the type of critique you want — for instance, request perspectives from different stakeholder roles like product managers, designers, or executives. This can help identify the more obvious blind spots and strengthen your presentations.

The bottom line

Seldom acknowledged, many aspects of user research require creativity — that is, innovative thinking to solve complex problems.

This article outlined a framework for generating, selecting, and refining ideas that support these dimensions of our work:

  • Cultivating: Place yourself in environments where the mind is likely to wander, and make a habit of capturing new ideas as they arise.
  • Broadening: Use solo and group brainstorming sessions to rapidly expand your set of ideas in response to a prompt.
  • Selecting: Define goals, criteria, and an approach for evaluating ideas, setting ground rules for group settings.
  • Modifying: Scale ideas up and down, invert them, and filter them through lenses to generate modified variations of the best ideas.
  • Maturing: Let the passage of time and feedback from others smooth the rough edges from finalists.

Depending how critical or long-lasting the solution is likely to be, you can use all or part of this framework. It’s an intense process, but ideas that endure this evolutionary gauntlet become brilliant.

Mastering these brainstorming techniques can help you overcome logistical hurdles, develop insightful research questions, articulate compelling design recommendations, and consistently deliver innovative, thoroughly-vetted solutions. Regularly stretching these creative muscles will make you an indispensable member of any research team.

A version of this article first appeared in The ¼″ Hole, a newsletter about user research.

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