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I work for a smaller startup, and for the past several months we've been conducting weeklong "Design Sprints" which are a great group product exercise based on an idea from Google Ventures.

While these have proven fruitful, they seem to be most helpful when solving a particular problem in an established product. When used for defining the undefined, they tend to produce an abundance of features.

Are there other group brainstorming exercises for defining products?

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While I like the question, it falls outside of the guidelines for this site. There is no real "answer" to it, just a discussion. –  JohnGB Feb 21 '13 at 3:17
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I think that can be fixed by removing "that others prefer". Asking if there are group brainstorming exercises for product design purposes seems like a valid question. –  DA01 Feb 21 '13 at 5:43
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@DA01 Took your word for it and edited this question! –  Benny Skogberg Feb 21 '13 at 7:11
    
You might want to check out Jared Spools recommended process for these type of challanges: uie.com/articles/never_before_design –  Tony Bolero Feb 21 '13 at 13:25
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6 Answers 6

When used for defining the undefined, they tend to produce an abundance of features.

It sounds like you're doing well on the brainstorming part--great!--and need a process for refining and selecting which ideas to implement. Here are three quick ideas:

  1. Prioritize the features based two axes, for example, "impact to our customers" vs. "difficulty to implement". Then you can prioritize the high-impact / low-effort ideas, and deliver value as quickly as possible. The rest of the ideas are still around, and you can get to them later if they are more valuable than ideas you come up with in the meantime.

  2. Go back to user tasks and use cases, and see which new ideas really fit into both

    • what users are trying to do, and
    • what your vision is for the project.

    Sometimes this means really cool ideas end up spawning their own product, rather than getting used in this product, and that's fine.

  3. Have a design charrette to investigate the designs. Mock up every one of those ideas--very, very cheaply. E.g., draw a screenshot on a square sticky note using a thick marker, or a workflow by chaining them together. Then, go through them with users and other folks not on the design team.

    Just going through this exercise can help weed out the ideas that aren't truly feasible, and going through the workflows with a user or user surrogate can help figure out which ought to be a priority.

Having too many ideas for features is a great problem to have!

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I've found some of the http://innovationgames.com/ to be useful for this sort of thing. In particular the product box game.

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You might be interested in checking the Design Thinking process. It was made popular by the founders of IDEO.

A methodology for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result. Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is a creative process based around the "building up" of ideas.

Some interesting links:

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Group brainstorming (which may not be that useful anyway) is probably not the best approach when looking to discover what kinds of new products or features might be useful to people. Why? Because you're a bunch of stakeholders sitting in a room. You're not your users, and you're not in the environments your users are. Your only real tools are anecdotal experience and hand-waving.

Consider in contrast behavioral observation. Find a group of your target customers and observe what they do and how they work. See where their pain points are, then build a product that addresses them. There are lots of well-established techniques for approaching this, like ethnographic observation or cultural probes. You can even go the lazy route and do marketing research, which will at least tell you what people want, if not what they actually need.

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I should have added that the design exercises we've been conducting so far are based on customer research, and the results are then tested and evaluated with customers once again to validate product and design decisions. –  Matt Feb 20 '13 at 18:44
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Please also consider TRIZ:

TRIZ is "a problem-solving, analysis and forecasting tool derived from the study of patterns of invention in the global patent literature".1 It was developed by the Soviet inventor and science fiction author Genrich Altshuller and his colleagues, beginning in 1946. In English the name is typically rendered as "the theory of inventive problem solving"

The theory includes a practical methodology, tool sets, a knowledge base, and model-based technology for generating new ideas and solutions for problem solving.

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The approach is quite specific but core ideas are universal and can be used.

The combination of all of these concepts together – the analysis of the contradiction, the pursuit of an ideal solution and the search for one or more of the principles which will overcome the contradiction, are the key elements in a process which is designed to help the inventor to engage in the process with purposefulness and focus.

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Even though you mentioned that you are defining for the undefined, you would have certain restrictions such as the choice of technology, the platform you are targeting, the user base, the timeline and the budget. The steps which we try to follow are as follows:

  1. Highlight the problem statement (if available) or the user group you are trying to target along with the research you have which mentions that these people have a specific need
  2. Highlight the constraints you have such as the technology,platform etc
  3. Have someone as a moderator - The role of the moderator is not to curtail the ideas a person might have but to ensure that the group doesnt go along a tangent with an idea or a group of ideas which are inherently unfeasible
  4. Break people into groups : This can be helpful as people then can come up with ideas aided with inputs from others and also remain on course with the restrictions which might be there
  5. Ask each group to talk through the ideas they have and the potential impact on the product and how it might influence the user base
  6. Prepare a summary list of ideas
  7. Analyze the list of ideas on basis of these categories

    • Customer need and potential impact
    • Alignment with the goal of the product or application
    • Alignment with company goal
    • Technical feasibility within timelines and budget
    • Integration of ideas with each other i.e. how do they fit into the user flow as the user uses the product
  8. Sort the list of ideas on Must haves,nice to haves and potential phase II features

  9. Work on creating a minimum viable product prototype for initial usability testing.

Note : I might get shouted at for insisting that you highlight the technical and timeline constraints which might restrict the creativity of the ideas but I have found that calling out the restrictions before hand itself helps the group towards generation of focussed ideas which are in sync with the potential user base or problem statement.

I also recommend looking at collaborative parallel design. To summarize the process:

  1. Identify a problem to work on.
  2. Gather together a team of participants.
  3. Introduce the participants to one another.
  4. Review the requirements and evaluation criteria for a design problem.
  5. Design independently for 10 minutes.
  6. Present all participants’ design ideas to the team, allowing each participant 5 minutes. Others can ask clarification questions, if necessary.
  7. This is not a critical review session! Instead, evaluate through iteration.
  8. Repeat the design and presentation cycle at least four times, ensuring each participant builds on at least one idea someone else has presented.
  9. Have a group discussion about the final designs.
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