So, you're ready to develop your own app, but you've run into a roadblock early on—you're having a hard time coming up with original app ideas. Don't worry, you're not alone! Dealing with mental blocks is a near-universal experience for anyone trying to do creative work. Fortunately, there are well-established strategies that you can use when you're feeling mentally stuck to give your creative output a boost.
In fact, studies have shown that groups working with even a minimal amount of training in creativity techniques were able to come up with 350% more ideas than those without training, and the ideas they came up with were 415% more original.
While there's a variety of approaches you can take to getting around a creative block, the ideation principles we'll be exploring here primarily come from a field called design thinking, which is used by professional software development teams to standardize the problem solving process. While design thinking—in the strictest sense—is optimized for large teams at established companies, there are plenty of tools that independent developers can borrow and use in their own design process.
Instead of sitting around, waiting for inspiration to strike, you can use design thinking to structure your creative process, making it easier to get some good app ideas down on paper in a relatively short amount of time.
Define your problem
When you’re getting started on any kind of project, it’s important to set clearly defined goals. This is especially true when you’re trying to come up with new app ideas because those goals will help you discipline and focus your thinking. This is crucial at the early stages of idea generation because, without goals to guide you, it can be hard to come up with a clear, actionable plan that addresses a key problem. Instead, you’ll end up with a bunch of half-baked app ideas, rather than something that’s ready for further consideration.
Turn your problems into goals
Design thinking experts take a somewhat unique approach to goal-setting that maps well onto app creation. Before you just start writing down any random ideas that pop into your head, you need to identify a specific problem that you're focused on solving. For example, a person having trouble organizing their notes in class could be the starting point for dozens of different software ideas.
Organizing your thinking this way is much more effective than sweating out one-off app ideas based on intuition. Once you start using this "problem-solution" thinking, you'll find that almost anything can be a jumping-off point for ideation. You can easily draw from your own life experiences to source all kinds of "problems" that require convenient solutions. For instance, a thought as simple as "I wish I could remember all the shows and movies my friends have told me to watch," could start you down the path to a hugely successful app idea.
Use your own experiences
While it's not a requirement to look for inspiration for app ideas from your own life, it's highly recommended, particularly if you're only working by yourself or with a small team. With limited resources on hand to research and familiarize yourself with an entirely new topic or concept, you have a significant advantage the more pre-existing familiarity you have with the problem you're trying to solve.
From the start, you not only have knowledge of your subject, you also have insight into the thoughts and feelings of your prospective users, which is invaluable if you hope to make an app that's appealing to your target users. You'll also find that you're far more motivated to come up with an effective solution if you stand to benefit from it yourself. Simply put, you've got skin in the game.
Write your problem statement
Once you've settled on a problem that you're interested in taking on, you'll need to write up your problem statement. Your problem statement is the official description of the problem you're tackling, its scope, and an idea of the potential benefactors. In 1-3 sentences, you'll articulate the main goal of your project in clear, actionable terms. The problem statement will act as your guiding star throughout the rest of the ideation process, something to refer back to and check your app ideas against as you progress. Done properly, it will help you quickly and concisely explain the objective of your project to anyone you'd like to collaborate with.
There's no standardized format for drafting a problem statement, but at the very least, it should cover the "who, what, and why" of your problem. For example, here's what the problem statement might have looked like for the team that created iTunes: "Young people today are less interested in purchasing physical media, like CDs or records. Digital music distribution is becoming widespread, leading to an increase in piracy and a decrease in revenue for artists and labels."
In a couple of simple sentences, this problem statement answers many of the most important questions about the iTunes project:
Who: Young people
What: Decreasing interest in physical media, increase in piracy, and decrease in revenue
Why: Access to digital music distribution
Explore the Problem
If you've been struggling creatively, it's good to acknowledge whenever you make progress. So, congratulations on completing step one! With your problem statement in hand, your app project is officially underway. Now it's time to dig deeper.
Take a walk in your users' shoes
Once you've identified the scope of your project, you'll want to build on it with as much detail as possible. Particularly, you'll want to use one of the most powerful tools in your toolkit, empathy, to focus in on the struggles of your potential users—the "who" of your problem statement.
While there's generally a lot of flexibility to this step, you'll want to ensure that you've analyzed how your problem impacts your users in two key areas: practically and emotionally. Thinking in terms of practicality, make a list of all the less-obvious, secondary benefits that users could gain from an app that addresses your given problem—things like saving money, a more efficient workout, or increased productivity at work. Having completed that, you'll then want to examine the emotional, experiential impact of resolving the problem—stress relief, a sense of social connection, or simply a pleasant, mindless distraction.
And if you have any personal experience with your problem, take some time to think deeply about both the practical and emotional relevance within your own life, no matter how trivial. It's important to relate to your users through the lens of your own direct knowledge and experience as much as possible when thinking through app ideas. If you feel like there are any gaps in your knowledge, you should take the opportunity to reach out to anyone you know who deals with your subject in their own lives and use them as a resource. Any faulty assumptions you make about your users' needs now could result in mistakes or unnecessary work later.
The many benefits of note-taking
Throughout this process, try to take detailed notes of everything you learn. This doesn't necessarily have to meet any formal, scholastic standard for note-taking, but you should make an effort to record any insights or new questions that come up in as much detail as you can manage, taking care to include even the little things that might not seem especially important at the time. Remember: when in doubt, write it down. Your memory isn't as good as you think it is.
Keeping a written record of this work will help you return to this headspace more easily later on, helping you reorient your thinking if you get stuck. Plus, the simple act of committing these important details to paper (or the computer) will help stimulate the flow of app ideas.
Once you've collected as much information as you can, you're ready to do some hands-on ideation exercises.
Now that you've got the initial groundwork out of the way, you've reached the point of coming up with actual "app ideas". A great way to facilitate innovative thinking and a larger collection of ideas is by using ideation exercises. You may be familiar with some of these techniques already—almost everyone has participated in a brainstorming session—while others will hopefully be new to you.
Rules for running exercises
Each exercise has its own distinct set of rules, but there's a universal guideline you should try to keep in mind. Whether you're working with a group or on your own, set the intention to be consciously uncritical of all ideas until after the exercises are over. The main point of these exercises is to force yourself out of your typical thought patterns, so suppressing your built-in filter is key. Creativity rarely runs in a straight line, and even "bad" ideas have their usefulness. The less self-conscious you (and potentially your collaborators) are, the more opportunities you'll have for innovative thinking that would otherwise be inhibited by a more "serious" working environment.
In short: if you feel silly, don't stress. It's kind of the whole point!
Here's a selection of some of the more popular ideation exercises. Feel free to mix and match as you see fit:
The most well-known ideation exercise by far, and likely the simplest. You can brainstorm in a group or solo. You set a timer for a short increment (we recommend between 5 and 15 minutes), and try to write as many app ideas down as possible before the time runs out. Afterwards, you can evaluate which ones are potentially worth pursuing and develop them further.
This exercise is designed to encourage radical, out-of-the-box ideas by setting yourself up for an impossible task. You, and anyone else participating, will take your problem statement and modify it to be impossible by adding a new constraint. For example, if you were working on an educational app, you could say "How do we teach someone a whole semester of material in a single day?" While you may not solve the impossible problem, by setting up the extreme scenario, you incentivize more innovative thinking that can be applied to your actual predicament.
Worst possible idea
Also known as "negative brainstorming", this exercise forces you to look at your problem from a new angle by asking you to come up with the worst possible solution for your project within a set time limit. While the end-product of the exercise, by design, won't be usable in the strictest sense, the insight you gain from flipping your goal on its head may inspire some really good ideas. While this exercise can be done solo, an added benefit of negative brainstorming with peers is that it encourages a more open collaboration by taking the pressure off coming up with the "best" ideas.
This group exercise involves picking a word at random that may or may not have anything to do with your project. You can do this using a random word generator online, or by flipping through a physical dictionary. The exercise moves quickly to encourage urgency and strip away inhibited thinking. As soon as the group has their word, they have a minute to try to force as many connections between the word and your project, making sure to write down everything they come up with. Not only does the exercise promote group collaboration, the randomness factor may result in unexpected combinations of ideas that force you to think about solutions from a novel perspective.
Pick a winner
Once you've done a lot of ideating, you'll reach a point where you're coming up with fewer and fewer fresh app ideas in each session. If you're not quite satisfied with what you have so far, you may benefit from stepping away for a while and taking a break. Giving your mind a chance to relax and focus on other things will help break you out of repetitive thought patterns. However, once you do reach a point where you feel that you've got some potential winners, you should be ready to identify your strongest ones, and start developing them through market research.
The tournament method
If there isn't one idea that jumps out to you as the clear winner, count yourself lucky. You've got an abundance of good ideas! One way to make your decision easier—especially if you're working solo—is to make a tournament bracket. Here's how to use this technique:
- Write your favorite ideas onto sticky notes or index cards and shuffle them around.
- Sort them into pairs, or "matchups", and line all the pairs up on a board in a vertical line.
- Go down the line, from top to bottom, picking your favorite idea from each matchup.
For each comparison, consider a few important points:
- Which idea does a better job of addressing my problem statement?
- Which idea addresses the practical and emotional concerns of my users?
- Which idea makes the best use of my time and resources?
- Which idea is unique enough to match up against existing solutions?
Starting from the top, the winners from each matchup will then be paired up with the next winner down the line. You'll repeat the process as many times as necessary until you arrive at the winner of the tournament. If you ever run into an odd number, you can simply leave the bottom card out until you reach another odd number, and you can add it back to the bottom (sometimes, the next odd number is 1). You'll find it much easier to compare two ideas against each other on their merits than trying to rank all of them at once based on intuition.
Once you have your winner, your "Big Idea", you'll be ready to continue to the next step in your app making journey with confidence. That being said, you shouldn't simply abandon everything else you've come up with. During market research you may find that indeed, great minds think alike, and someone else has already created your first choice idea, note for note. With a strong shortlist of ideas on hand, you won't have to go all the way back to the drawing board by leaning too hard on a single concept.
Figure out your own process for coming up with app ideas
While we hope that this article has convinced everyone reading it to take a more intentional and disciplined approach to their creative process, we know some of you may still be asking yourselves, "Is it really worth all this effort? Can't I just come up with ideas on my own way?" The answer, of course, is yes! If you have a method that works, or if you already have a clear picture of what you're going to build, then more power to you!
That said, we do still want to stress one thing: a lot of the most successful and profitable software companies in the world use Design Thinking to fuel their creative process. While not every developer needs to adopt every strategy explored here, you should definitely know about Design Thinking so you can pick and choose what works for you.
After all, coming up with new app ideas is one of the hardest parts of any creative undertaking. Unfortunately, a lack of common knowledge around design thinking and ideation techniques can lead to a lot of undue stress among creatives who have the potential to accomplish much more for their effort by working smarter rather than harder. We hope that the concepts in this article can help start you down the journey of your next big app project.