Analogy spirals: A method for getting past availability bias and fixed thinking in design research

Due to the nature of our jobs, artists are often expected to be creative on demand. Unfortunately the idea bank isn’t always full, especially when we’re busy with other projects or working in an unfamiliar industry. To complicate things further, our thinking is often fixed by preconceptions and assumptions.

What can we do then to deliver fresh, competitive ideas and insight whenever necessary? One of the methods I use is the analogy spiral.

How to create an analogy spiral

Take a sheet of paper (or a digital equivalent, if you prefer) and draw a spiral.

Along this spiral draw a series of circles, leaving space for possible expansion later.

In the first circle, put the project you’re currently working on.

In the second circle, put the first thing your project makes you think of. Might be a competitor or similar product.

In the following circle, fill in the next thing that your second item inspires. Must be a little stretch from the original concept.

In subsequent circles, push yourself further and further away from your core idea until you’re outside your comfort zone. You might find it useful to look at other industries or fields of science.

A completed spiral is your target list for research.

This example starts with Facebook Groups and ends with the U.S. military.

If at any point in this process you discover a promising new direction, you can expand the analogy spiral or create a new one.

Put your analogy spiral to work

With your analogy spiral as a your guide, meticulously analyze your targets. Scrutinize and compare them and capture what you learn in lists. Here are a few I’ve used in design research:

  • Key insights
  • Must-do features
  • Potential delight
  • Predictions
  • Assumptions

During your analysis, look for the themes behind the targets and why your they’ve have done things in the ways they have. Look for potential user needs and motivations that could help you predict where your project might eventually go.

Once you’ve completed your research, pour over your lists and analysis. You may find you’ve already got a better understanding of your problem space and at least a solid ideas. Don’t stop there. Your analysis is like box of Legos, rich with opportunity, so continue to play with the pieces to see what interesting things emerge.

In my experience, analogy spirals never fail to deliver creative ammunition and fresh perspectives. Hopefully they can do the same for you.