Ideation in design thinking: a case study

Thank you for rejoining me in our discussion series, Design Thinking. In the first two articles, we explored the overarching theme of design thinking: empathy and problem framing. Today, we are joined by master practitioners of design thinking, the global design firm IDEO. We will explore a case study in DT application with a focus on their use of ideation to achieve an exceptional outcome for a client and their customers.

The problem your client asks you to address may not be precisely what they initially state. Consider if you’re asked to design a roadway intersection. Your stated problem might be something like:

Design an intersection where two perpendicular roads meet. Both roads have one lane of traffic traveling in opposite directions. The intersection must meet minimum federal and state safety standards for vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

Straightforward, right? You could open up your folder of intersection designs and specifications and proceed from one of these pre-approved, basic designs. And you could stop there.

But what if you dig deeper?

Consider if you and the planners had worked together and knew the community had more needs than the minimum standards required. Imagine the community members you have come to know. They need safe pedestrian and bike passage to go to and from work, to go to and from a public transportation stop nearby. You know that there are parents and or perhaps people with disabilities who need extra room on their journey to navigate the space with strollers and wheelchairs.

You realize that the original problem statement does not capture reality in its entirety. You know there are many different ways to design for community members, but where should your team begin?

How could design thinking help you?

No stone left unturned

Once we have done the work to ensure we understand the end user and their needs and we have their problem clearly articulated, we move to ideation. Ideation is a step of design thinking where creativity abounds. No stone should be left unturned. Every idea, no matter how silly or farfetched, should be enthusiastically brought to the table.

This means no criticizing someone’s idea you think is “crazy” or “totally unfeasible.”


Simply, that “wild idea” might be just what a team member needs to hear to iterate and come up with the best solution.

To help us understand what this looks like in execution, I turned to the people who pioneered design thinking as a method in the business space – IDEO. IDEO is a design consulting firm that helps all manner of clients with design problems from concrete (the first all-in-one wearable breast pump for example) to the abstract (designing a school system from the ground up for example). IDEO is known for their interdisciplinary and human-centered views. Let’s take a closer look at one of their projects.

IDEO was approached by State Farm Insurance to evaluate the question – “Why is our success in selling insurance and financial services not reaching younger demographics?”

“There’s a twist or turn in every project where we stop talking about demographics, and we start talking about personas, typologies of people, behavioral segmentation. We find that designing for behavior and behavior change is more universally effective.”

Rather than jumping to a solution, such as shifting marketing or creating new services, the IDEO and client team dove into what was going on with the target customers and how to understand them better.

I spoke to Randy Plemel, a trained architect and portfolio director at IDEO, to get a clear picture.

Plemel explained that their client realized they needed to strengthen their connection to younger potential customers, but were unsure how to cultivate successful and repeatable engagement. The team began with qualitative, ethnographic research.

While demographics are a good starting point, Plemel explained, “There’s a twist or turn in every project where we stop talking about demographics, and we start talking about personas, typologies of people, behavioral segmentation. We find that designing for behavior and behavior change is more universally effective.”

In this case, an initial demographic “average” of what State Farm sought to understand might be a specific gendered person, of a specific age, making a specific amount of money. By taking an inquisitive approach, the design team uses multiple tools to dig deeper into who the audience might really be; in this case it included:

• Observe how prospective users in different age brackets might use an insurance or financial service/product.

• Observe how users interact with specific services/products.

• Listen to what users say about the service/product.

• Discern what the users are not saying about the service/product.

Through this inquisitive approach, the team shifted from demographics to behavioral understanding. They could begin to paint a clearer picture of who they should focus on and then themes arose. These individuals were just beginning to have career and financial success in their lives. Some were renting their own apartments for the first time. Some were taking out student loans; perhaps they might be the first in their family to attend university. Some were getting married.

And as they continued interacting and learning about their cohort of interest, they learned that while this group had many questions related to finances, they also have many emotions – and, often, shame – associated with discussions around money. They weren’t given enough tools to make the best decision.

If we zoom out and think about the model of State Farm as a business, local agents, though hyper-aware of their local communities, simply were not equipped or incentivized to support the deep questions and emotional needs of this cohort. There was a gap for the individuals in the cohort to take the next steps in their financial lives. That gap could be summed up as a need for empowerment. But how could a business possibly facilitate this?

After these investigations involving person-to-person interviews with many individuals in the cohort, the design team was confident there were unmet needs. They needed to ideate and prototype potential solutions.

Trust the ideation process

The design team started with a big empty space in downtown Chicago. Initial ideas based on research were to start with something like a bank, a co-working facility, and an incubator. Early prototypes were highly imaginative; they used painter’s tape to partition off the floor to represent different parts of the “bank” or “incubator”. The team went through role-playing exercises.

As the role playing continued, the group could discern where the idea could shift in higher-fidelity versions. After tape came IKEA furniture.

“For testing these things, a bank didn’t make sense from a user or delivery point of view,” Plemel explained. “When we’re in this phase, we try to evaluate from three lenses: (1) desirability for people, (2) technological requirements, or how it could come to life (for example, a bank would require a vault, etcetera), and (3) viability – can the final concept be self-sustaining with profit, if it’s a business…”

Through these lenses, the design team was able to see that something more along the lines of a co-working space, with free wi-fi and coffee that also featured guides was the direction they wanted to head. With this vision, branding, colors, and tone were on the table for discussion. Initial concepts spanned using State Farm original branding to completely novel ideas that wouldn’t be easily seen as a related company or product.

Eventually, with more user feedback, the design team found that the original brand had to be at the foundation. Having a cornerstone of believability versus a “fly by night” startup feel, was critical to building trust in something as emotionally tugging as financial related advisory.

Our designs impact the day-to-day lives of these individuals. It’s up to us to find creative ways to meet their needs and to push ourselves to delight the end user.

And Next Door was born – a new hub that provides coaching and networking opportunities to help with financial planning.

Given that these services were offered pro-bono, I wondered – how are they measuring success?

“Initially, when we opened the doors, our success metrics were: net promoter score, Yelp reviews, the number of coaching sessions that were happening in a day or season, the velocity of coaching sessions in a day or season, repeat customers, and just general use of the space – people coming in to explore, have coffee, work,” Plemel explained.

As Plemel and I discussed, I heard about some struggles along the way too. There were also “sacrificial ideas” at many steps in the process, as there should be with any DT effort.  But what really struck me for Next Door to be successful was the talent that was needed. I asked him about filling those needs.

“Initially, there wasn’t a host role at the beginning of the design. We learned quickly that this was a need. The challenge was that the host needed to make you feel at home, and needed to be a universal solvent for coaches, guests, and other community visitors… The coaches needed a financial background to be believable, but they also needed to be approachable.” Those needs had to be articulated in job postings the right way in order to attract the right candidates. “Think about coaching for exercise. You might need someone firm, but you might need someone gentle and more understanding. Next Door needed to have a range of these [capabilities] on staff and a way to connect them appropriately… so it’s a hybrid life coach and financial planner.”

The biggest lesson I took away from learning about the Next Door project is – don’t assume that initial solutions will solve the core design problem you’re presented with. Trust the ideation process and dig deeper.

How this helps you

As civil engineers, our “customers” are often citizens who aren’t directly signing the check for our design and construction services. They are the people that use the roads and bridges; the families that will be walking around downtown, the operators who run the treatment plants, the maintenance and facility managers who keep building running smoothly.

Our designs impact the day-to-day lives of these individuals. It’s up to us to find creative ways to meet their needs, and, as we discussed in the first part of the series, to push ourselves to delight the end user.

How might you expand the ideation step of a future project? Let’s take a look at a guided Ideation exercise you could perform with your team.

Envisioning the Future

Tools Needed: White-board or large group table, post-it pad (one for each team member), paper, pens/markers

Overview:  Gather your team to create the front page of a newspaper several years in the future, say two years from now. The goal is to create a clear vision by aligning the team’s vision around a one-sentence newspaper headline


Write your problem statement clearly on a whiteboard or piece of paper, somewhere everyone can see it and read it out loud. Begin here to brainstorm different visions for where team members see the solution and the context in which they will operate.

Each person should write down elements of their vision for the newspaper headline. Use one post it for each individual word, idea, or vision. (six minutes)

Collect the post-its and collaborate at a white board or large group table and synthesize these thoughts into possible headlines. (10 minutes)

Find consensus in the group on a headline. (five minutes)

Draw a fictional future newspaper on a piece of paper and place the headline at the top in bold letters.

Use any extra time to sketch additional associated headlines of the future, perhaps related to the market, related events or other context.

This exercise is a nice example of creating consensus around vision. There are many other ideation exercises you can find online, including Lego challenges, writing PATH (problem, approach, target, heart) statements, to name a couple.

With your team’s creativity, you’ll be surprised by the limits you can push in design problem solving.

Melissa (Mel) Butcher is the Private Sector Group Midwest Region lead at Carollo Engineers, focusing on industrial water treatment, water risk, and sustainability. In her free time, she is a facilitator for “A Career That Soars,” supporing women in achieving their career ambitions. Learn more or get in touch at

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  1. Wonderfully written piece for better synergy between client and professional. Gives an out of box thinking process with step by step development of ideas. Kudos.


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