(Im)practical ideation

Is there business value in allowing UX designers to pursue UX-driven ideation projects? If so, how much time? What kind of resources should be made available? What are the deliverables?

Google's well-known '20% doctrine, which allowed employees up to use up to 20% of their time to pursue their own Google-related ideas resulted in Gmail, Gmaps and Adsense. Other tech companies create space for formal employee hackathons. 

You might argue that a large part of a UX designer's work is ideation and is fully creative, and that's true, which may be why you don't see as many UX hackathons as you do developers'.

Ideation exercises during discovery research into a new technology can speed up UX's introduction to the technology and its possibilities before the inevitable narrowing of focus to the specific problems the business wants to solve. A short period of exploration and play makes it possible for the UX architect, researcher and designer to confidently proceed into a specific problem space with the peripheral vision of much more the technology's possibilities that they might otherwise have. That understanding of a technology's breadth of capabilities can spur innovative solutions.

Below are two examples of exploratory ideation exercises I engaged as part of my and my team's introduction to the Internet of Things a few years back. 



I paired up with Paul Sorenson, a veteran UX researcher at Intel to explore how people might use connected devices in surprising ways. Our goal was to find an idea we wanted to build from. We provided a group of research participants with picture cards of an array of items. They selected and connected items, then described the functionality they envisioned for these connected devices.

The themes were enhanced personal agency, health monitoring and efficiency in day-to-day tasks -everything from sunglasses to tell you when you need sunscreen, to a fridge that offered you ideas on what to eat dependent on the time of day you approached it. Many ideas were ingenious, all were practical. None of them, however, really struck either of us. As we were wrapping up for the day, Paul mentioned that his daughter was studying in France, and how much he missed seeing her. That got us thinking about human connection, and wondering if connected devices could be used to meet emotional, as well as practical needs.

After a few days of sketching and talking through what that device ensemble might be, what the use flows might be, I mocked up "Vyou" - a set of devices to allow families to share views of their worlds with each other. At its most hands off, Vyou would project the view from one user's window, via a tiny camera pointed outside their window, into a glass alarm clock on the bedside table of the the other user. I thought of how magical snow globes seem to us as children - the alarm clock would be like that - touch it and see whatever your loved one sees outside their window, see the time where you are, the time where they are:


The remote user could also snap pictures and record video or audio on their mobile phone, and send that through as well. Additional touch controls on the globe would both alert the user that more content was available and allow them to access it.

I mocked up the device set in Photoshop, we filmed a pitch video and presented it as  Kickstarter ad. 

We did this short exercise as part of our team's move into IoT product development. We gained insight into the mental model of IoT utility for one primary consumer group, and gave ourselves the opportunity to explore our own mental models of connected devices, which would help us more quickly identify the IoT projects where we could most effectively contribute.


Good Kitty

This goal of this exercise was to design a mobile app to control or influence a remote environment.

Developer Darryll DeCoster and I began talking about things in a home one might one to control in your home when you're not there. Lights? You can do that without a connected device. Temperature? Nest was already out.

What about cats? They're home when you're not, they get bored, they have claws. While Darryll investigated how we might track the cat, I set about designing a mobile app flow to allow the user to create a map of their rooms, and identify zones they want to be off-limits to their cat:


 The user would start by selecting the shape of a floor of their house, then pull handles into the shape to create the floor plan, select furnishings from a bin and move these around the floor plan until they were satisfied with it.


Then, they would identify off-limits zones through touch activation, and record an admonishment for the cat. The cat would were a little device on its collar to allow the app to track its movements through the rooms. When the cat remained on an off-limit area for more than a specified amount of time, the recorded admonishment would play through the user's at-home bluetooth speaker.


This short ideation exercise helped us reframe mobile use from an end in itself to an IoT controller with an immediacy of experience that allowed us to feel what a user might experience.. We could have accomplished the same goal by poring through documentation of what at that time was largely academic work into possible consumer use of connected devices (and we did a bit of that as well), but this head-first dive into design shortcut that process.