How to Have Ideas


I was inspired to write this post after after a recent client asked me to help him work on building a product to respond to coronavirus. How do people have ideas? Somewhat of an existential question, similar to breathing, but I wanted to write down some pathways that could help.

  1. Cultivate a sense of wonder

    The screenshot above is from an advisement session I was doing with second-year ITP students working on their thesis.

    In this session, students created a text-based creativity analyzer, an online dance party mimicking real physical space, and a visual chat logger.

    One student wondered what would it be like to be a bat in Times Square…? And then recreated Times Square in VR, but you were a bat, and in order to move forward you had to echolocate by screaming. Which brings me to…

  2. Ask Better Questions

    As a consultant, I love being able to ask the questions that bring clarity for my clients. Most products begin with a great question that leads to the deep unknown.

    Good ideas come from getting curious about what is happening around you. And we can think of products in the same way. Why are things the way they are? Why are they not a little bit different?

  3. Solve a Problem

    In 2013, I wanted to figure out how I could access all of the information that smartphones had available to them, but I was still stubbornly using a dumb phone.

    So I co-created a Twilio-based open-source app platform called The Dumb Store. And we got to the top of Hacker News and had thousands of users.

    The best way to solve a problem is to notice that you have a problem to solve. If you have this problem, there are probably others that have it as well.

    My problem was pretty clear, and I knew I had technical resources to solve it.

  4. Have bad ideas

    This one doesn’t come naturally to me! As an eldest-daughter recovering perfectionist, I like to be right, you know? And I often am! But it wastes too much time trying to be perfect.

    If you keep waiting around for the right idea, you’ll be waiting for a long time.

    Having bad ideas means you don’t take your idea personally, and it means that you’re able to think of a bunch of possibilities without attachment to outcome.

  5. Create Associations

    The cool thing about most new products is that they aren’t entirely new. They are just a new combination of previously uncombined tools or services.

    Canopy, where I consulted last year, wanted to combine two things: differential privacy and on-device machine learning. The combination of the two means that you can give people entirely private recommendations.

So what’s your idea? What are you wondering about? What problem are you struggling to solve? Send me an email or book a session and let’s talk.