David Lanphear
Opportunity Areas flow from Observations to Insights, Opportunity Areas, and then Design Citeria

What are “Opportunity Areas” and How Many do We Pursue?

I got into a debate recently. It wasn’t over climate change, which character is best on Schitt’s Creek, or whether bicyclist’s should obey the rules of the road – though those are equally as compelling. No, this debate centered around what an opportunity area is and how they should be used.

You see, in the classic Design Thinking process (if there even is such a thing), opportunity areas provide a jumping off point to explore new, unique insights. Let’s review the Design Thinking steps:

  1. Frame a Question
  2. Gather Inspiration (from users)
  3. Synthesize for Action. <-We are here
  4. Generate Ideas
  5. Make Ideas Tangible
  6. Test to Learn

Within the “Synthesize for Action” step are two fundamental processes: discovering insights and creating opportunity areas. In prior versions of the IDEO process steps (seen above), these two functions were broken out, but for simplicity of experience they have since been combined. For our purposes, we’ll briefly look at them separately to better understand how they relate.

First – insights. Insights are those “Ah ha!” moments. They can come from people using different methods to solve similar problems, people using similar techniques to solve different problems, or from a single outlier who may not even know that what they are doing is unique. They can also be composed of mental maps, perspectives, values, influences, statistical data, or even market trends. By grouping and categorizing the ‘facts’ you’ve seen in the inspiration stage, you’re creating uniqueness in perspective. You then ask the infamous “why” question of your categories and are well on your way to forming a few carefully crafted insight statements. But now what?

I used design research to plan my wedding. Above is my board. Green post-its are observations. Pink hearts are themes that would eventually become insights (ask ‘why’) and combined into opportunity areas.

Finally, we’re on to opportunities. Traditionally, they’re super simple. Opportunities take 1 – 3 insight statements and turn them into a “How Might We” question (for more info on how might we statements, watch this).

For example, if you hear about a delivery man who drove with his leg out the window in order to reduce pain from a recent injury (true story) and a waitress who is forced back to work 2 weeks after having her first child (also true), you might come up with an insight that “Though legal protections exist for multi-person companies, the independent worker lacks a personal champion for their individual security” (completely made up – but could be true). From there, an opportunity area could be formed: “How might we provide individualized income security to independent contract workers?”

The above example is simplified with a 1 insight to 1 opportunity direct connection, but in reality, this can oftentimes be 1 to 1, 2 to 1, or even 3 to 1. This, I believe, is what can lead to confusion with opportunity areas.

Because no two challenges have the same scope and no two opportunity areas are created in exactly the same manner, it is actually a judgement call with how deep you want to explore opportunities.

Some opportunities, like the above, are broad areas of exploration that may dig deep into the world of individualized benefits, insurance regulations, and market feasibility studies. For opportunity areas such as this, it’s best to hold a stakeholder review and determine if this (or another opportunity area) is truly something that the team should focus on as it will likely take the majority of the teams’ capacity.

However, other opportunities – again, depending on the scope and relation to other insights – may be more ripe for exploration alongside each other. For instance, if in another project the opportunity area was “How might we help people in debt realign their spending to their income?” and another opportunity in the same project asked “How might we help people in debt protect themselves against future financial shocks?” we may choose a different path. In this example, since the user type is the same (or similar) and neither requires extreme specificity (at least not yet), it is my belief that both pathways can be explored simultaneously.

For those acute in-tune readers at home, you may be wondering – but what about all of the OTHER opportunity areas? And that is exactly the debate. How many opportunity areas should be pursued at any one time. In this author’s perspective, you should continue to pursue multiple opportunity areas until you reach an area that requires extreme specificity. This is not to say you pursue every opportunity area, but you select between 1 – 3 based on the pillars of likely desirability (need), feasibility, and viability. You select up to 3 because it allows researchers to explore dependencies between opportunities instead of digging an immediately deep knowledge hole that is ripe for selection bias in your recruitment.

Avoid going too deep too early and allow for quick iterations to help you dictate which opportunity areas provide the most depth for pursuit.

TLDR; Opportunity areas are simply the combination of 1 or more insights into a question on how you may be able to help the user achieve a uniquely positioned, unmet need. How many opportunity areas you pursue is completely up to the team, the scope of the project, and the depth of detail vs relationship it has with other opportunity areas – but should likely be no more than 3.

Attached is a little deck I made up to help frame this discussion.

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