Author Archives: Guest Writer

Finding the Ideas: Where Great Ideas Come From


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Our culture places a very high value on creativity. We give TED Talks about it, write books about it, and generally spend a lot of time contemplating it. But despite all this talk, it remains stubbornly elusive. There’s no two ways about it: it’s hard to be creative. It just might be one of the hardest things people try to do.

Creative thinking is affected by your entire being: how you slept last night, what you ate today, what you read before you went to sleep last night—the list goes on. But it turns out that a lot of creativity has to do with your working environment. Where you work affects how you think, and there are many studies to prove it.



Hotels are a great sort of limbo between real life and fantasy. The setting is dingily cinematic, familiar and alien all at once. It seems like strange things could easily have happened in this room, maybe even quite recently. Likewise, all you have in the way of entertainment is pay-per-view TV, so they can become incubators for ideas.

Think about it: you’re alone in an unfamiliar city. What a perfect time to get some real thinking done! Sure, you could spring for the wifi and just connect to the world like you always do, but maybe stay off the grid for a night, and see what your mind cooks up while the internet’s out.

And, research shows you’ll be in good company. The famous author Maya Angelou is said to always have booked hotel rooms to do her writing, finding them to be perfect for removing distractions and focusing on the task at hand. In her words: “I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything.”



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Trains and planes

Sometimes it can be hard to take the time to get creative because you feel like you should be spending time working on something more immediately rewarding. But time spent traveling is essentially dead time: you have to spend that time moving, and there’s a limit to the amount of other work you can get finished on your way.

But, taken another way, these cramped spaces are perfect little workshops. They’re slightly uncomfortable, so they naturally encourage you to be introspective. The scenery flows by serenely yet quickly, changing, but staying static at the same time. You’re free to let your eyes glaze over as you look through the window and get that thought just right before you put it down on paper.

There’s a lot of evidence that many writers found trains to be excellent sources of creativity and great places to write. Amtrak even offers a writer’s residency, where they say writers can do their work in “unique workspace of a long-distance train.”


In public

Next time you need to make that breakthrough, grab a notebook and head out for a coffee. Take the coffee to somewhere nice and busy, like a central square (or even stay at the cafe if it seems to be a lively place). Sit somewhere a bit further back, where you can see a wide angle of all the action. And just watch. Try to figure out what’s happening with each of these people you can see, their fears, motivations, dreams, and desires. Imagine what it’s like to be them.

This can be a great way to remove yourself from your own context and really inspire some creativity, and better yet—it’s supported by science. A recent study showed that the background noise of a cafe is the perfect balance between loud and quiet, and it allows us to focus without becoming lost in our own minds. Not at a coffee shop? Try Coffitivity, a website that plays coffeeshop background noise so you can focus wherever you are.


A library or bookstore

Sometimes, the most important creation is just brute-forced out of your brain. Sometimes you have to sit and just work at something for hours on end, squeezing every tiny step out of your mind like a damp rag. These are the tough ideas, and they take dedication.

It’s also, unsurprisingly, the perfect place to read, and many studies have shown reading to be essential for stimulating creativity. The library or a bookstore is the perfect place to sit in silence with absolutely no distraction and turn your unbroken focus to the task at hand.


The Automation of Creativity

Not only are people looking for ways to think creatively, but they are looking to remove the burden by letting lines of computer code put the pieces together. Things like business name generators, online logo makers, and copywriting computers are becoming increasingly popular as businesses pursue every avenue to cut costs and save time. Although there is an argument that these tools are the death of creativity, you cannot deny that automation like this requires an immense amount of creativity to design and develop.




Nick RojasNick Rojas is a business consultant and writer who lives in Los Angeles. He has consulted small and medium-sized enterprises for over twenty years. He has  contributed articles to, Entrepreneur, and TechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter @NickARojas, or you can reach him at

The Wisdom of Crowdsourcing

tmui_webinarIn 1906, British scientist Francis Galton took a day trip to the country fair that would uncover a principle critical to the idea of crowd-listening. It was the heyday of social Darwinism, and Galton believed very little in the common man; he was of the opinion that only proper breeding and the preservation of power for the elite could maintain a healthy society; few, to his mind, were suitable to make decisions or lead others.

Happening upon a contest to guess the weight of a fat ox, he decided to put the common man’s judgment to the test: he collected all 800 guesses at the end and ran statistical tests to see how far off this random collection was. To his great surprise, the average of all the answers was just one pound away from the cow’s actual weight – much closer than any individual’s guess, including the livestock experts’.

The wisdom of crowds… or the danger of mobs?

This stunning display of accuracy gave birth to the idea of the wisdom of crowds: that the judgments of a large number of people, averaged together, tend towards a high degree of correctness. The concept has been applied to a number of fields, to explain and defend such things as democratic governance, or Wikipedia. Crowdsourcing too relies heavily on the principle.

Some, though, question whether it is wisdom that tends to define large groups, or a dangerous mob mentality. Throughout history, large groups have committed appalling acts as individuals lose all sense of personal responsibility among the mob. Where is the line? What drives a crowd to one or the other end of the spectrum? And how can we use this knowledge to better the way we do crowdsourcing?

1. Diversity: Having diversity in a group is critical to getting ‘wise’ judgments. The reason for this is integral to the reason why the wisdom of the crowd works at all – when so many different viewpoints and ideas are combined together and aggregated, underestimations and overestimations cancel out; support and opposition strike a balance; every stretched and skewed and miscalculated piece of input is accounted for by another. The more different ideas there are, the more likely this process is to happen.

In the context of crowdsourcing technology, the best way to ensure diversity is to build welcoming communities that invite people and ideas of every kind. More importantly, the platform must be accessible to a wide range of people. It can be all too easy, when you’re building a website or system, to create something that specially fits your own mental models, but to encourage diversity your creation has to be easy for anybody to understand. It’s important that no group feels like someone else is being catered to or being treated with preference, and so testing your system with a wide variety of demographics – different incomes, education levels, ethnic backgrounds, web experience, and so on – is critical.

2. Independent generation of ideas: People in groups can be prone to bandwagoning and groupthink. The loudest voice grab followers, and the most popular opinion gets more popular. Of course, when this happens, all of the different viewpoints of the individuals in the crowd are lost as they throw in their lot with someone else. To preserve the crowd’s insight and wisdom, members must make their judgments independently, with minimal social influencing. That doesn’t mean they have to be an isolated hermit to have a valid opinion, but simply that when it comes time to speak their mind, they don’t feel overly pressured. For example, come election time we are unavoidably subject to all sorts of media and popular debate, but when we cast our ballot, it is done alone in a private booth.

For crowdsourcing, since most web users are already alone and less likely to be unduly swayed by their peers, the important thing is to give every idea exposure. When many users are submitting ideas and views, it is easy for submissions that gain early traction to get all the attention and sweep away less prominent or later submissions. It’s a tricky problem, but there are solutions, including letting crowd members vote or comment before seeing the successfulness of posts, or displaying a randomized selection of submissions, or providing rewards for reading or voting on more submissions.

The main thing is to be conscious of how users experience and are affected by the system, so that the flaws that sometimes surface in crowd thinking can be dealt with and prevented from turning your crowd into a mob. With the right framework, the crowd can be a powerful tool to generate quality feedback and can be harnessed to do a wide variety of work.

To hear about how the wisdom of crowds is being harnessed to take the work out of website usability research, sign up for the UXCrowd webinar on December 9th with IdeaScale CEO Rob Hoehn, former Zynga user research director Rob Aseron, and usability testing service TryMyUI.

Don’t Stop Now: Why You Can’t Stop Innovating Once You Start

image curtesy of randy heinitz via flickr

image courtesy of randy heinitz via flickr

Innovation is a tough topic. It’s one of those words that is overused, over-hyped and generally misunderstood. In fact, over the past few years, a number of thought leaders published in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes and other venues have urged the elimination of the word innovation from business vocabularies.

Has the word itself become the business equivalent of cute cats and selfies?

Regardless of what you might want to replace it with, the concept is necessary even though innovators like Thomas Edison and Leonardo Da Vinci probably never used the word “innovate” in describing what they were doing.

Problems, problems
Probably one of the biggest struggles of organizations that want to innovate is coming up with a definition of innovation that actually helps them determine when they’ve been successful at innovating.

Another thing that makes innovation difficult is that the products of innovation are not always accepted by the marketplace. This is a double-edged sword that makes everything more difficult from forecasting revenue and ROI, to identifying target markets, marketing messaging, and

Oftentimes, too, innovation can introduce unexpected supply chain problems.

Risk is a requirement
Innovation is incredibly risky business. This is why most companies are willing to let others do the innovating and then play follow-the leader. This “drafting the leader” approach to business strategy makes innovation doubly risky for innovators because just the act of innovating, in most cases, lowers the barriers to entry for competitors.

This means that once you start playing the innovation game, there is no stopping. If innovation is required to establish a market leadership position, it is also required, in many cases, to maintain a market leadership position. This innovation imperative, once it is adopted can hardly ever be set aside. Instead of playing an innovation tournament at the end of a season, innovation must become a full-time preoccupation for, well, ever.

That being the case, innovation becomes a much bigger challenge than simply allocating some creative thinkers, giving them a budget, equipping a secretive workspace in which they can make their magic, designating them the “Innovation Department.”

It isn’t pocket change
Innovation means change. Not incremental change, but sweeping change that requires conceptual shifts for both the introducers of the change and the consumers of the the change. This kind of change is messy and unpredictable. This kind of change hardly ever happens without a strong leader.

Sustaining an ongoing innovation effort requires investment on many levels. For an organization to build a culture that can sustainably support relentless innovation, the investments are substantial–another reason corporations would rather play second fiddle in the innovation orchestra.

Here are some of the ways organizations can prepare.

1. Diversity – One of the essentials of innovation is a diversity of inputs from a variety of perspectives. This means people with different cultural, educational, experiential and even spiritual backgrounds and world-views.

Most recruiting practices today are designed to comply with government mandated, politically correct diversity requirements, but the departments in charge of this bean counting approach to diversity will never satisfy the diversity requirements for innovation. This is, in fact, one of the conceptual shifts required.

2. Personal time – Another crucial factor in innovation is having time to reconfigure things in one’s own mental space. This activity is not something that happens in a collaborative setting; it is intensely private.

Measuring the success or productivity of this activity cannot be accomplished with traditional manufacturing-style productivity measures. There must be a liberal allowance for this type of personal investment in personal conceptual shifts, away from interactive and collaborative settings and situations.

3. Flexible organizational structure – Creative people have little use for hierarchical organizational structures with all the lines and dotted lines traditionally used in org charts. Innovators are more interested in results than reports and deliverables. Building this into the culture of an organization requires a leadership conceptual shift around what really matters most.

Creative people basically interact with everyone as a peer. The flatter an organization or team is, the more successful it is likely to be at innovation.

*     *     *

No one knows in advance which combination of people, elements, ideas, events, models, diagrams, jokes, or magazine articles are going to be the combination that pulls everything together for the next game-changing conceptual shift.

The best an organization can do is make sure there is plenty of opportunity for these things to happen in as many ways as possible and encourage them to happen as often as possible. This sounds like a big risk, but if growth is a requirement, not being configured to support and sustain innovation is much riskier.

Guest Author, Ivan SerranoThis guest post is authored by Ivan Serrano, a business journalist and infographic specialist located in Northern California.

Going further with crowdsourced user testing: The System Usability Scale

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Opening your ears and eyes to input from every level is critical to staying innovative – a lesson the folks behind TryMyUI put into practice with crowdsourced web usability testing that connects businesses and organizations with real users and their concerns and insights. Video, audio, and written feedback are all invaluable in optimizing your website for the customer, but they don’t fill all the gaps in your self-understanding.

Imagine an Olympic swimmer that watches video to improve his form, invests in the newest and most advanced swimwear, and trains in the best of facilities. Every time he beats his personal record, he is making progress; but it’s hard to know what that progress means until he compares his time to the other top swimmers’ personal bests. In the same way, it is easier to understand and make the most of usability feedback when it is placed in the context of the bigger picture – How does your website chalk up to the myriad others? In what aspects is it stronger, or weaker? Grounding your user feedback in a broader context allows for a complete understanding of the nuances of not just your own system, but also of the global system of which it is a part.

Fortunately, a tool exists already that has been used for decades to this very purpose. The System Usability Scale (SUS) is a widely respected questionnaire that quantifies and standardizes usability data, allowing UX researchers to make meaningful comparisons between feedback that, in its video/audio form, is subjective and non-measurable. Today something of an industry standard in the usability field, SUS has long been a favorite for its simplicity and accuracy: ten questions, a five-point “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” response system, and a quick scoring algorithm yield an extremely reliable score for your website on a scale of 0 to 100.

1. I think that I would like to use this system frequently.
2. I found the system unnecessarily complex.
3. I thought the system was easy to use.
4. I think that I would need the support of a technical person to be able to use this system.
5. I found the various functions in this system were well integrated.
6. I thought there was too much inconsistency in this system.
7. I would imagine that most people would learn to use this system very quickly.
8. I found the system very cumbersome to use.
9. I felt very confident using the system.
10. I needed to learn a lot of things before I could get going with this system

SUS response scale

With thousands of previously documented uses to compare to, SUS gives you a solid idea of users’ overall satisfaction with your website, and can even be broken down into usability and learnability components. The percentile ranking contextualizes your raw score, allowing you to understand how your site performs relative to others; and some researchers have tried, with some success, to map adjectives like “excellent,” “poor,” or “worst imaginable” to individual scores for extra insight.

SUS quartiles and adjectives

By various accounts, the mean SUS score hovers around 68-70.5 (a score that roughly corresponds, as it happens, to the adjective “good,” though falling quite short of “excellent”). Normalizing score distribution with percentiles therefore makes a 68 (or a 70.5) into a 50% – better than half of all other systems tested, and worse than the other half.

Though described by its inventor as a “quick and dirty” measure, studies have found SUS to be among the most accurate and reliable of all usability surveys, across sample sizes. It has today become one of the most successful metrics for quantifying system satisfaction, with thousands using it to gauge user-friendliness over a wide range of products online and off.

It is these qualities that make SUS so key in getting a holistic picture of your website. By aggregating and synthesizing a diverse array of tester responses into a concise portrait of website usability, SUS brings a deeper understanding of what your user feedback really means. If individual test videos are the trees, SUS shows you not only the forest, but the entire ecosystem into which your system fits; with a widely-trusted industry standard to rely on, you can take a step back from your own company and see how you fit into the broader world that surrounds you.

To learn more about the System Usability Scale and its application in UX research, join TryMyUI and Measuring Usability’s Jeff Sauro for the SUS Webinar on October 9.


Innovation Possibilities: What Companies Should Really Focus On

Concept of six ability in human brainThere was a time when a designer might say “A camel is a horse designed by committee.” It was a disparaging metaphor to warn you of what would happen if you designed anything by a committee with no unifying vision. The metaphor also implies (by some interpretations) that input of any kind from a committee would seal your fate and doom your project.

Times are changing (and for what it’s worth, camels are amazing). Working in large groups is now more manageable, and the idea of a lone designer is fading into obscurity, at least to the extent that we’ve been given better tools to communicate and collaborate.

Social media and cloud computing have contributed enormously to collaborative problem solving and creative thinking. Cloud-based services have become game changers for technological advancement. Business models that have embraced collaborations over the Internet have brought sorely needed resources to inventors/co-inventors and collaborators alike.

Brainstorming in the cloud: In terms of intellectual property, it presents an interesting twist to our history. The contribution of independent inventors has been in decline since the 1880’s. In the 1930’s, independent inventors were responsible for about half of all U.S. patents; a turning point with respect to who contributes most to U.S. innovation.

With the introduction of social media and cloud computing, the virtual dichotomy that existed between independent and corporate innovators began to break down. Instead of approaching banks or individual investors for capital, many inventors have been supported by crowdfunding campaigns. Likewise, the practice of developing contacts through traditional word-of-mouth introductions have been replaced with online entrepreneurial groups. Sites like are driving in-person meetings all over the country.

As the landscape of R&D has changed, so has that of academic and scientific endeavors. Sites like zooniverse and invite anyone to join and help solve scientific problems.

Innovation doesn’t always develop into a patent or research paper. The same basic crowdsourcing model can be applied to any area of ideation, whether it be a political/social policy, the floorplan of a new church, the next great science fiction series, or a musical composition.

Although this article focuses mainly on the Internet for enhancing human collaborations, the theme of cloud computing extends to the idea of combining the power of many computers to solve complex problems.

Managing Ideation: The Internet has become the conduit for a flood of ideas, almost too many to appreciate or exploit. Innovation management has evolved in response to that persistent torrent of creative thinking. Although the business models vary for each social network, the first three steps are the same:

1. Create a network from which collaborators can develop and share ideas.

2. Attract innovative organizations, groups, corporations, etc. to your network, where they can apply their collective skills.

3. Provide a project management environment as a service, where organizations are given the ability to efficiently collect, refine, and build on the best ideas.

The process itself is analogous to a conversion funnel, where a large number of ideas enter the funnel. As ideas undergo further development and scrutiny, some will be deemed unviable and rejected. The remaining ideas are brought to fruition. A more refined explanation categorizes ideas as “breakthrough” or “incremental” and are put through different processes, one slightly more confined than the other.

A. Breakthrough Innovation: This is innovation which is fundamentally unique. In some circumstances, it’s referred to as “game-changing” or “disruptive” because it often forces competitors to rethink their own innovative path.

B. Incremental Innovation: This involves the further development of an existing product or process. It is the addition of innovation for the sake of enhanced performance/functionality or an adaptation to an alternate use.

Some sites create work environments for the benefit of others as a service, while Quirky, for example, collects ideas as part of their own product development program. Both models involve the same basic steps, which pools and directs talent for bringing ideas to fruition. Such collaborative efforts make the creative process flexible, and highly functional. In fact, it lends itself very well to mobile applications and cloud services.

The concept of “idea management” and the events that led to its emergence are representative of a significant shift in our culture. It promises to take the process of technological advancement to a level unlike anything in human history.


Guest Author, Ivan SerranoThis guest post is authored by Ivan Serrano, a business journalist and infographic specialist located in Northern California.

Keeping Citizen Engagement Engaging

Today’s post is by guest author Norman Jacknis.


Starting at the national level with the Obama Administration’s open government initiative in 2009, there have been many attempts at crowdsourcing in various governments and public agencies.

From his campaign, President Obama realized that we can now scale up collaboration and participation – and create a 21st century version of the old New England Town Meetings that, while not perfect, did a pretty good job of engaging residents.

Unfortunately many of these efforts have been disappointing in various ways:

            •    Fewer people participated than expected.
            •    The forum was “hijacked by fringe groups” – this was one criticism of the early Obama open government efforts because decriminalizing Marijuana turned out to be one of the more popular proposals.  (But see my earlier post “Do Good Ideas Bubble Up From The Crowd?”)
            •    The site went stale, with early excitement evaporating and participation going to zero.  As an example, see the Texas Red Tape Challenge.
            •    Citizens were encouraged to participate and did so, only to find that their ideas were disregarded by public officials, which only increased the frustration among both citizen and officials.

Nevertheless, when they succeed, citizen engagements can satisfy several public purposes.  They are a great way to get help and new ideas, test proposals, understand priorities of voters and educate citizens about the complexities and realities of governing.  Moreover, in response to the general decline in respect for major public, nonprofit and private institutions, crowdsourcing is a way of earning back respect and trust — and convincing a skeptical public that public officials really care.  All of these benefits make it easier for public officials to govern better.

And the successes have provided important lessons.  Most important, like lots of other things, crowdsourcing requires some thought before implementation.

You won’t get the best results if you take a “just build it and they will come” approach.  At the other extreme, you can bury any government initiative in “analysis paralysis”.   A reasonable balance is to plan how public officials will:

            •    Set realistic expectations within their own organization as well as with the public;
            •    Target the appropriate audience for the discussion;
            •    Set up the topic/question in a clear, unbiased way;
            •    Start the conversation with citizens;
            •    Figure out how to manage the conversation and keep citizens engaged; and last but not least,
            •    End the engagement in a way that provides a positive experience for citizens and the government.

When these engagements actually engage citizens, they help redefine the relationship between public officials and the people they serve.  And they can provide a core of solid support from the public that any public official would desire – the kind of support that will carry officials through those bad times when they also make mistakes.

Find out about our new Government Starter Package, and launch your 1st citizen engagement campaign with IdeaScale.