There is more than one way to ideate: ideation sessions at The National Archives

Diego Lago
Apr 20, 2020 · 12 min read
The project team working in small groups during an ideation session

The last Medium post of a three-article series on Strategy, Design Thinking and Ideation for Project Alpha.

Having the right input to get us started

In my previous article, I described how we followed the double diamond of design thinking to allow cross-expertise collaboration and facilitate Project Alpha’s discovery phase. At the end of discovery we had a good understanding of unmet users’ needs in the shape of user insights and How Might We (HMW) statements.

The number of HMWs across the two personas we’ve been focusing on ‐ first-time users and non-users ‐ was huge. These statements were clustered in insightful themes. Still, the product owners (POs) had the big task of assessing, choosing and prioritising HMWs across over one hundred themes so the team could focus their efforts during ideation.

It helped that everyone understood the benefit of working with the How Might We format. Approaching ideation with a format that, in addition to supporting user needs, also is solution-oriented (How), optimistic (Might) and collaborative (We) felt like it was the right one for a team looking to bring innovation to the archives world.

So what did we do with all of that?

We ran six full-day ideation sessions over the course of a month, involving about 15 people at a time.

And the output has been remarkable: over 50 conceptual ideas were produced by the team which were then prioritised by the POs to take further as testable prototypes. This post aims to describe how Digirati facilitated those sessions to get to that point.

Rules of engagement

Having a set of clear ‘rules’ for ideation in a team with different levels of experience in co-designing and ideation was essential. We encouraged everyone to avoid critical thinking while ideating ‐ there are no bad ideas. Yes, initial ideas might often sound unworkable and people might immediately discount them ‐ sometimes individually in their own minds, sometimes as a group. The thing is that many great business concepts are an unusual combination of (not-so) crazy ideas that become meaningful when combined.

So we captured everything. From early concepts to the most polished sketch.

As we have been doing during various workshops during the discovery phase, the ‘Working alone together’ rule was present here too. Letting everyone have their own time and space to think of solutions then bring them to the table set a collaborative environment where all voices were heard.

And the final rule was about quantity over quality. Ideation is about divergence first. We would still focus on quality later, but we needed a big set of ideas to choose from.

An early challenge

The prioritised set of HMW statements gave us a focus to get started on with ideation. However, the nature of the challenges that first-time and non-users interacting with The National Archives face provided different types of HMW statements: some were high-level, more abstract statements such as ‘HMW communicate the value that TNA and its collection has to offer?’ or ‘HMW make users feel confident immediately that they have landed on a trusted source?’ Whereas others felt more defined: ‘HMW clearly show what is a next step or way forward?’ or ‘HMW structure the information more clearly?’.

As we had a series of workshops planned to look at a considerable number of HMWs, as a facilitator of all of those sessions, addressing that difference with a single ideation approach didn’t feel right. The phrase ‘when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’ came to my mind and I wanted to avoid that situation.

So we ended up with four different types of sessions:

  1. Ideation sessions to come up with completely new ideas
  2. Sketching sessions to give better form to some of these ideas
  3. Storyboard sessions where a key journey needed exploration
  4. Priority guides sessions to gather domain expertise on what were clearly information architecture problems

Next, I will describe the format of each of these sessions.

Ideation sessions

The more abstract HMW statements required novel ideas to spring from the team’s minds. In those cases, over the course of single-day workshops, we ran a number of activities to get teams of three people each to come up with early ideas and then select and refine them into two or three to present to the rest of the participants.

Good artists copy; great artists steal.
— Pablo Picasso

Those early exercises included analogy thinking using innovation cards as inspiration. The cards themselves list over 50 business models from famous multinationals to more obscure startups. The purpose of analogy thinking is to let us learn from those innovative business models and identify what aspects of those could be borrowed in the context of TNA. We were translating these to our context — rather than simply copying existing solutions.

A concept produced during an ideation workshop
A concept produced during an ideation workshop
An analogy thinking sheet looking at the similarities that could exist between Amazon and TNA.

Another ‘idea-triggering’ exercise we did was brainwriting. Again, working in small groups of three, each group member stuck a post-it featuring an HMW statement to the top of an A4 sheet, then added another post-it with an idea pertaining to the challenge next to it. After that, they passed the A4 sheet to the next person in their group, while, at the same time, receiving their neighbour’s sheet with another HMW statement with an initial idea already in place.

After receiving a new A4 sheet with a new challenge, each group member built on top of that by adding more post-its inspired by their neighbour’s initial idea. They then passed the sheets around until multiple people built upon each idea. The pace of the exercise demanded quick thinking and allowed us to explore various HMW statements in many different ways.

A concept produced during an ideation workshop
A concept produced during an ideation workshop
A chatbot idea that originated during a brainwriting session.

An idea might seem great to a lot of people, but that’s often because different people understand different things. To review and select all ideas each team came up with from the analogy thinking and brainwriting sessions in a structured manner, we used concept cards. These enabled the participants to:

  • make an initial idea more mature. The concept card is a great way to make sure that important aspects of an idea have been thought through
  • summarise their concepts by answering critical questions: who is their target audience? Which problems were they solving? What was the solution? How could it benefit TNA?
A concept produced during an ideation workshop
A concept produced during an ideation workshop
A concept card example from one of the ideation sessions.

Each team ended up with one or two concepts to pitch to the rest of the participants and the POs. We kept the pitches short and sweet: 3 minutes to explain each solution.

Once everyone was done with pitching their concept cards, it was time to vote. So that the voting was unbiased, we followed some guidelines from Google Ventures’ design sprint:

  • We spent a few minutes in silence letting everyone to choose their favourite idea
  • At the same time, participants voted for a concept card by putting a dot sticker on it (except the POs)
  • The POs then cast their votes, which carried more weight than the rest of the team members’ votes
  • We then organised the concepts into winners and ‘maybe laters’
  • We also looked for competing concepts and the possibility to merge ideas

Sketching

As hinted earlier, some of the conceptual ideas that the POs selected needed a bit more refinement. So we ran a sketching session to work on these few ideas.

Sketching is sometimes tricky, you can reassure people everyone can sketch — we are asking for a combination of boxes and catchy labels — but still, some people might not feel confident about it.

To loosen people up a bit, we ran a very quick exercise known as the 30 Circles Challenge. Each participant got an A4 sheet of paper with 30 circles printed on it. In 3 minutes, they needed to turn as many of the blank circles as possible into recognisable objects (think clock, faces, tennis balls, etc.).

It was quite useful to spend a couple of minutes looking at the results:

  • How many people filled in 10, 15, 20 or more circles?
  • Were their ideas derivative (a basketball, a baseball, a volleyball) or distinct (a planet, a cookie, a happy face)?
  • Did anyone ‘break the rules’ and combine circles (a snowman or a traffic light)?

The exercise helped people to feel more at ease for what was to come!

To follow a simple yet structured take to sketching, we introduced the participants to the 4-step solution sketch approach used in Google’s Design Sprint:

  1. Note-taking — while the HMWs and early concepts were presented to participants at the start of the session, they were encouraged to take their own notes
  2. Ideas write-down — we then let them have some time for their own research, accessing their phone or laptops to look for inspiration
  3. Crazy 8’sthe method that gets everyone sketching some initial ideas very fast
  4. Solution sketch — a chance for everyone to spend more time shaping the one idea they were most interested in, whether it came from the Crazy 8’s sketches or not

Once finished, all the sketches were put on a wall, creating an ‘art gallery’. We then handed 30 sticky dots to everyone to vote on those sketches or parts of them they liked. This effectively created ‘heat maps’ of interest around the sketches.

As facilitators we walked everyone through each sketch, gaining a group understanding of each. We then confirmed with the creator whether we missed anything. There was also an opportunity for each participant to ask any questions on these ideas they had.

At that point, the POs were ready to make their decisions on which sketches they felt were the right ones to start prototyping.

A concept produced during an sketching workshop
A concept produced during an sketching workshop
A sketch that later became one of our prototypes.

We learned some good lessons from this format. Some people didn’t like the rush of the Crazy 8’s exercise. Others felt that those with better drawing skills had an advantage at the time to sketch their final solution and wondered whether that could influence people’s voting. We reassured them that the POs were focused on the concepts they felt could have the biggest impact on the user problems we were trying to solve rather than the aesthetics. Nevertheless, we used that feedback to inform the format of the sessions described in the next two sections: storyboarding and priority guides. These focused more on the journeys users would follow and the priority of content and data on key pages.

Storyboarding

Search at TNA is a complex topic. When a user starts to scratch the surface on this, they will find out they can either search the website or the archive records. On top of that, the mental model most people have on search has been informed by the likes of Google, as Tom Crane explains.

So search required its own ideation session and as search is a journey the user takes, we focused the session on storyboarding. But before we started handing out Sharpies we spent some time looking at the problem at hand. At TNA there is a good number of people who are specialists in the topic of search.

So at the beginning of the session, we asked them to give the workshop participants a brief talk on their findings and answer any questions the group had. This knowledge sharing created a common understanding within the ideation group that helped to define the problem further. We followed that with table discussions — each table consisted of three participants, which is a number we’ve found is good for allowing everyone to participate in group tasks.

After the Q&A session with the search experts and group discussions, the team was ready to start storyboarding. We did this first individually, allowing everyone to use their notes and jot down their ideas. It was important at this point to let everyone express those ideas however they liked — we didn’t stipulate that the storyboard should be visual. If people were more comfortable writing a sequence of events rather than drawing them, that was fine.

Once each participant had their own storyboard in place, we asked them to discuss it with their table group of three. Each table group then followed by creating a single storyboard by considering the aspects of the individual participants they felt were key for a successful search user journey.

Each group table then produced a storyboard on the search user journey. As we have done previously, each team pitched their concept to everyone who then voted on their favourite ideas. At the end of the session, the POs, taking the votes into consideration, decided which ones to take further for prototyping.

A concept produced during a storyboard workshop
A concept produced during a storyboard workshop
A storyboard considering various ways of interacting with search.

Priority guides

For this session, the HMW statements we focussed on centred around two ideas related to key aspects of the information architecture of TNA’s website:

  • How we might help non-users who land ‘somewhere’ on TNA’s website feel less overwhelmed by the language and clutter.
  • How to help them to explore the site further rather than leaving straight away, as the analytics data show.

So where do these users land? TNA has comprehensive data from running website analytics software which we took advantage of. Currently, most people land on:

  1. Records pages
  2. Help & Guidance pages

So we ran most of the session around those page types. We also added the home page to the exercise as we recognised some users might still choose to go there if the page they landed on wouldn’t give them what they were after.

So what is a priority guide? It is an alternative approach to sketching and wireframing that focuses on the content and its hierarchy in a very linear way. Simply put, a priority guide contains content and elements for a mobile screen, sorted by hierarchy from top to bottom and without layout specifications. The hierarchy is based on relevance to users, with the content most critical to satisfying user needs and supporting user (and company) goals higher up. For those interested, an article in A List Apart covers the idea in detail.

For us, it meant we were able to bring in subject matter experts to help us identify the key content components of these pages and their importance.

The approach requires us to use real content that’s relevant to the user, and stipulates not including any layout elements — no room for aesthetics this time. It has the added benefit of laying the groundwork for a more solid mobile-first content strategy, as the various content elements follow a linear order.

In addition, we set some user-centred guidelines in terms of information architecture for the benefit of the majority of the session participants. At each stage, they needed to consider the user perspective when interacting with the content:

  • Where am I?
  • What am I looking at?
  • What can I do next?
  • What else is there?
A concept produced during a priority guides workshop
A concept produced during a priority guides workshop
An example priority guide for one of the teams covering a details page for records.

After the session, our user experience designers together with a number of subject matter experts and the POs analysed the various takes on these page types and consolidated them into an interactive prototype which we put in front of users for testing.

People ideating solutions in groups
A few pictures from the various ideation sessions we had at TNA.

Summing up

Over the course of January and February 2020, we ran a number of sessions at The National Archives to explore ideas addressing the HMW statements we formulated during the discovery phase in late 2019. Rather than trying a one-size-fits-all ideation formula, we looked at each prioritised HMW and determined which types of activities were best suited for each.

The resulting outputs, whether high-level concepts or more detailed sketches, storyboards and priority guides listing content items in order of importance, informed the first iteration of the prototypes we have been working on.

The National Archives Digital

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