Alan Dix - research
and innovation techniques
[silly ideas home] [what
do I mean by a bad idea?] [thinking about
bad ideas] [the groups] [silly
ideas and 'solutions']
turning bad ideas into good ideas
Thinking about bad ideas is part brainstorming, but more important about learning to think about any idea, new good ideas you have yourself, other people's existing ideas and products.
I'll illustrate some of the points with the 'inflatable dart board' and 'Ian;s chocolate blow-torch nozzle'.
For this session I asked for bad ideas in general, you can d the same thing asking about bad ideas in a particular domain: a bad idea in computer networking, a bad door handle etc.
why bad ideas
- Less pre-conceptions
If we try and think of a good idea or a solution to a problem, it is easy to just move along familiar paths, the things we've thought about before. Looking for a bad idea helps you move out into unfamiliar ground. By playing with bad ideas you can get to understand a domain in a way that no good idea would let you.
- Less personal commitment
When we think of a good idea it's very hard to critique it or to hear critique from others. It can become fossilised before you start! But, if it's a bad idea, you are free to critique, analyse and ultimately improve it. The bad ideas may themselves lead to good ones, or may simply give you practice in asking the right questions.
For any idea/product/system, you can ask the following two (obvious) questions.
- What is good about it
The most interesting thing to ask about a bad idea! For the inflatable dart board answers include 'it floats', or the blow torch 'chocolate is nice', also reminds me that cooks use small flame guns for creating caramelised toppings on deserts.
but dig deeper ... 'chocolate is nice - to eat', a floating dart board could be used in a swimming pool.
- What is bad about it
Don't be afraid to state the obvious.
The group who originally proposed the inflatable dart board to me took a full 5 minutes before someone said 'because the darts would burst it'!
Again probe deeper, early answers to 'what is bad' for the dart board included 'it's full of air'. Asking the why question shows this isn't fundamentally what is wrong, on alternatively that it isn't necessarily a bad thing (car tyres are full of air, is that bad?).
What = component/aspect/use
In answering the 'what' question you may naturally focus on particular components (e.g. chocolate nozzle could be eaten'), but often particular aspects that are not isolated in components are more important (e.g. floating is quite diffuse). Alternatively, you may find your self saying "it would be really useful if..."
Why ... context ...
As you think of the 'why' questions you will almost certainly find yourself using aspects of context - being able to deflate a dartboard would be good if you wanted to pack it into a suitcase.
as it is
Before modifying your bad idea to turn it into a good one, stop a second to see how it is good in its own right.
Here's two questions to ask yourself (also good t uncover 'what's good' above)
- What is it optimal for? ... find a context
Can you think of any context where this idea would be the best possible thing?
The context may be quite arcane!
I also find this a very useful question to ask when trying to improve upon an existing artefact. It's easy to say "it doesn't work" when faced with a bit of poor software, bad machinery or ugly art. But just imagine that the original designer really did have a higher purpose in mind - what could it be?
- Car salesman approach
Imagine you are a car salesman. OK you know that you make of car isn't necessarily the very best on the market, but you have commission to earn - can you imagine selling your 'bad idea'? You'd naturally concentrate on the good, but have answers prepared if your customer notices the bad points.
make it a good idea
OK now's the time to make money (or at least fame and publications).
- What is good - keep it
Because you now know what particular aspects are good you should try to preserve them
- What is bad - change it
... and you know what is bad so change them
but no cheating here - don't take the inflatable dartboard and say "let's make it out of cork" - keep to the spirit of the bad idea.
For example, for the chocolate nozzled blow torch, I might simply make the blow torch a little cooler and have a melted chocolate dispenser. Alternatively, if I change the chocolate into a hollow tube of soldering flux (still melts), I have a novel form of welding device (may even exist).
- Change context
Sometimes the thing to do is not change the idea, but change the context in which it sits. This s a bit of a variant on 'what is it optimal for', only now you can tinker with the idea and you are looking for a practical change of both idea and context. For example, the inflatable dart board is bad because the darts burst it, the obvious change in context is to change the darts, add Velcro ends and we have a beach toy that can be packed into your suitcase to Ibiza, then inflated floated on the pool as you throw Velcro darts at it - a product that would sell!
- Learn from aspects
Whether you can redeem the bad idea itself or not, the process of thinking about it often helps you understand the domain a lot more. For example, one of the suggestions was 'a glass hammer'. It's bad because it would break - but glass is also hard like diamond (coffin makers used to use broken glass to make smooth surfaces on wood, so not unuseful for carpentry). Why do the normal materials in a hammer work? Why a wooden handle - notice that all metal hammers normally have rubber grips - why? In fact the surface of most metal tools is usually toughened which means making them harder and slightly more brittle. If the whole tool were as brittle it, like the glass hammer, would shatter. Ceramics (basically glass) are used, embedded into a metal matrix, in certain complex tools.