Ok, you say.  All that brainstorming sounds fun and all but…what if we have no idea where to even start?  Or what if there are key questions we don’t know the answer to?

It didn’t occur to me until I was reading Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft that some people are actually freaked out by the term “research”.  For myself, the term always fills me with a thrill.  I love the excitement of the hunt and any chance to learn new things.  When the World Wide Web was new, I was one of those people following link after link after link for hours just absorbing all the information I could (and there weren’t very many funny cat photos on the internet back then).

For those of you for whom “research” fills you with dread however, don’t worry.  The kind of research we’re talking about here is not the deep involvement with a subject that made you cringe when you were writing term papers.  This is a more appetizer version, just intended to spark useful ideas that you can use in your design.  While you are conducting your idea-sparking expedition, keep more of those blank cards handy – you can write down more ideas to later add to your brainstorming “idea deck”.

Here are some ways to get some brain juice flowing.

Googlepedia
The easiest way to start researching a topic these days is, of course, the magic duo of Google and Wikipedia.  Just put search terms related to your topic into these engines of knowledge and see what comes out.  The trick here is to not worry too much about what DOES actually come out.  You are not trying to learn everything about the problem you are designing for – not yet.  You are just looking for anything that sparks an idea.  Be open to what you read, take notes and save the link to anything interesting (I use Evernote) so you can find it again later.

Research hack: I am a very visual person and for me I often find it faster and easier to put a search term in Google and then click the “Images” tab that appears above the search results.  Generally speaking, human brains can parse pictures much more quickly than strings of text.  If I see an intriguing image I can click on it and then click the “visit page” button to read more.  Often though, images alone are enough to get my brain going.

Talk to people
Not quite as speedy as web research, but super valuable.  Sit down with someone whose opinions you respect, someone who has experience with this kind of work and/or someone who would be personally affected by your end project and talk to them.  Actually, what you really want to do is listen to them.  Tell them what your current thoughts are, what direction you think you want to take and where you are stuck.  And then listen carefully and take notes.  Chances are you will learn something new and some angle that had never occurred to you before will be revealed.

Field trips
Sometimes there’s no substitute for getting a change of scenery.  When your brain feels like it is in gridlock, taking yourself to someplace that might have something to tell you about your design challenge can be – literally and figuratively – a breath of fresh air.  Places to check out could be museums (there are so many weird little museums around, do a quick internet search and see what is near you), parks and zoos and beaches, stores/shops, or even just your favorite people-watching locations.  If your work is about a particular neighborhood or place, go there and wander around (being safe if you need to be safe of course).  A good idea is to make a list of interesting places to check out before you even dive super deep into idea generation.  That way if you get stuck you know to head out the door, and which direction to point your feet.

What is like this?  
When I worked as a digital game designer, one of the first things I would do with any design challenge is survey the field.  Looking for, and playing, games that were similar thematically or mechanically to what I was toying with would give me a ton of new ideas.  As a bonus I would be improving my overall knowledge of the field which in turn gave me ideas for future projects and made me more interesting to talk to at industry get-togethers.

Why the library is still better than the internet
Google is great, don’t get me wrong.  But the library is where it’s at, for this simple reason: it is full of books.  Let’s say you’re at home and you do a google search on panda bears.  You’ll get Wikipedia at the top, followed by a number of pages that all have basically the same set of facts about giant pandas.  Now you go to the library, do a search on their computer for panda bears and go to the section it directs you to.  You see some books on pandas which have similar content (but maybe more of it) to what you’d find on Wikipedia.  But then next to those books are some books about panda physiology, which you’ve never thought that much about before, and then a book about how pandas are linked to Chinese politics.  Walking further down the row you see books about other bears which gets you thinking about how these different species adapted to their different environments, etc. etc.  So whereas doing an internet search can help you find what you were looking for, browsing at the library can help you find things you never even KNEW you were looking for.

The key to doing idea research is to face it with curiosity and an open mind.  When you start, you don’t really know what you’re looking for.  If you think you know, you are in danger of closing yourself off to magical possibilities.  This is an exploration, an adventure, a treasure hunt for ideas.  Enjoy the journey, learn new things and write them down.  And always be ready to record your thoughts on a moment’s notice, in case you find just the right thing to send your brain into overdrive.