I’m lucky to have had the unique experience of being a dedicated Toy Inventor at IDEO. We invested our own time and resources into the invention of toys to sell them for royalties. Our small team of 6 designers would develop around 100 prototypes each year. On top of this, for every 50 ideas we came up with we’d only find 1 viable idea to prototype. If you add it up, that’s about 5000 ideas per year! Lastly, we were happy if we sold just 5 of those prototypes per year.
Time was always of the essence. If too much time was spent on any one idea, we’d risk selling fewer ideas that year. As a result of this business need, I optimized an ideation process for speed and efficiency and tied it into our already successful prototyping expertise.
These days I’m working in the mobile games industry where our success rate is much higher but our ideation needs are much different. I’m typically working on new features or content updates instead of entirely new game ideas. However, I’ve found the process to work on just about any creative challenge. So if you’re trying to solve a big design challenge, give this process a try – modify it to fit your needs and keep going!
I’ve tailored this specific example towards the ideation of an entirely new game experience:
First, figure out your Business Objective and think as wide as you can go. As a rule of thumb, go as wide as possible and then take one more giant leap out. While you’re out there you’ll come across relevant ideas you would’ve never thought of otherwise.
Our Business Objective: Build a simple asynchronous multi-player game for mobile devices with a focus on virality.
Now that we have a clear Business Objective we can start to make lists. The goal is to get a ton of organized lists with thoughts, themes and things just so we can quickly draw from them later. Afterwards, we’ll start combining these thoughts to create new ideas.
It’s simple – just combine thoughts to find a winning idea.
List Other Games
To help warm up in a productive way, think about relevant and irrelevant games. These could be games on electronic platforms plus the more traditional games like Board, Card, Playground and/or Slumber Party games. Discover new games you’ve never played before.
Frame each list as a question. Come up with at least 5 different lists but shoot for 10. Come up with at least 20 different games but shoot for 50. Go fast, fast, fast – no judgement!
What social games can I use as an example to build off of?
- Draw Something
- Words with Friends
- Hanging with Friends
- Bowling Buddies
- Bejeweled Blitz
- Bubble Safari
- (add more)
What multi-player traditional games may work on mobile?
- Jigsaw Puzzles
- (add more)
Draw from the most interesting and relevant games from above and think about what makes each game work. Play the game. As you’re playing, keep a list of things you see, things you like and things you don’t like.
Frame each list as a question. Come up with at least 10 lists but shoot for 20. Come up with at least 5 insights per list but add more if there is more! This should be a bit slower and much more insightful than before.
What makes Pictionary Fun?
- Seeing people’s reactions when trying to guess the word
- Watching the drawer’s frustrations when people aren’t getting it
- The terrible drawings!
- (add more)
What makes Draw Something Viral?
- People enjoy the game and invite their friends to play
- People post terrible drawings to FB
- People post their proudest art to FB
- (add more)
Bubble Safari Playthrough:
- I can use a friend’s ball in my own game
- I don’t like that I need friends to get to the next level
- I like seeing my friends scores so I can beat them
- The map has special mystery prizes in it
- (add more)
Search for patterns in your lists of insights and start to form questions around directions which may lead to opportunities for new ideas which fit your Business Objectives. Then list answers the questions to find opportunities for new ideas.
Come up with at least 10 different lists but shoot for 20. Come up with at least 15 different opportunities per list but shoot for 50. Then come back again and add more details.
What can create funny interactions between people?
- Seeing them make a mistake
- Hearing a funny joke
- Inside jokes
- Reminiscing old memories
- (keep going until you’ve exhausted the question)
What can make you feel close to other people?
- Sharing stories
- Playing sports – what sports?
- Asking for help with problems
- Discovering new things together
- (keep going until you’ve exhausted the question)
Now take an opportunity and a thoughts or insight from your previous lists and come up with questions to help you combine them into new ideas. Try tons of different combinations with the goal of keeping your train of thought moving. Allow yourself to get off topic. When you’ve sparked a wild idea outside of your train of thought, jot it down to come back to later or go off in this new direction but plan on coming back later. When you’ve exhausted your train of thought around that combination, pick a new combination and start again!
Shoot for at least 100 ideas but keep going until you’ve exhausted your insights and opportunities. Ideas can be as big as whole game directions or as little as minor features – you want them all. Only use positive judgement at this point. Think – what could I do to make this idea WORK and what could I do to make this idea BETTER?
Combine “Seeing peoples reactions from trying to guess a word” from the Pictionary Insights List with “People post terrible drawings to FB” from the Draw Something Viral list:
- Let the player send an emoticon to their FB friend based on the responses.
- Animate an explosion on the player’s drawing and post it to FB.
- Add a relationship meter between the friends much like sims social which changes each round. Post it to FB!
- Utilize the camera and take a video of people trying to solve the answer (ooo, new direction here!)
Tangent with Camera:
- Play taboo with the camera feature – Give the player 15 seconds to describe a word and send the video to the other player! Then record the player trying to answer it.
Combine “Pictureka” with “seeing people make mistakes:”
- Challenge your friend to brain games and watch as the other player flubs on really stupid questions!
- Challenge your friend to a simple speed based hidden object game, giggle when they tap the wrong stuff or don’t get the stuff you get right!
- Tap on the wrong stuff and it farts!
Oh! I remember that time I was playing that Typing FB game with my mother – every time she beat my high score I had to beat her right away! (Now how did I get to that tangent!)
- Make a typing game that uses a similar mechanic to the FB typing game.
Ooo, typing – spelling bees!
- Make a spelling bee game!
Select Top Ideas
Read through your ideas and select your favorites to turn into concepts. Start with the ideas that lead to a full game experience and not the smaller features. Which ideas most closely fit with your business objectives? Which ideas may be feasible to test quickly? Which directions most interest you? Again, don’t worry about feasibility at this point.
Make a list with a quick description of each idea and think of an interesting title for it. You should shoot for at least 50 of these.
Spelling With Me – make a spelling bee game to play against your friends.
Tabooeo – play taboo and watch stupid videos of your friends trying to describe the word in 15 seconds!
Brains With Friends – (sidetrack, zombies!) play speed-based brain games and see your friends’ ridiculous flubs played back.
When you have a bunch of solid ideas that you are excited about, start identifying the big concerns. Compare your ideas to successful games in the market, could it be as good as that? What’s missing? Think about solutions to overcome each of these problems. Keep going until you find a bunch of solutions for that idea, or drop it off the list when you just can’t find any. Keep asking, how else?
Problem with Spelling With Me: people can cheat by using a dictionary. How can we solve that?
add a timer so people don’t have the time to look it up
make them keep their attention on the screen by tapping different spots until they start typing
How can we turn it into an opportunity?
if the player spells the word faster, they’ll earn more points.
maybe we actually make it an anagram game! (Side-track, new idea!)
Start with the ideas that hold the most promise, have the least concerns and fit the Business Objectives well. Focus on the larger details first. Look for new patterns and insights and jot them down on your lists to explore at another time. Imagine the experience and work through a few different scenarios in your head. Think about it through the eyes of your end user. Even better, pick someone you know and imagine them playing the game, did they like it? Work through at least 25 ideas but ideally 50!
Cut the Non-Viable
Identify features that are off the table – these should only be features that are not technically feasible or don’t hit the Business Objectives. Don’t cut stuff just because you don’t think it’s fun or you’ve never experienced it before.
We can cut Tabooeo from the list - People would be too embarrassed to speak or act out the words on camera while in public settings. Our players want to play in public settings. Our goal is to focus on virality and this would significantly reduce virality.
Once you’ve decided on a few solid ideas it’s time to start a feedback loop with your peers. Think of this process as a road with many different forks ahead. When you get to each fork, define a narrower goal and perform another ideation process.
To select ideas to get feedback on, skim from the top of your lists and select the most promising 5-10. Spec them to a point where you can get appropriate feedback and stop. Don’t go any further than that or you’re wasting time.
Analyze their feedback and identify patterns of concerns and form new questions for your lists. Re-ideate, spec and get more feedback. Repeat this process until you and your peers have 3-5 different directions that seem promising. Then, find ways to prototype to further prove out the idea, get feedback, find new concerns, and ideate ways around them.
Often times your ideas just won’t work. You’ll need to learn when to drop them. For this reason, you should work on multiple ideas in tandem or risk wasting time. Plus this will fuel the creativity for the other ideas, help prevent you from getting fixated on one idea and provide work to do while allowing time for an idea to sink in and while waiting for feedback.
Prototype in tandem to prevent wasting time.
Eventually, you’ll find a winner or maybe even two!
Take a look at an article in the Harvard Business Review written by Business Designer, David Aycan: