As both a writer and UX practitioner, I have the need to generate divergent ideas, sort through them and converge them into something great.
You might even call it innovation.
When writing a story I need to sort through my ideas before hitting the keys. In both writing and innovation there are a million techniques, and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. I’m going to share one technique that I have used in both writing and UX that just may work for you. Regardless of the type of problem you have, you can use this activity to help you work through it.
It combines three things I love: walking (exercise), music and the outdoors. I like to call it…
The Idea Walk.
I’ve used this technique to sort through graphic novel concepts, user experience problems and most recently to help complete my first Science Fiction novel Blanchland Blues (currently being shopped to publishers.) It’s a process of starting with what I call “seed ideas,” evaluating them, diverging/converging and then repeating the process. Let’s begin!
Plant a seed, grow an idea
The core process is simple and repeatable. You can evaluate your idea on however many criteria you want. Take at look at the flow, and I’ll walk you through the process.
Talk to yourself!
I love to get outdoors and have a good hour walk to do this whenever possible. But I’ll do it in shorter bursts (even 10–15 minutes) if needed. I also enjoy matching music to the mood of what I’m writing or the problem I’m trying to solve. It’s usually thematic music (like movie scores), jazz or ambient. For super complex problems, I may skip the music. How you do it is up to you.
If you’re writing, you’re telling yourself a story. It might be a chapter, but it’s likely more at the scene level. You could also use this while world building. For example, problems like “how would hyperspace really work?” or “what effect does the sand and dust of this colony have on the surface rover?”
If it’s a design problem, you’re telling yourself about the solution. (And of course you’re being user-centered, right?)
Why talk to yourself — isn’t that sort of weird? Maybe. I’ve found the process of both trying to tell myself the story AND hearing it really helps approach it in a unique way. It’s almost like watching a movie. Which means…
Pay attention to your own reactions.
This is how you’re going to diverge, sift and finally land on the working idea. What objections come up? What are your gut reactions? Are other ideas generated? To me the last one is key. I’ll often find that my good seed ideas generate lots of possibilities and connect to other parts of the story.
What have we got?
Once you’ve rolled the idea around in your mouth, you need to evaluate if you should continue to water the seed. The number of criteria you use to evaluate your idea is up to you and likely dependent on many factors. Here are the general ones I use when writing:
- Is it true to the character? If John is a selfish person, would he immediate act altruistically without undergoing some kind of change?
- Does it break other ideas? I think of this as continuity. Does this cause problems elsewhere? Do I have to go back and fix/change things?
- Is it a “broken idea?” This is a general bucket for reasons why it just won’t work. A couple quick examples: the idea has been explored in another book done well, and I’m not doing something better/different, or the idea would cause the story to go down a path I want to tread.
- Do I like it/can it be better? Fiction is subjective, even for the writer! I’m not going to write something about a character, setting or situation that I don’t like, unless it leads to something better. I’m not talking about bad characters doing awful things. I simply mean “do I like this idea.” Maybe I think I can do better. Maybe it’s just not all that interesting.
Pass or Fail?
If it fails a criteria, see if you can modify it to fix it. If you can replace the original seed with a modified one, put it back in the flow (it’s really a new modified seed.) Evaluate again.
But there has to be a point where you kill ideas. I’ve noticed both in writing and in design that when trying to innovate, people often want to brainstorm and ideate forever. There’s a fear of converging too soon and “losing” a good idea.
Personally I subscribe to Stephen King’s philosophy that the truly good ideas don’t go away. And if they do, then they weren’t that good. Maybe not everyone can work that way (and I see nothing wrong with writing down ideas) but I think you’ll find that mentally working through things has a way of making good ideas stick. King is also someone who walks to think through his ideas (and had his unfortunate accident while doing so — be careful where you walk!)
If it’s not working, it goes in the can. The goal here is progress.
Build on your success.
When the idea survives the chopping block of your criteria, you’ve got something to work with! These are the things on my walk I’ll make mental notes of (or you can record a voice memo on your phone) as a keeper.
It’s usually an exciting and satisfying moment. Use that energy and build on it! What comes after? That’s the next seed. Put it through the same process. You might even think of the two things together in that way, which might lead you to modify/iterate and improve each idea.
You can keep putting your string of ideas back into the seed and see how much you can build. I’ve put some pretty long strings of ideas together in this way. The session can be as short or as long as you like.
It really works.
It’s rare that I go for one of these walks and not come back itching to write. If I don’t have writing time available, I’ll at least jot down a quick bullet list of things I learned. Then I’ll use that list for my next writing session.
Looking for a new way to generate and work through ideas? Need a different activity to come up with new or innovative ideas? Try out this technique. It’s probably not for everyone, and as an idea generating/innovation technique it bucks the trend a bit by being a solo effort and taking place only in your mind.
But innovation is about trying things differently, right? :)
Let me know how it works for you.
Tom Dell’Aringa is a writer and UX practitioner living in the Chicago area. He’s published four graphic novels, two short stories and has a science fiction novel in representation. You might spot him walking through your neighborhood with headphones on talking to himself, working out his next story. He’s on Twitter and has a Facebook group.