Vasiliy Leytman
Mar 5, 2015 · 14 min read

Killing the magic of ideation was never my intention, but I turned 30 and still didn’t find any idea for an app. It was uh… disappointing ;)

So I searched for some shortcuts to ideate faster.

Here are some that really work.

I wished to have my own app since the first iPhone was out. App success stories and founder interviews became my favorite evening reads, a remedy from daily routine. I sat back and about some photo sharing app, a Yo-style messenger, whatever… Something to make me famous overnight, get me speaking at conferences and chilling on big villa somewhere in a warm climate, with an all-star team. The only problem was the lack of some killer idea, relevant enough and non-existent at the same time. I waited an “eureka moment” for years, but still, most ideas of mine didn’t seem to become another famous Instagram, nor some lucky bullshit like Yo ;) I even did some market research and audience analysis and all that marketing mumbo-jumbo — not to waste time waiting for some god-send insight… No luck.

Fortunately enough, my middle age crisis punched my head better than any Newton apple could. So after some struggle, I found an approach, that really works for me, and to the point — for some of my friends too. It’s not fully universal, but undoubtedly fun and it swiftly gets you a lot of high-quality ideas — and yes, I mean a lot.

The article is about getting some ideas — not the whole ideation process, that surely consists of validation, user testing, competitor analysis, and so on. I will make another 3 or 4 articles about that later.


The old way

I was freelancing for almost a decade, and did a lot of ideation. Either when I wanted to come up with something totally new, or when I already had some basis and sought some details to make it more unique, I always started my search with one of common approaches:

  1. Market-oriented — “I should know what market wants”.
    That’s about examining App Store popular categories, reading some App Annie or TrendWatching reports, or thoroughly filling out competitor analysis spreadsheets — whatever feels more like getting to know the market needs.
  2. User-oriented — “I should know what my audience wants”.
    Finding some mystical audience. Trying to understand what, where and how they’re used to consume, and guessing their next dream.

Either way, I tried to imagine something external — and failed, as it rarely resonated with my internal part. So the change I needed was:

  1. To use problem-oriented approach instead.
  2. Then to use right kind of brainstorming. I tried a lot of different methods to the point, but they didn’t work well.
  3. Only then should I start with competition analysis and an audience test. As if you’d analyze the competition before you have your own ideas, it heavily narrows a range of solutions you could find. Quite contrary, having some ideas ready beforehand helps you choose the best solution out of good ones.

Going problem-oriented

Nothing new here, as user-oriented approach is usually problem-based one too. The change is to start with your own problems, not someone else’s. Why? I always lived with a “customer is always right” and “you’re not your audience” mottos in mind. It worked fine with clients, but when you are the client, things do change. Starting with other people in mind can help you find problems (and solutions) both trendy and cool, but they will likely miss inspiration and passion. To put it simplier — they won’t be enough yours. Why it’s so important? There are two explanations.

Logical one is — working with your own problems, struggles and most importantly fears gives you innate, endless source of energy. Primary burst of enthusiasm always gets replaced with necessities to work hard and do some boring stuff. Being motivated from the deep inside always keeps you head up, no matter the hardships.

Thoughtful one is — when you do something really personal, you start to perceive your abilities, perspectives and possibilities very differently. It literally changes your life. Sounds like magic, but that’s it — you naturally become more optimistic and energized.


Finding problems

Once there was summer and I tried to implement free-writing habit into daily routine. The point was to make a note every morning, describing good parts of my life and finding some reasons to bless the universe. One morning definitely missed enough good things, so I found myself writing down problems and struggles encountered the day before. I quickly glanced over them when finished, and realized that at least a few could be solved by creating an app! Many looked interesting enough to work with. So I continued putting them down through the day, and got 29 different problems listed. Next morning I thought I blessed the universe quite enough to expect something in return, and after another hour I grew the list up to 55 positions.

The day after, I found my killer app idea.

So here’s the routine to start a search — just go live your regular life for a day or two. One small thing you should add is awareness. So instead of simply living things, try to become aware of what happens:

  • Notice troubles (of any size) you encounter during your daily life, and write them down. Don’t think about any solutions yet, just write down what’s wrong — any inconvenience, lack of something, etc.
  • Every time you struggle with something — take a note. Just collect facts, don’t analyze them.

Imagine you just woke up and feel sleepy. Is it a problem? A struggle? Write down “Feeling sleepy in the morning”. Felt angry when you did miss your subway train? “Easily getting angry when I’m late”. Forgot to send flowers to your mother for Mother’s day? Well, you’ve got the clue.

Some problems would appear meaningless and worthless to note; log them anyway. It’s not only about problems, it’s also about interconnections. One time or another, small problems shelter the bigger and more important ones. Write them down to get better understanding of the whole picture.

Here are some entries from my list:

  • I hardly stick to my exercise schedule, and suffer when I miss exercises.
  • It’s hard to find friends to exercise together.
  • Occasional bad eating habits.
  • It’s hard to log calories, food intake, water intake.
  • I regularly forget about important things.
  • Sometimes I find myself seated for too long and don’t go outside for the whole day.
  • It’s hard to log my body changes (even weight).
  • Bad sleeping routine, feel myself guilty when I want to nap during a day.

Analyzing reasons

Every problem has a cause, or a number of causes, so here’s what to do next:

Get yourself a bunch of sticky notes, and put every problem on a separate note.Spend 5–7 minutes to think about reasons behind each problem in list. Write them down briefly, next to the problem. You don’t need to go very deep — surprisingly, most important reasons tend to be the most obvious ones. Lastly, try to find problems that have something in common — like lack of motivation, time-management issues, or any other details. The more intersecting things you notice, the more useful and relevant your future app could be.

My list with the reasoning added:

  • I hardly stick to my exercise schedule, and suffer when I miss exercises
    Low motivation because it’s hard to see day-to-day progress. Sometimes I’m not energetic enough. Sometimes I don’t have time to make full exercise set.
  • It’s hard to find friends to exercise together
    Some friends live far from me, others don’t want to exercise (not motivated). Also I’m afraid to ask some of them.
  • Occasional bad eating habits
    I live alone and it’s boring to cook for myself. Hard to find a good choice of healthy foods. Occasionally I eat just a bite of “bad” food and can’t stop after that.
  • It’s hard to log calories, food intake, water intake
    Didn’t find any app useful enough to log things. Sometimes I forget to log, I can also forget about enough hydration itself.
  • I regularly forget about important things
    I have many different things to do, it’s hard to switch between them. I don’t have a list. Almost all things seem important, I need some framework to prioritize them and set finish dates.
  • Sometimes I find myself seated for too long and don’t go outside for the whole day
    In winter dressing to go out takes too much time. Sometimes going for a walk or doing chores doesn’t seem as interesting as continuing with some work I do or things I read/watch.
  • It’s hard to log my body changes (even weight)
    Sometimes I forget to log, I have low motivation because it’s hard to notice any progress. Weight can have some sporadic variation even when I did everything OK the last day(s).
  • Bad sleeping routine, feel myself guilty when I want to nap during the day
    Hard to track without special fitness gear. I don’t have whole picture, so it’s hard to decide if current state is bearable, or I need some change. Hard to go to sleep when I’m busy with something interesting, hard to switch off the laptop/stop reading/etc.

Fear is your friend

Another interesting thing you’ll certainly confront during your search for problems, is fear. Here’s how you can detect it:

  • You either felt a bit angry, or totally ignorant when writing down one of the problems you found.
  • You became very tired almost instantly when you started adding reasoning to one of the problems.
  • You felt protest against the whole writing thing after writing down something specific.

Now listen — your fear is a high-precision compass that accurately shows you the most interesting and meaningful problems. The more fearful you are — the more energy you can release out of solving that problem. So if you faced your fear… Voila, it’s a jackpot! Stress it with a red marker and put some special effort there.


Perfect storm

The main idea of brainstorming is to play with problems you have in creative ways — re-arrange, combine, find other uses, and so on. Solution search is always a bit of delving into your mind’s blackbox — therefore unpredictable, but brainstorming techniques can speed it up and make much more effective.

I usually go with only one technique, called SCAMPER. Though I have tried a lot of others, it was the first to work flawlessly for me. I even thought I invented it, because when I taught Photoshop course for photographers once, I came up with the similar method to find ideas for photo shots. But later I discovered it in one of the books on subject — what a pity! At least, the one from a book was much more detailed.

SCAMPER stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Magnify, Put to other use, Eliminate, Rearrange. These are the things to do with every problem you have. Detailed explanations for each component are provided both below, and in printable PDF template that goes with this article. The template has relevant questions for each component and some place for you to write down your answers.



Substitute
Think about replacing part of the problem or solution with something else. Change things, places, procedures, people, ideas, even emotions.

Combine
Try combining two or more parts of your problem/solution to enhance their synergy. A great deal of creative thinking involves combining previously unrelated problems.

Adapt
Adapt an existing idea to solve one of your problems. Bear in mind that all new ideas or inventions are borrowed to some degree.

Magnify
Think about ways to magnify or exaggerate your problem or solution. Magnifying your problem may give you new insights about what components are most important.

Put to other use
How you might be able to put current idea to other uses? What to reuse from somewhere else in order to solve your problem?

Eliminate (or minify)
What might happen if you eliminated or minimized parts of idea? Through repeated trimming of ideas, objects, and processes, you can gradually narrow your challenge down to the most important.

Rearrange (or reverse)
Think of what you would do if part of your problem, solution or process detail worked in reverse or were done in a different order.


So, you’ve got plenty of problems listed, and in some way understood the reasoning behind. To brainstorm, you need to think about every problem and its reasons, and come up with some obvious (or not so obvious) solutions list. I bet you already see some solutions, though if you don’t — try not to spend too much time with that. Thirty minutes are more than enough. Write your solutions down to separate set of stickies, ideally of different color.

Then, take your list — or better put your stickers on the wall, and print the SCAMPER template. Ask yourself (or your friends/team members) a series of questions about every problem and every solution you see. This process usually leads to a vast number of other possible, and sometimes really unobvious solutions to your problems. Don’t be afraid to start with a lot of stickers — actually, your mind can very effectively filter out the most meaningful ones, so you wouldn’t have to iterate through all.

Write down as much ideas as possible — that’s the point of brainstorming! Even if some idea seems banal or strange to you — collect them all. Then, refine iteratively by combining, adapting and doing every other kind of magic.

First, I carefully examined my list to realize that most problems are health, fitness and wellbeing-related. It was no surprise — I worked a lot on my body transformation for last few years, and still have a lot of unsolved questions and some kind of mind inertia.

So my app will likely be the one to help me stay motivated, and achieve my fitness — or, better, any other goals. It really feels like a right choice, and seems very interesting to pursue, as it touches different parts of my personality, and can help me deal with some of my fears and complexes. Notice that “me”-s — I put them intentionally.

Here’s how I implemented SCAMPER to come up with a list of solutions:

Substitute

Problem: It’s hard to find friends to exercise together.

Substitute friends… so possible solution is:
+ Join other people going to exercise (even if I don’t know them yet) or watch them exercise online .

Problem: Sometimes I find myself seated for too long, and don’t go outside for the whole day.

Replace “going outside” with “doing something physically” — as it seems to be the core of the problem:
+ Make breaks when working to do little exercises each hour for 3 minutes.
+ Make those breaks required by tracking them with a phone sensors and locking laptop until they’re done.

Combine

Problem: It’s hard to log calories, food intake, water intake.

We already have a solution to make breaks during work, let’s combine it with this problem:
+ Ask people to log calories/water intake/food intake during breaks.

Problem: Occasional bad eating habits.

Combine it with forgetting about important things:
+ Reminders about eating healthy.
Or, combine with “Hard to find/ask friends to exercise together”, together with substituting exercises with healthy eating routines:
+ Ask friends or other people to rate food I’m eating.

Adapt

Problem: It’s hard to find friends to exercise together.

Remember a solution to watch other people exercising? Let’s adapt it in some way…
+ Watch other people cooking healthy food and chat with them.

Problem: Occasional bad eating habits.

Adapting can also be putting the same problem into a different context, like:
+ Warn me if I’m at the grocery store to buy healthy food, and give choices of such food, add some points if I did well.
+ Warn me if I enter a food court or fast food joint, subtract some points if I did bad.

Problem: I hardly stick to my exercise schedule, and suffer when I miss exercises.

Use and adapt ideas from other fields to our situation. Take something from gambling and…
+ Let my friends bet if I’ll stick to the schedule for defined amount of time or not.

Magnify

Problem: I hardly stick to my exercise schedule, and suffer when I miss exercises.

Let’s magnify suffering and motivation to the max and make skipping painful!
+ Pay money for every exercise skipped.
Combine with reminders we’ve already thought about…
+ Make really annoying reminders, that become more aggressive the more you skip.

Problem: It’s hard to log calories, food intake, water intake.

Make the term “calories” bigger — kind of life score or earnings balance.
+ Use virtual character, and feed it by logging your own calorie intake (tamagotchi-style).
Combine with one of existing solutions:
+ Define desired (normal) calorie intake. Make people pay a cent for each 100 extra calories.

Put to other use

Works better with solutions, not problems.

Solution: Ask friends or other people to rate food I’m eating.

Let’s try to apply it to other problems:
+ Ask friends or other people to rate exercises I’m doing.
+ Ask other people to remember me about things I forget. Do the same for them.

Solution: Pay money for every exercise skipped.

+ Return some “calorie” money back when I don’t skip exercises.
+ Return some “calorie” money back when I stick to exercises for some period.

Eliminate (or minify)

Problem: It’s hard to log calories, food intake, water intake.

Try to eliminate the calorie accounting problem at all:
+ Calculate daily calorie intake and make a menu that has needed calories.

Solution: Warn me if I woke up early enough to do some exercise.

+ Auto-calculate my wake up time and when I usually leave for work, and show optimal sleeping schedule.

Rearrange (or reverse)

Problem: It’s hard to find friends to exercise together.

One of the reasons was that its hard to ask friends. Reverse the statement — how can we make your friends ask you instead?
+ Warn friends if I’m not exercising for a period.
+ Warn friends if I will exercise soon, so they could join.
+ Show friends my progress to motivate them to join me.

Problem: Sometimes I find myself seated for too long, and don’t go outside for the whole day.

Reverse the problem to make it a joke. Asking people not to move at all could cause overwhelming desire to move:
+ Give prizes to those who didn’t move for longest amount of time.

Problem: Occasional bad eating habits.

Reverse some emotions, or how people perceive things. If you suffer with a problem — think of something to make you happy with that thing:
+ Give some replacement healthy food choices for those who enter unhealthy ones.


Conclusion

Now you see that spending even a bit of time brainstorming can lead you to a big list of ideas. Some of them will even look like a full description of a small and useful app. You can even brainstorm once more to narrow your idea list and make existing ideas more juicy.

Next thing to do is to validate ideas you’ve found, and watch out for your competition, if it exists. We didn’t get rid of competitor analysis or audience testing, but instead just placed them after idea search. I will also make articles about every other step of ideation, from validation to sketching, wireframing and user testing — so if you’re interested, you can:

Vasiliy Leytman

Written by

Freelance designer and educator, leytman.com

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade