Making sure your team is working towards the same goal is critical in any work environment. And when you’re fully remote like us at InVision, you sometimes need to get creative to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Creativity is dependent on the remashing and remixing of ideas, and a good in-person creative ideation session is an incredible boon to a product team. But when you’re remote, you have to recreate the magic using real-time collaboration tools.
To do that, we use Freehand, our real-time whiteboarding tool. It’s fantastic for allowing independent thought and exploration in a collaborative space, and we rely heavily on it throughout the ideation and product design process.
But first, some preparation
Include the right people
Before we dive in, it’s important to understand that for all of these exercises you need to have the right people participating. These ideation exercises should contain a mix of personalities and titles and roles. Designers, PMs, Engineers, even sales folks and a stakeholder or two if you can snag the calendar time. The more divergent, creative, and outlandish your ideation is, the more successful and compelling your solution will likely be—and that requires more than just the design team
“Creativity is dependent on the remashing and remixing of ideas.”
Use Zoom (or another video chat service)
We’ve also found all of these exercises are most successful when accompanied by a video conference call. That way, you have many different ways for people to communicate, and they can chime in whatever way they feel most comfortable with. Some people feel confident speaking out loud, while others are more comfortable writing their thoughts down or even using illustrations to communicate.
Prepare a vision brief
A vision brief is a tool we use at InVision whenever we undertake a new project or feature. We define the problem to solve, set clear job stories to outline the user needs and pain points you’ve identified, clearly articulate why this problem is something worthy of investing in and set clear goals for success. Vision briefs are incredibly powerful tools to make sure our teams and stakeholders are aligned on goals, opportunities, problem statement(s) and any current knowledge or past exploration we have on the subject (research, customer conversations, past ideation). You can use the same template we do here.
And now, the exercises
#1: “How might we?”
“How might we” (HMW) questions are a way to frame the challenge you are trying to solve in short, compelling questions to spark ideation and purpose. Done well, HMW questions don’t suggest an explicit solution, but set a framework for creative thinking—this is an exercise to discover opportunities, not problems, pain points, or solutions. The questions should be broad enough that they don’t limit your creative thinking in any way but constrained enough that you have some guardrails on the exercise.
- First, explain the exercise to your group, and make sure you have a clear problem statement and vision brief to work off of. Think about your problem space and goal. Can you phrase the problem you’re trying to solve as a “How might we” question. For example, if our goal is to “Create an app that helps people remember when to water their houseplants”, you could turn that into an HMW by asking “How might we help users remember to water their houseplants?” “How might we account for the varying needs and environmental conditions required for different house plants?”
- Set a timer for five minutes, and let all the members of your ideation session break off and work individually to come up with as many “How might we?” questions as they can.
- Each question should be contained in a square on the Freehand canvas, and make sure to only put one idea per square. this is important as we’ll be moving these around later.
#2: Affinity mapping
Affinity mapping is how you can share and collate the work your ideation team has done through brainstorming or an HMW exercise. Building off of the same Freehand you started with for your HMW, participants share their questions, and the group works together to find commonalities and affinity between the questions and ideas at hand. At the end of the exercise, which can take 30-to-45 minutes, you will have clear themes and categories to build towards. It can take a little while, and lots of renaming theme headers, for a clear map to emerge, but keep at it!
- Going around the room, allow each ideation group member 2-3 minutes to read their HMW questions, and drag them to the columns on your canvas.
- After the third person has gone, begin grouping the HMW questions into categories. Anyone can do this! It’s good practice to talk through why you think questions belong together and allow for discussion from the group
- Keep going, allowing presenters to group their HMW questions as they see fit until all the individual questions asked are represented in your themed columns.
- If inspiration strikes as someone else is presenting, feel free to keep adding to the canvas—the more questions and ideas the better
Time to vote!
After you’ve completed your HMW and Affinity Mapping exercises, it’s time to vote on which areas are most compelling to your team. Now that you have clearly defined themes and categories, the voting step will help you focus and prioritize some of these activities. This step can be done pretty quickly, to force your team to make instinctive decisions rather than debating back and forth for a long time.
- Pull up your favorite online timer, and put three minutes on the clock.
- Each group member gets three, and only three, votes. We let people get creative with what they use for a dot—some people use emoji, some use small images or avatars, and some like to draw their own on the Freehand canvas. You can use anything you like, just make sure you use the same indicator for all three votes.
- Working at the same time, everyone goes through the individual HMW questions and places their vote on the ones that are most compelling to them. Votes should be on the questions, not the overall categories. It’s perfectly fine to vote for your own ideas, and if you feel really strongly, you can vote more than once as well
- After “time” is called, assess which HMW cards got the most votes
- Based on what’s most compelling to your team, you now have your key areas of impact to focus on as you continue to ideate and explore your problem space.
#3: Crazy Eights
Crazy 8’s is a sometimes chaotic quick sketching exercise aimed at challenging people to come up with eight individual ideas in eight minutes flat. This can be deceptively challenging, and the goal is to think beyond your first solution to come up with a wide array of divergent ideas. This can be intimidating to people who don’t identify as designers, so it’s important to reiterate that this is just a sketching exercise—the idea here is to communicate an idea, not a crisp UI execution. And most importantly, it’s okay if most of these ideas are terrible. Here at InVision, we strive to have a culture of accepting “bad ideas.” Bad ideas are just about sharing an idea and are an incredibly powerful way to think creatively and expansively, with the goal of inspiring others, allowing them to build on the idea, or to start a conversation that could end with a better idea.
- Give each team member a grid of eight squares
- Set a timer for eight minutes
- Each participant sketches one idea per square, filling all eight squares in your allotted eight minutes. You don’t have to spend exactly one minute per square, but by the end of your time, all eight squares should be filled.
- Depending on the problem you’re trying to solve, it can be helpful to have a scratchpad of reusable elements for people to use to create these ideas. Simple shapes, image placeholders, etc. can be useful to help communicate your ideas.
Time to vote again!
After your eight minutes are up, it’s time to share your ideas with the group and vote again. This should unfold much like the voting that took place on your HMW questions, except this time the goal isn’t to select individual ideas to move forward with, but rather to weed out any ideas that don’t serve your users or solve the problem well enough. Depending on how large your group is, this should take about 30-45 minutes. Give each individual 3-5 minutes to talk through their sketches, and then five minutes at the end for the voting.
- Going around the room, allow each participant 3-5 minutes to present their 8 solution sketches. It’s okay to ask questions during this time—make sure everyone truly understands the ideas on the table.
- Putting five minutes on the clock, everyone has five minutes to vote on the sketches and ideas they find most compelling. It’ll be easier if everyone uses the same voting signifier they used in the HMW exercise, but you can switch it up if you’d like.
- Again, it’s perfectly okay to vote for your own solutions or to place multiple votes on a single solution.
#4: The solution sketch
To collate all of the incredible, creative ideas your team has come up with so far, a solution sketch allows you to expand on the one idea you think is most compelling and likely to succeed. Each team member will create their own, and it can be an expansion on an idea they outlined in your crazy 8’s, a combination of ideas from the group, or even a brand new concept. The goal is to clearly articulate the solution each participant thinks will be most successful. It can contain multiple frames, a combination of words and sketches, and anything else people feel is necessary to communicate their idea.
- Set a timer for 30-60 minutes
- Using the same canvas, each participant creates a detailed sketch of their chosen solution. Use words, images; anything at your disposal to help you communicate your idea to your team.
- After time is up, go around the room again and have everyone present their solution in as much detail as possible. Asking questions is encouraged, as it helps get to the bottom of the proposed idea, and helps the group understand and buy into all the ideas on the table.
Using this process, our team has developed many of the products and features our users love. It’s helped us make sure that we incorporate input from all disciplines and departments and, most of all, it’s pretty fun!
I hope this helps your team’s process and teaches you more about Freehand! Read more about how the world’s best designers use Freehand: