10 Practical Techniques for Generating App Ideas

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In 5 Rules for Generating App Ideas I discussed some important rules to consider when trying to generate ideas. Its really important to acknowledge and integrate these rules, but its also really useful to have some specific idea generation techniques. Combining the previous 5 rules and the following 10 techniques, we will arrive at a structured idea generation framework.

The 10 Techniques for Generating App Ideas

So lets get down to the techniques, I’ve kind of split this list in 2 – the first 5 are more about the approach you take to the process, and the second 5 are much more practical techniques.

The 5 Ways to Approach Idea Generation

The approach is the general way you going to attack the idea generation process, and influences how you progress through the idea generation process.

Improve existing jobs

One really good way to approach ideation is to take an existing job and find a way to remove steps. Some really good examples of apps that have done this are:


  • Instagram changed how we all share pictures by simplifying the whole process of taking a picture, retouching it and sharing it with our friends.
  • The news industry is being turned upside down by twitter – Twitter has almost completely removed the need for ‘breaking news’ by allowing people (not journalist) break the news themselves

Sure, these apps are huge with a massive infrastructure and a ton of work – but the principal remains on a much smaller scale. Could you improve a job that you do regularly, maybe arranging a date to meet your friends, or finding movies you like to watch?

Focus on problems

Another approach to take is focusing on problems rather than solutions. It was Albert Einstein that said:

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions

The idea here is that you focus on problems that you or someone else encounters. Finding a pain point is a really great way to make sure you have something worth selling. Once you have identified a pain point, the solution is often really obvious. Some exmaples of apps that address pain points are:

  • Keeping a set of notes and having them available everywhere can be a massive pain – that is until Evernote cam along. Evernote has almost perfectly addressed this pain point.
  • One problem that I always had was browsing the internet and making a list of things to remember to read – Pocket saw this issue and provided a great solution.

Look at your interests

I think this approach is the most obvious – look at what you’re interested in and work with that. This may open up whole new concepts, or maybe just highlight an area you feel you can provide some value to. Some examples are:

  • If you’re really interested in comic books maybe you could create a game like ‘Guess the Super Hero’
  • There are numerous sport related apps like fantasy footbal apps/organisers, golf score tracking etc

Either way, remember that just because there is already an app out there doesn’t mean there’s not space for yours – in fact its quite the opposite – an app already out there might prove that there is a market.

What are you good at / what you know about

A great thing to do is leverage existing skills or knowledge – if you’re particularly skilled or knowledgeable in a certain are maybe youo could focus your idea generation around that. It may be that you have unique knowledge, or can use you skills to address an existing problem. Some examples:

  • Mint.com leverages existing knowledge of the financial industry to provide additional value.
  • The TubeMap app provides excellent usage of tube map data, but also the behaviours of people using the tube and their needs

Look at whats already there

This is something I’ve touched on before and may not work in isolation, but if you’re focusing in a particular niche, looking at whats already there is an absolute must. I love this quote by Stephen Fry:

An original idea. That can’t be too hard. The library must be full of them

You shouldn’t feel bad for looking at existing work and trying to improve on it, it is what everybody does, even if they don’t realise it.

The 5 Practical Techniques for Idea Generation

The following 5 techniques are very practical ways you can undergo your idea generation activity. Some are those I’ve borrowed from other places, and some are techniques I’ve been playing with over the last few years:

Go around the room

One technique that works well in a group environment is what I call ‘going around the room’. With this technique one person in the room is designated to compile the ideas (either that or the session is recorded), then everybody takes it in turn to say an idea. When it is your turn, you must say one, and only one idea – no matter how crazy or outlandish, you also have only 1 minute to explain the idea to the rest of the group. You just keep going around the room until you run out of time, so everybody will have contributed several ideas.

The reason that this works so well is that it encourages and forces participation – the fact that you have no choice but to provide an idea means that you either

  • Need to distill your many ideas down to a few in order to get them noticed
  • Need to force yourself to say something, no matter how off-the-wall

Due to the nature of the game, almost everybody has to put in some silly ideas, so everyone starts to feel comfortable doing it. Furthermore it prevents the quieter members of the group from getting expluded.

Mind mapping


Mind mapping is a staple of any idea generation process – the one big problem I find that can occur with mind mapping is that the relationships in the mind map are an afterthought, and consequently cause the exercise to stumble. Believe it or not, there is a right way to mind map when using it for ideation:

  1. Start with a any thought/idea/problem and draw it in the middle.
  2. The next steps are about digging into that thought/idea/problem and breaking it out into other ideas, whereby you draw them out in any direction.
  3. You continue this exercise on all the other ideas too.
  4. If somebody contributes a totally different idea, dont try to force the relationship, just draw it on a new canvas, or in a seperate area.

The key here is to not let it become about the tools – let the ideas flow, if the relatiships aren’t correct it doesn’t matter. It should not be neat, it shouldn’t necessarily be pretty – it should look like all of the ideas have fallen out of your head onto a piece of paper!

Sometimes using a tool like XMind mind mapping tool can really help with the exercise as it takes some of the display out of your hands – but if a number of people are involved, or you find yourself getting too caught up in the tool its time to make a change.

The idea wall

Post-it notes are often used for ideation, and they suit the task perfectly. I personally like to use post-its in a similar way to mind mapping. With post-its I like to get a space on a wall or large white board, and just start writing idea’s on post-its and sticking them on.

As post-its are just stuck on to a wall you don’t have lines to represent relationships among ideas, but I think using proximity works perhaps even better. By this I mean stick similar ideas closer to one another, so you end up with clusters of ideas. Another thing you can do is represent similarities using different coloured post-its – this also works fine, but it can sometimes get in the way if you’re trying to decide what colour to use. Clustering the ideas is easy to change and rectify, so I generally advise to do it that way.

A few good tips for doing this are:

  • Don’t be afraid to move ideas around, but equally don’t spend your idea generation time rearranging things
  • Have a digital camera handy to take photo’s of your idea wall so you refer back to them
  • It can be useful to number the post-it notes – it gives you an easy way to refer to them

Again, you shouldn’t be overly concerned with how everything looks visually – this can get in the way.

Use the Web

Sometimes generating ideas by yourself can be done from your desk, by tapping into Google! Google is the biggest source of information on the web, and can be leveraged extremely well for the process of discovery. It works particularly well if you have a seed of an idea, and want to expand on it.

You should note that at the idea generation stage we don’t want to dig into details of a particular idea, more that we want to expand on it, discover related problems, related ideas, what other things crop up when looking into the idea etc.

Another great thing to do on the web is take your seed idea and find places where people discuss that topic. A few places to look are:

  • Forums and discussion boards
  • Yahoo answers
  • Blogs
  • One of the great Stack Exchange sites

Once your in that place look for common themes, gripes, problems that people discuss. Don’t be afraid to ask questions on a thread or in a comment – this might kick off a discussion that exposes some pain points people have.

Lean ideation

This is a process which tries to utilise lessons learned from lean methodologies, and in particular the lean startup. Lean methodologies generally tend to be about short feedback loops, single piece flow, measuring and experimentation. The process of idea generation doesn’t fit 100% into this model – its hard to create real hard measurements in order to find if an idea will work, but we can do something.

Lean ideation is about creating a short feedback loop, which aims at generating ideas quickly, proving their worth quickly and repeating the cycle. The process is outlined below:

  1. Seeding: Spend a few minutes generating ideas using an idea wall, until your have a maximum of 10 ideas – this should hopefully only take 10 minutes (if that).
  2. Testing: Take the post-its and distribute amongst the team, allocate a period of time for proving each idea. To prove an idea you need to set-out the proving criteria beforehand, here are some ideas for proving criteria.
    • 5 people expressing this problem in discussion board, forum, blog post etc
    • Between 3 & 5 apps already addressing this issue in the Android/iOS store
    • 10 people voting for idea in an online poll
  3. Reduce: Take the post-its that come back and seperate them into 2 sections, passes and fails.
  4. Repeat: Start the process again until you meet your target (whatever that may be e.g. target number of ideas, time limit etc)

Whats great about this technique is that it allows for rapid development of ideas and gives actionable results at the end. Remember that if you don’t set out clear criteria for the testing phase, you could easily end up with results that aren’t useful.

Bringing it together

Using the 10 techniques with the 5 Rules makes for a solid idea generation framework – in the final part of this series I will walk through practical examples of how to set about this and what to do next.


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