Start Rapid Prototyping today!
Step 1: Observe
Look carefully at the simple tools around you and you are sure to find dozens of subtle design choices that make them more effiecient and intuitive to use. Notice the little ridge on the "J" key to allow the user to re-center their fingers without needing to look down at the keyboard.
Step 2: Brainstorm
Sometimes it helps to have some though-provoking buzzwords or scenarios to get the group thinking if they are still warming up. Here are some examples:
collapsable, foldable, stackable, musical, spring-loaded, dry, insulated, secure, thin, locking, memoryless, conducting, durrable, heavy, ratcheting, springy, flexable, easy-open, frictionless, thick, pocket-sized, sliding, moistened, light, rotating, overhung, twistable, fast-acting, networked, connectivity, synergy
Below you can see a drawing made during a brainstorming session used to consider how web content should be delivered to the user. The key here is get many different ideas written down so that later you can take a step back from them and decide which ideas have the greatest chance of working or teaching you the most about the problem/design space.
Step 3: Prototype
Do not let your mind get stuck in a rut! Consider using different materials and fabrication/manufacturing techniques to explore your problem from a different perspective.
Here are some materials to consider using:
Piezo, wood, fabric, oil, carpet, cardboard, aerogel, styrofoam, leather, aluminum, tile, paint, adhesive, glue, wax, food, ice, LEDs, spring, rubber, tape, plastic, water, graphite, wire, gel, stone, screws, foam, glass, caulking, concrete, polyurethane, hot-glue, steel, pins, alcohol, putty, paper, motors, cast structures, cork, magnets, velcro, plexi-glass, plaster, brass, chain, aerosol, carbon-fiber, foil, rope, fiberglass, zipper, snow, lens, filters
Below is an image of a crude prototype of an idea for a fan with no rotating parts. It is built from a cheap speaker, some machines acrylic, a latex glove, and some bolts/nuts to hold it all together. This was cheap and easy to build and proved to be a great proof-of-concept of the idea I was exploring. It showed me that I was on the right track, but most importantly, I was able to quickly learn from it and consider ways to make the device work better.
Step 4: Repeat!
In the picture below you can see the nature of rapid prototyping. These prototypes were all made in less than a couple months, with sometimes as many as 4 different protypes being created each day. The final solution was quite unique and different than anything else we could find. It was the insight gained from dozens of different rapidly created prototypes that allowed us to conceive our final design which included a novel actuation method, the Elacoil.
(Explorations in the field of Compliant Robotic Manipulation, CSAIL, M.I.T., 2005)