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Your constantly-updated definition of Brainstorming and collection of topical content and literature

What is Brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a method design teams use to generate ideas to solve clearly defined design problems. In controlled conditions and a free-thinking environment, teams approach a problem by such means as “How Might We” questions. They produce a vast array of ideas and draw links between them to find potential solutions.

Watch how to get serious, and fun, results with Brainstorming.

How To Use Brainstorming Best

Brainstorming is part of design thinking. You use it in the ideation phase. It’s extremely popular for design teams because they can expand in all directions. Although teams have rules and a facilitator to keep them on track, they are free to use out-of-the-box and lateral thinking to seek the most effective solutions to any design problem. By brainstorming, they can take a vast number of approaches—the more, the better—instead of just exploring conventional means and running into the associated obstacles. When teams work in a judgment-free atmosphere to find the real dimensions of a problem, they’re more likely to produce rough answers which they’ll refine into possible solutions later. Marketing CEO Alex Osborn, brainstorming’s “inventor”, captured the refined elements of creative problem-solving in his 1953 book, Applied Imagination. In brainstorming, we aim squarely at a design problem and produce an arsenal of potential solutions. By not only harvesting our own ideas but also considering and building on colleagues’, we cover the problem from every angle imaginable.

“It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.”

— Alex Osborn

Everyone in a design team should have a clear definition of the target problem. They typically gather for a brainstorming session in a room with a large board/wall for pictures/Post-Its. A good mix of participants will expand the experience pool and therefore broaden the idea space.

Brainstorming may seem to lack constraints, but everyone must observe eight house rules and have someone acting as facilitator.

  1. Set a time limit – Depending on the problem’s complexity, 15–60 minutes is normal.

  2. Begin with a target problem/brief – Members should approach this sharply defined question, plan or goal and stay on topic.

  3. Refrain from judgment/criticism – No-one should be negative (including via body language) about any idea.

  4. Encourage weird and wacky ideas – Further to the ban on killer phrases like “too expensive”, keep the floodgates open so everyone feels free to blurt out ideas (provided they’re on topic).

  5. Aim for quantity – Remember, “quantity breeds quality”. The sifting-and-sorting process comes later.

  6. Build on others’ ideas – It’s a process of association where members expand on others’ notions and reach new insights, allowing these ideas to trigger their own. Say “and”—rather than discourage with “but”—to get ideas closer to the problem.

  7. Stay visual – Diagrams and Post-Its help bring ideas to life and help others see things in different ways.

  8. Allow one conversation at a time – To arrive at concrete results, it’s essential to keep on track this way and show respect for everyone’s ideas.

To capture everyone’s ideas in a brainstorming session, someone must play “scribe” and mark every idea on the board. Alternatively, write down your own ideas as they come, and share these with the group. Often, design problems demand mixed tactics: brainstorming and its sibling approaches – braindumping (for individuals), and brainwriting and brainwalking (for group-and-individual mixes).

Take Care with Brainstorming

Brainstorming involves harnessing synergy – we leverage our collective thinking towards a variety of potential solutions. However, it’s challenging to have boundless freedom. In groups, introverts may stay quiet while extroverts dominate. Whoever’s leading the session must “police” the team to ensure a healthy, solution-focused atmosphere where even the shiest participants will speak up. A warm-up activity can cure brainstorming “constipation” – e.g., ask participants to list ways the world would be different if metal were like rubber.

Another risk is to let the team stray off topic and/or address other problems. As we may use brainstorming in any part of our design process—including areas related to a project’s main scope—it’s vital that participants stick to the problem relevant to that part (what Osborn called the “Point of View”). Similarly, by framing problems with “How Might We” questions, we remember brainstorming is organic and free of boundaries. Overall, your team should stay fluid in the search for ways you might resolve an issue – not chase a “holy grail” solution someone has developed elsewhere. The idea is to mine idea “ore” and refine “golden” solutions from it later.

Learn More about Brainstorming

The Interaction Design Foundation’s course on Design Thinking discusses Brainstorming in depth: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/design-thinking-the-beginner-s-guide-ver1

This blog offers incisive insights into Brainstorming workshops: https://blog.intercom.com/running-design-workshops/

Jonathan Courtney’s article for Smashing Magazine shows Brainstorming’s versatility: https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2016/06/a-framework-for-brainstorming-products

Literature on Brainstorming

Here’s the entire UX literature on Brainstorming by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Brainstorming

Take a deep dive into Brainstorming with our course Creativity: Methods to Design Better Products and Services .

The overall goal of this course is to help you design better products, services and experiences by helping you and your team develop innovative and useful solutions. You’ll learn a human-focused, creative design process.

We’re going to show you what creativity is as well as a wealth of ideation methods―both for generating new ideas and for developing your ideas further. You’ll learn skills and step-by-step methods you can use throughout the entire creative process. We’ll supply you with lots of templates and guides so by the end of the course you’ll have lots of hands-on methods you can use for your and your team’s ideation sessions. You’re also going to learn how to plan and time-manage a creative process effectively.

Most of us need to be creative in our work regardless of if we design user interfaces, write content for a website, work out appropriate workflows for an organization or program new algorithms for system backend. However, we all get those times when the creative step, which we so desperately need, simply does not come. That can seem scary—but trust us when we say that anyone can learn how to be creative­ on demand. This course will teach you ways to break the impasse of the empty page. We'll teach you methods which will help you find novel and useful solutions to a particular problem, be it in interaction design, graphics, code or something completely different. It’s not a magic creativity machine, but when you learn to put yourself in this creative mental state, new and exciting things will happen.

In the “Build Your Portfolio: Ideation Project”, you’ll find a series of practical exercises which together form a complete ideation project so you can get your hands dirty right away. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you will get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

Your instructor is Alan Dix. He’s a creativity expert, professor and co-author of the most popular and impactful textbook in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Alan has worked with creativity for the last 30+ years, and he’ll teach you his favorite techniques as well as show you how to make room for creativity in your everyday work and life.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you’ve completed the course. You can highlight it on your resume, your LinkedIn profile or your website.

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