How a simple list of emergent themes can save you time and money in your digital innovation work

LEGO bricks always come in handy on Lab Day. Here we prototyped a new budgeting experience.

A healthy start to digital innovation involves asking the right question and mapping out key pain points. There’s one more thing to do before starting hands-on design work: synthesize your ideation and learning into a simple list of Emergent Themes.

Emergent Themes

In our process, Emergent Themes is a single slide in a deck that has already captured problem statement, touchpoint insights, and design principles. Emergent Themes tries to draw signal from all the beautiful innovation noise, that flurry of empathetic activity that characterizes innovation. Most importantly, these plain-English themes help us have a conversation to answer a key question: “What piece of this problem should we focus on first as we start prototyping?”

A quick example. Recently we worked with a partner to enhance their digital strategy roadmap to improve early literacy outcomes in children ages 0 to 8. After three weeks of Drawing Boards and ground work, we identified a list of six emergent themes, key areas of opportunity for digital innovation:

  1. Sales and Marketing
  2. Educator Training & Professional Development with ongoing support
  3. Digital Delivery Platform & biz models
  4. Branding
  5. Expanding Reach
  6. Advocacy and Policy

We’d gained a ton of insight talking with our partner, their staff and customer touchpoints, and ourselves kicking around early ideas. This list synthesized all of that into one page. We then had a conversation that ended up moving Sales and Marketing, which in first draft was in the #4 slot, rise to #1. Without creating a list and asking the “What’s most important” question, sexy (in our case, the Digital Platform, which was #1 in first draft) is prone to subvert necessity (the need to first leverage digital simply to acquire more customers to the current product offering).

With this list, we spent our time on-site the following week rapid prototyping what mattered most: innovative new ways to pump up sales and marketing. Without the list, we could’ve have wasted plenty of time and money on the wrong thing.

Wisdom for building your emergent themes

A few things to note about an Emergent Themes list:

  • It’s a numbered list. Have the conversation not just about what the emergent themes are, but which ones are the most important for your touchpoints, the biggest opportunities for positive disruption.
  • It’s not a list of features. These are the Whys. The Whats and Hows will come later in the process. What this list will do is help focus your and your team’s energy on first thing, while allowing for second and third things in the wings. It’s the makings of an innovation roadmap!
  • It’s only as good as the conversation around it. When you talk Emergent Themes, bring data to the conversation, ask the hard questions, and think long-term. Again, sexy should not subvert necessity, and sometimes to pull of digital innovation, basic foundation must first be laid.
  • It’s a part of a larger process. This emerging themes step comes after defining the problem and empathizing with touchpoints and before unleashing creativity in rapid prototyping sessions. Else, you’ll either have nothing to synthesize, or potentially waste creative energy tackling the wrong piece of the problem.