Ideation Is for Chumps

by Aurora Harley and Kate Meyer on April 1, 2017

Summary: Many UX designers waste precious time and effort generating multiple possible solutions when an idea is already right in front of them.

All digital product teams work within constraints. We often deal with Spartan budgets, tight schedules, and challenging technical limitations. These pressures mean that any noncritical activities in the design process must be eliminated.

So which phase in the design cycle is least important? The answer is obvious — ideation.

Spending extraneous amounts of time “thinking” is a clear waste of precious development time. Remember, there is always a phase 2 to fix problems, so there’s no need to stress about producing perfection. Stop procrastinating and just get a design implemented as soon as possible.

Why It’s Tempting to Spend Time Ideating

It’s common for UX designers to feel like they should “do their homework” and consider the range of possible alternatives before determining the best path. The logic behind that approach is simple — designers want to make sure they have the best solution for their design problem.

To that philosophy, we say: What are you, a newbie? People who spend time generating multiple ideas clearly lack either confidence or expertise (or both!). Real UX designers with solid experience know everything they need to conjure the best design idea out of thin air, with no gratuitous time or effort required. Your first idea is likely to be your best idea, because it doesn't really come from thin air, but rather from your subconscious mind — where, as we all know since Freud, your best ideas are stored, just waiting to be retrieved. The more you actively think about the design, the more you’ll complicate it, and thus reduce its usability.

Only chumps spend more time on a project than necessary. Cool UX-ers pick the first idea, and run with it. They are sure of their design prowess and move forward with confidence, knowing they’ve saved valuable time.

You're not cool enough to sit with this UX team.

Later in the project, you’ll have extra time available to fix design mistakes. If you waste time in the beginning trying to ideate, you will be left without any budget for repairing blunders at the end of your project. As a rough estimate, having a better design direction due to ideation might, at best, double the quality of your final user experience while fixing design mistakes can easily improve the UX by 1% per mistake. Thus, your UX KPI metrics will actually improve by more than 100% if you focus on your first idea and fix at least 100 minuscule mistakes (and there will surely be plenty of usability problems to choose from in any substantial project).

Another reason commonly cited for time spent ideating is to be able to fully explore the context of the problem at hand. But honestly, if you need extra time to understand the industry or the issues encountered by your users, you probably aren’t up to snuff for your job. Unless you just started at a new organization, you ought to already know everything you need and should move forward tackling this design challenge with conviction, making any assumptions you deem appropriate.

When to Skip Ideation

While some (less-experienced) UX professionals may still want to dedicate time to generating ideas in certain circumstances, here are several situations in which ideation is definitely not an appropriate use of time:

  • You’ve worked in UX or web design for more than 1 year. If you’ve been working in a UX-related role for over a year, and you read our articles regularly, you’re basically a master of the field — you know which designs will work and which won’t. Jakob Nielsen’d better watch out before you snatch his guru status!
  • Study participants clearly stated what they want. Users know themselves the best. They’re great at predicting what they want. So if participants in the usability study offered their design advice, just do what they said!
  • Your clients or bosses told you their genius ideas. Well, there you go. Problem solved. Again, just give people what they ask for. Fighting this battle isn’t worth your time. After all, if it does end up flopping, it wasn’t your idea! Score.
  • Apple or some other site featured on Awwwards already designed a pattern for you to copy. It can’t be a bad idea if someone has implemented it. I mean, come on, Apple doesn’t ever make design mistakes. What works for Apple in one context will certainly work in your product.
  • Your coworkers are out to steal your ideas, or to push their own agendas so they can claim credit. Watch out for those sneaky “collaborators”! This is the main reason group ideation is problematic. As the expert, you needn’t spend time pretending to consider lesser ideas from others. If given the chance, they will simply take your brilliant idea and attempt to claim it as their own — or worse, modify your idea, thereby watering down its genius.


In the end, you’ll only implement one idea, so once you think up a design you want to create, why waste more time? Don’t be a chump! Stop being indecisive, and just make a design decision already. Overcome your imposter syndrome and believe in your innate design ability. If you don’t believe in your idea, no one will. So forget evaluating endless options — get moving as quickly as possible!






April Fools!

Ideation is such a valuable component of the design process; it’s absurd to skip it. And of course you can sit with us.

Learn why it’s always worthwhile to dedicate time for ideation, and strategies to make it the most efficient, in our full-day training course on Effective Ideation Techniques for UX Design.

Also watch our 2-minute video on why ideation doesn’t waste time, it saves time.

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