By Dylan Hensby
UX Designer at Vogl and Blake Research Consultants
Ideation can be a scary process. The unpredictable nature of creativity combined with different personality types in the room, and the pressure of coming up with a good idea, can be overwhelming. This is where incorporating bad ideas into your ideation process can help keep things fun and light and open up a space for good ideas to flow through. There are many methods for using bad ideas. I outline two common approaches below. But firstly, why is this technique valuable?
Why use bad ideas as a methodology?
Firstly, asking participants (whether users or teammates) to come up with their worst ideas possible opens up emotional space within the room. They can breathe a sigh of relief. They don’t need to come up with the next world changing idea. This technique allows participants to feel safe to contribute to the discussion without judgment from their peers. This can be particularly effective when working with diverse and vulnerable groups of people, an area we specialise in. Additionally, even if nothing notable comes up during the bad ideas exercise, the relaxed and fun nature of this method can help your team carry momentum into the next one.
Secondly, this method can produce great ideas. They often just need a little tweaking. And sometimes the idea can be more of a Frankenstein’s monster, a combination of bad ideas that nobody would have thought of unless they took this approach. These bad ideas can also act as a great (and fun!) starting point for experimentation. By knowing these aren’t great ideas from the outset, the natural design process of failure and iteration can take place with curious detachment, rather than the team or individual taking the failure personally. Below are two great starting points to incorporate using bad ideas into your design process.
Method #1: ‘Worst Idea Ever’
This first method is all about using bad ideas as inspiration for good ones. This version comes from Burca Arsoy’s method from UX Collective and can be tweaked however to your liking.
Take a sheet of paper and write down, at the top, the collective problem your team is trying to solve. Then underneath come up with the worst solution you can think of to solve that problem. You can be as silly and creative as you like, and feel free to use pictures, text, diagrams etc. Once you’re done, write why it’s a bad idea underneath.
For example, the problem my team is trying to solve is that too many people are running at train stations. My bad solution for this idea is that we could hire members from local rugby teams to patrol and tackle anyone who tries to run for their train. This is a bad idea because people would get hurt, it’s legally dubious, and it would be extremely expensive.
Now pass that sheet to the person on the left, who in turn passes theirs. Now your job is to make the solution in front of you even worse. Like before, after you’re done write why your solution makes this idea worse.
For example, to make this rugby idea even worse, we could set up cameras to record and televise these tackles to other people waiting on the platform. This would provide entertainment for them while they are waiting for their train. This makes this idea even worse because it’s humiliating, and likely breaches privacy laws.
Pass the sheets around one more time. Now you should have a sheet in front of you that has a bad idea and an even worse idea. Now it’s time to come up with the worst idea possible. How can you make this idea truly terrible? Combine the worst parts of the first two ideas to come up with the ultimate bad idea.
For example, a truly terrible idea would be to pass on this footage to the local tv station, where it can be broadcast during half-time breaks at the football, and people can vote on the best tackle using their smartphones. The rugby guard who wins gets a prize and a paid vacation overseas!
After everyone has come up with their worst idea ever, each group member takes turns reading their sheet aloud to the rest of the group. This is where the group can discuss (and laugh) at the ideas and discuss why they are so bad, and what could be changed to make them good. Make sure to record the discussion for later use.
If we take a look back at the rugby example, maybe it’s worth exploring the self-consciousness angle. If people knew they were going to be televised (and tackled!) when they ran, they would care more about how they look to other people. Is there a way that we could make these people who run for trains more self-conscious and see how they look from their fellow commuters’ eyes? These bad ideas can act like little seeds that have the potential to start lines of enquiry that can lead in all sorts of different directions.
Method #2: ‘Starting With Bad Ideas’
This method can be described as more of a general approach than a method. It’s about using a bad or rough idea as a starting point for the design process. This idea is then rapidly tested and improved upon. Working with a bad idea in this way encourages failure to happen quickly and less painfully. And by failing early it helps illuminate problems before they become headaches later on. It also encourages experimentation and creativity within the team. If failure is not only accepted, but encouraged, then the pressure to come up with good ideas is reduced and creativity can flow. Joe Brown from IDEO highlights an example of a company who used this method to great success.
This company was growing rapidly and their customer support could not keep up. They hired more support agents but they didn’t have enough time to train them properly before they started working the phones. These new agents had countless questions but they didn’t want to look bad to their supervisors and peers. Because of this the customer experience suffered.
This is where they decided to have some fun with it and experiment. Their first idea was the bat signal. If a support agent needed help, they could activate a bright flashing light that would light up across the floor. They knew it was a pretty bad idea, and it failed quickly. It made agents even more self-conscious. So they iterated. They tried having managers who would be on patrol to monitor the lights. This didn’t work. Then they switched to a private chat which connected to experts directly from different departments. That didn’t work either.
Then they tried what they called the ‘bat chat’. They created a chat room for all of the agents across the floor, guessing that the veteran agents would be able to answer most of the new agents’ questions. This is when they hit success. New agents felt safe to ask questions because they could see other people doing the same, and it also created a database that agents can search through to see if their question had already been answered. This was all achieved because the design team at this company gave themselves permission to start with a less-than-ideal solution and to see where it took them.
So, when it comes to ideation don’t discount the bad ideas. Use these methods to turn them into something useful. Or at least to provide your team an opportunity to have some fun and a laugh or two along the way, which can make all the difference.
Arsoy, B. “Make a change: ideate for bad ideas” 2 Aug 2018. Retrieved from https://uxdesign.cc/do-a-change-and-ideate-for-bad-ideas-8b18a295e26b
Brown, J. “To Build a Culture of Experimentation, Start With Bad Ideas” 4 Oct 2018. Retrieved from https://www.ideo.com/blog/to-build-a-culture-of-experimentation-start-with-bad-ideas
Fauxels. “Photo Of Laptops On Top Of Wooden Table” [IMAGE] 5 Nov 2019. Retrieved from https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-laptops-on-top-of-wooden-table-3183151/
Cottonbro. “Person Holding a Pen” [IMAGE] 7 April 2021. Retrieved from https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-holding-a-pen-7428222/
Yau, B. “Woman Placing Post-It Note” [IMAGE] 5 Oct 2021. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/OO_FvH7IEsU