Brainstorming new ideas

Originally written for the Design Collective

I Have No Idea What I'm Doing | Know Your Meme

Many times, the ideas I come up with turn out to be pretty bad.

From Uber…but for Dogs(hell yeah!) to an app that allows you to simulate handshakes with friends during the pandemic, I’m always throwing darts at the dartboard, and I’m accustomed to receiving the harshest of feedback from my friends. (ex. “David, this idea is stupid nobody would ever do this” — my friend Neeha listening to my pitch while we stand in line for ice cream).

So why am I so proud of having so many bad ideas? It’s because for the millions of bad ideas and wrong corners I turn to, there will inevitably be one diamond in the coal mine that I can latch on to — I can just feel it!

Especially when it comes to men, Society is really enamored with the “lone genius” persona who somehow experiences a EUREKA! moment that immediately results in the invention of nuclear fission. This is bullshit.

Rather the ideation process is all about constant failure and refinement until you’re satisfied. It’s about sucking in all the inspiration from the world around you until your lungs are about to burst before slowly puffing out a few promising leads that you can pursue and iterate upon.

Below, you’ll find some methods I personally use to brainstorm new ideas as a product manager that focus on how we can improve the software we use everyday in meaningful ways~

Here we gooooo 🚀


Consider the different possible users

Think of any piece of software you use. There may very well be millions of people from around the world using the exact same UI that you are! Every user has different needs, pain points, and jobs-to-be-done when they login. 

Consider putting yourself in the shoes of others and re-evaluating whether other people use the app in the same way that you do [spoiler: they don’t]. Or, what if a certain subset of users has a very specific need that hasn’t been met yet? There are always new ways that companies can keep catering to their many different users’ infinite needs~

For example, tech companies often overlook making software accessible for those with disabilities. What are features you currently use that might be cumbersome for those who are deaf or blind? Or how about those who are color-blind or have trouble focusing?

Research Competitors

Look “around” and you’ll notice that there isn’t just ONE music streaming app or a SINGLE way to meet your future partner online. Nearly every app and website you use has a close competitor that offers a similar service or value proposition. The way these competing products may differ is by creating new features that others don’t have, making the user experience extremely easy to use, and much more.

Consider examining the apps you use in your daily life and learning about what their competitors do. What does this competitor do better than your own app? What do they do worse? Think about what lessons you can learn from an app’s competitor and envision how you can bring these insights to improve the app you originally use!

For example, Netflix and Disney Plus have long had user profiles, which allow you to share your account with family+friends. Amazon Prime Video has recently announced that they are now doing this too (a little late to the party but oh well).

...remember how Instagram added “stories” to their own platform? Snapchat remembers😉

Figure out the story+values behind the product

Every team behind a product has a compelling mission statement, followed by a set of core values, that they use as a guide for building out their new features. This all may sound corny...but getting at the core of what a company cares about the most will ground your design challenge in reality as something they might actually build one day! 

I remember when I was interviewing for a product role at Lyft when I pitched them on a new Discovery feature that shows riders points of interest (nearby coffeeshops, etc) located nearby their drop-off point. It turns out they were already working on this!

Here’s another example: Twitter’s mission statement is to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers. To accomplish this mission, Twitter values healthy and safe conversations online so everybody can be empowered to use the platform without fear of hurting their personal wellbeing. 

This core value of promoting healthy conversation has led Twitter to build new features such as prompting users to read news articles before retweeting and choosing who can reply to your tweets.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

Aside from using your design challenge to create a new feature from scratch, try considering what already exists and how it can be improved!

While you examine various parts of an app, consider the intended goal behind a given feature and whether that goal is being accomplished effectively. For example, let’s say you’ve opened a restaurant’s menu on UberEats and are having trouble using it to find local Szechuan restaurants in your area. Assuming the goal of this UI is to help users find relevant restaurants, how could you redesign this area to better solve for the users’ needs?

Perhaps there are exciting features in an app that are being underutilized. What a tragedy! This can happen for many reasons. Is it difficult for users to find? Maybe the feature is “surfaced” at the wrong part of the user journey? Or perhaps the feature itself is really confusing/difficult to use? Think about how you can use design to drive more usage for specific parts of an app.

Remember: bad things can always be made good, while even good features can be made great! 

Read the Room

At the time of writing this article, there’s A LOT happening in the world right now.

From a global pandemic that perpetuates inequality to the Black community fighting for their basic right to live, you MUST always think about the context that surrounds your ideas.

For example, Snapchat released a new filter for Juneteenth that prompts users to “smile” in order to break the chains of oppression. Having empathy and understanding for why and how your ideas can be abused or misconstrued is vital to making sure that a bad idea isn’t TERRIBLE.

In addition to using your understanding of the world to vet your ideas, you can also use it as an inspiration to cater to people’s new preferences and more immediate needs.

For example, many professionals on LinkedIn have been speaking out about oppression in the workplace and not being allowed to bring their true selves to work. In response, LinkedIn now shows “Black voices to follow and amplify” in your suggestions and lets you upload audio clips of how to pronounce your name!

Another example is the rise of Netflix Party during a time when we can no longer hangout IRL. It’s a chrome extension that allows you to watch Netflix together with your friends and provide commentary in real-time! Hulu caught on to this and already made this a native feature in their own service. Your move, Netflix…

Fin.

When it comes to brainstorming a new idea that you can latch onto, the process is rarely ever linear. Many days you’ll go in all sorts of different directions and feel like you hit a wall. I totally get that!

Aside from the things that we talked about today, the most important nugget of wisdom that I’ve taken to heart is to focus on developing a compelling story around your idea. Being able to have others understand the “so what?” behind your idea makes all the difference in it being taken seriously.

Sure, anybody can come up with just any idea. But if you can develop an idea with a relatable narrative behind it, you’ll be one step closer to bringing it to life~

*Whispers in microphone* …”Yeah, uh thanks for coming to my TED talk!”