5 Essential Rules for App Idea Generation

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App idea generation and selection is often an early stumbling block in the app creation process. In the past I’ve always found this step particularly frustrating, but the following 5 rules, and 10 techniques can make the process much easier:

The 5 Rules

Rule 1 – Know why you’re creating the app

In seems almost crazy to identify this, but I’ve seen projects so often go wayward when there is no clear reason why the work is being done. Its also really important to write this down – reasons will change over time without you realising if you don’t get them down on paper. Not that it is necessarily a bad thing to change your reasons, more that you should be aware that your reasons have changed. See my article about “why are you making an app” for more on this subject.

You also shouldn’t be ashamed of your reasons. If its to make some cash then thats fine, if its to show of to your friends then thats all good too but don’t lie to yourself. Its far more important to be honest with yourself as it can have a dramatic effect on what you produce. For example, if your goal is to make some cash, then a basic calculator app might not be the best idea – but if you just want to learn Android or iOS programming, then a calculator app is a great place to start.

Rule 2 – There are no stupid ideas

This is a rule I hear again and again, but still end up throwing away seeds of ideas just because they seem so unrealistic or outlandish. If you don’t have the seed for an idea then getting a lot of ideas down on paper is important, and the minute you start throwing ideas out because they seem unrealistic, outlandish, crazy or stupid is the same minute your mind starts to lock up. Let your mind run wild at this stage, you can work out the feasibility later – it might just turn out that the crazy idea you had actually has some legs.

Look at Gabriel Weinberg and DuckDuckGo – a search engine taking on the behemoth that is Google – and doing pretty well. Sure Google are still king of the hill by a mile, but DuckDuckGo has captured a particular niche and is doing extremely well.

Rule 3 – Use visualisation

Visualisation can really help get the creative juices flowing – whether it be post-it notes on a wall, a white board or a computer based tool like XMind mind mapping tool. This does come with a warning though: it does not need to be pretty!

Post-its on wall

If you’re finding yourself getting too caught up in the tool making things right, then stop and change tact. If you find yourself:

  • Choosing or matching post-it colours
  • Choosing or matching whiteboard pen colours
  • Colouring or laying out mind map items on a screen
  • Formatting Excel cells

Then stop, your doing it wrong! Making your visualisations look pretty is for afterward and right now its a distraction.

Rule 4 – Don’t go too deep too early

When your generating ideas, its not a good idea to go into too much detail too early. Its really tempting when you come across a what seems a good idea to start getting into the detail right away, but don’t, resist the temptation. Generally speaking, its easier to dig into a topic thats already there, than come up with a whole new topic – and this time is ear marked for ideas, you can develop those ideas later.

One of the problems that digging deep too early can cause is that it can engage the more analytical part of your brain, and in this step you really want the creative part of your brain running the show.

In some cases this rule doesn’t completely apply, for example if your whole idea strategy is focused on a specific subject matter then sure, you need to dig in – but its really important when going through the early stages of ideation that you don’t not get caught up in the details.

Rule 5 – Put constraints on it

Its really really important to put some constraints around your idea generation process, whether it be time, number of ideas, number of people involved etc. I’d go as far as to say putting a time limit on it is the most important rule of all – as Parkinsons Law states:

‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’

Putting a time limit on the ideation stage really helps work towards a goal, and decide when its over. Quite often if there is no time limit, then its hard to move on to the next stage of research, refinement and selection. This doesn’t have to be in hours, it could be days – but don’t let it be ongoing – it may introduce a lack of focus.

Other constraints can really help too:

  • Don’t have too many people involved: Its probably true that 2 heads are better than one, but if you get more than 4 or 5 heads it can get difficult for everyone to get heard.
  • Put an upper limit on ideas: If you want to iterate fast then sometimes a time limit isn’t enough – putting a relatively small limit (say 5) on ideas can help. You will probably fill this list of 5 really quickly, then you can move on to research and refinement, evaluate what you have, and then iterate again – like a micro ideation loop.
  • Put a lower limit on ideas: Another thing that you can do is put a minimum number of ideas required from each individual. This can be really useful if working around the room, where each person has to say and idea every 1 minute.

However you choose to use constraints they can be really useful in the ideation stage, and should not be ignored or considered the wrong thing to do.

Wrapping up

Integrating these 5 rules into your app idea generation process will really help you find the right idea for your app. There’s a tendency to think that applying rules restricts the creative process, but a failure to apply the right rules can mean the wrong rules are applied implicitly, so acknowledge them and decide what your rules are!

I’d love to hear if you have any rules that help you in generating ideas for apps?

EDIT 17/02/2014 – See also 10 Practical Techniques for Generating App Ideas for more idea generation tips.


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