The Over-Emphasis on ‘Ideas’ and ‘Ideation’ in Service Design — 6 Mistakes and Reframes

A hand holding an old style filament lightbulb up to a cloudy, evening sunlit sky
A metaphor for ideas: holding a lightbulb to the sky for no apparent reason…

Recently I’ve been pondering the narratives and practices around ‘ideas’ and ‘ideation’ that I see playing out in service design. This is based on my own experiences over the last five years or so, as well as observations of the conversations and framing in broader design practice and organizations.

I’ve increasingly felt like there are some tricky and unhelpful undercurrents going on around ‘ideation’, which are particularly tied to challenges around implementation and delivering on service design (especially beyond a digital implementation context).

Why is this happening? I have a few hunches:

  • Ideas and ideation feel like the fun, mysterious and magical part of the ‘creative process’ that can be very appealing and seductive to teams, executives and designers. Quite simply, we romanticize these bits.
  • Ideas are easy, and the other stuff (working with constraints, prototyping, testing) can be really hard, like roll up your sleeves nitty gritty unglamorous hard. They also require buy in and conditions that are sometimes harder to procure than buy in for an ‘ideation session.’
  • New ideas are more appealing than the grunt work of maintenance, when arguably what we really need is more maintenance. (‘No new ideas until everything is fixed’ — Lou Downe, Good Services)
  • The more designers work in high complex services and systems, the more fuzzy and slippery constraints become. We are struggling to adequately identify, frame, and work with constraints within practices like service design, and that spills over into how we approach ideas and ideation.

To be clear, I do think that ideation can have value, and is an important part of the design process. However, I feel there is a lot of room to grow, reframe and refine the ways in which we are practicing this part of the process as service designers, based on my experiences.

The following is an (non-exhaustive) attempt to get my thinking down. These are all strong opinions, loosely held. I hope it goes without saying that in writing something like this, generalisations are a tool that can help us to zoom out. Design is by nature incredibly context dependent and nuanced, so none of the following is intended to be a declaration of a universal truth.

Mistake: Seeing the very real need for radical and novel thinking in many orgs and erroneously pinning our hopes and dreams on ‘ideation’ to deliver this.

Reframe: The radical and novel thinking we are hoping for is a slow cultural and mindset shift, which is about shifting the framing within which orgs operate and deliver in towards ones rooted in a different value set.

We are very fixated on ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ and are often selling design as a process that can drive towards these outcomes. The reality is that for many organizations, the pre-conditions for ‘innovation’ are not in place, and much as the org may see the need to ‘innovate,’ the day to day bureaucracy, culture and hierarchy is a very real impediment. It’s hard to break out of, or even see, the ‘water’ that you swim in every day.

Ideation sessions are not the root of innovation. Shifting fundamental business models and ways of operating is very hard to do deliberately, especially for organizations who have many layers of organizational sediment and history built up. A lot of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ happens when start ups enter the market with an entirely different framing or mindset — for example, digitally native, ‘sharing’ or platform economy models such as ride sharing.

The work of design is to quietly, persistently and gradually participate in sowing the seeds of this shift. This is done through culture change — bringing customer’s lived experiences to light, valuing lived experience and intelligence of front line service staff, practicing new, collaborative and visual ways of working, and inviting new conversations and relationships. Ideation is one tiny piece of this puzzle.

Mistake: Expecting ideation (with stakeholders or customers) to yield quality, radical, and novel ideas.

Reframe: understand ideation’s role in building shared context, assessing what’s palatable to stakeholders, and expanding the possible solution space.

It’s understandable for people to feel excited about ‘all getting in a room together to come up with ideas and solve this problem.’ This can feel like the magic, mysterious, ‘creative’ part of the creative process that we have seen depicted on Mad Men, the myth of the writers room etc. We will all throw ideas around until something magical and unexpected emerges.

The mad men creative team comprised of 5 men, sitting around a boardroom table with a collage of inspiration on the wall
The mad men creative team comprised of 5 men, sitting around a boardroom table with a collage of inspiration on the wall
The cultural trope of the ‘creative process’ and where good ideas come from. Typically a room full of men and their genius brains I suppose.

However, ideation rarely yields ideas that are particularly ‘new’ or even ‘good.’ The process usually surfaces a lot of the ‘usual suspects’. This can lead to people feeling disappointed or deflated that the outputs are not the magical innovation wonder drug they were hoping for. I’ve seen people really crestfallen at the realisation that the ideas from the session are really not that good, and this goes back to the expectation setting and storytelling we are doing about ideation.

What ‘ideation’ is good for is continuing to create a shared context and understanding of the challenge space, through exploring it together. It’s also a great opportunity to further understand the perceived limits and boundaries of the solution space, by getting people to share their thinking on how to solve the challenge. Further, it can be a great opportunity to deepen buy in and relationships, especially with large cross functional teams, in anticipation of the conditions needed for implementation.

Mistake: Taking customer co-created ideas at face value.

Reframe: Customer ideas are a form of research and understanding needs.

Something I often see in service design is having high expectations for the quality and value of ideas that customers/users come up with. A lot of emphasis and excitement placed on running elaborate workshop sessions with customers that include ideation exercises, prompts and framing (idea mashup! Inspiration cards! lego!). (Mostly, in my experience, customers come up with the idea of ‘an app’, because they are rooted in the framing of the present. Most of the time, we are not encouraged or given permission to be lateral/outside the box thinkers and it’s quite challenging for people to just switch that on in a workshop on demand.)

Co-creation and ideation with customers has huge value, however (in most cases) this should be seen as a form of research and a way of going deeper in understanding underlying needs and motivations, rather than a way of generating concepts of solutions. This is well illustrated by the supposed ‘faster horses’ Henry Ford quote — it’s not our job to go and build a faster horse, it’s to understand the underlying need of more efficient travel and then solve for the need from that frame.

Side note: I think there is a whole other post here around generative research versus true co-creation or participatory design, and the dressing up of very shallow ‘co-creative’ sessions as a true participatory process. Setting up a participatory process requires a complete shift in power dynamics and frames of contribution.

Mistake: Asking stakeholders to ideate from the customer’s perspective.

Reframe: Enable people to ideate/solution from their own unique understanding of the challenge space, drawing on their expertise

There can be a conflation of the role of ‘cross functional teams’ and the idea that people should try to come up with ideas and solutions to a challenge from the customer’s perspective. I’ve been part of customer workshops where a well intentioned desired to have cross functional representation of service stakeholders and exposure to customers has led to some weird dynamics in which everyone is supposedly solving for a customer need, but other service actors can’t let go of their perspective (understandably) and ‘correct’ the customer on what they think. Disaster!

Much as we might think we are empathetic and good at stepping into others’ shoes, it’s generally counter productive to ask people to ideate or solution from a perspective other than their own. Yes, we should aim to cultivate an understanding of the customer/user experience and underlying needs and motivation, and maybe even the ‘e’ word (empathy). However, most especially for people deeply embedded in the service (from the frontline to executives and everyone in between) are best positioned to contribute from their perspective and expertise. And that should be encouraged rather than distorted.

Mistake: A heavy emphasis on ‘blue sky’ ideation, with the goal of getting to novel ideas, or helping people to think beyond their current frames.

Reframe: Knowing how and when to introduce constraints, and working with the challenge of appropriately and meaningfully framing ‘idea’ or solution development.

We’ve all come across some variations on the rules of brainstorming, including things like ‘defer judgement’, ‘encourage wild ideas’ or ‘quantity over quality’. And it’s true that it can be important to carve out space for truly unconstrained generative thinking — this is a different mode than ‘editing’ or ‘judging’. And it is also true that it can be helpful to provide a sandbox for stakeholders to play in, free from some of the day to day concerns and constraints they are hemmed in by. However, ‘outside the box thinking’ is a muscle we need to build, and this usually is a slow-burn mindset shift rather than something you magically enable in one session.

I think the challenge we are often facing in service design is the skill and training to:

  1. Translate blue sky ideas to feasible, implementable interventions
  2. Know how and when to introduce constraints and come up with approaches within those constraints

How many times have I seen things break down when ideas produced by customers within a ‘blue sky’ frame then get put through some kind of prioritization or ranking that assesses effort or impact. There are a few issues at play here, one being the attempt to fit things conceived beyond the bounds of feasibility into a feasibility assessment, and the other being attempting to prioritize concepts that often exist at a limited level of specificity or granularity.

Accurate scoping and assessment of ideas requires a level of granularity we are often not achieving in workshops where the outputs might be at the level of verbally described ideas, words or sketched on post its, or perhaps ‘concept’ worksheets or at best rudimentary prototypes.

Ideas coming out of these sessions need to go through a further translation and exploration process in order to turn them into something meaningful to then prototype and test.

Mistake: Ideating without prototyping and testing.

Reframe: Ideation, experience prototyping and testing need to non-negotiably go hand in hand in order to unlock the value of this part of the design process.

In my experience, there’s often so much emphasis on, and build up to, ideation and the outputs of ideation, that somehow we lose the importance of prototyping and testing. There can be so much excitement around ‘let’s share and present the ideas that customers came up with’ that it stops there. Ideation at best sows the seeds for potential exploration through making and testing.

The leap from an ‘idea’ on a post-it to a testable prototype is where the true challenge lies, the proof is in the prototype pudding! Bringing the idea to life in a way that someone can try it and interact with it, where observable behaviour comes into play, is in itself a further iteration of the idea, and a step closer to something real (and eventually implementable). Being clear, I do not mean an ‘imagine like’ prototype such as a sketch or storyboard, I mean an ‘experience prototype’ that enables a tester/user to experience, use and play with the prototype themselves.

“When we use the term ‘experience prototyping’ we are talking about methods that allow designers, clients or user to ‘experience it themselves,’ rather than witnessing a demonstration or someone else’s experience.”

Marion Buchenau and Jane Fulton Suri on experience prototyping, quoted in This is Service Design Doing

Very low fidelity or early imagine like prototypes are often the outputs of ideation, and it seems we are often missing the translation step of taking these ideas, making some bets on which to try, and then truly developing and testing experience prototypes.

Ideas are Abundant and Low Value

I think it’s time to rethink and reframe ideation within the service design process, and reset our expectations of what this part of the design process is really for and its limitations.

I hope this set of reframes gives you some food for thought. Onwards!

Thank you to Spencer Beacock for conversations and ideas that informed this thinking.

Originally published at on May 5, 2020.

Independent Service Designer. I ❤ glitter, cats, and deadlifting. Previously @Bridgeable @UsabilityMatters.

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