Brainwalking

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What is Brainwalking?

Brainwalking is a collaborative ideation technique where participants generate ideas by moving around in a designated space. It is an extension of brainstorming. Designers aim to overcome the limitations of traditional idea generation methods by walking around, observing visual stimuli, and sharing their ideas.

How do UX Design Teams Use Brainwalking to Generate Ideas?

In the user experience (UX) design world, it’s crucial to generate innovative ideas to ultimately create exceptional products. One popular technique among UX design teams is brainwalking. In traditional brainstorming sessions, everyone sits. However, in brainwalking, design team members walk around a room or space adorned with items that act as stimuli. These could be posters, images, or other items related to the design challenge at hand. As you walk, you and your team members observe the stimuli and share your ideas. You do this verbally or by jotting ideas down on sticky notes.

Brainwalking is one of a number of brainstorming variants like brainwriting and braindumping. UX design teams use it to foster creativity, collaboration, and diverse perspectives during the ideation phase of a project. Because it involves physical movement and visual stimuli, brainwalking stimulates the brain's associative thinking. Some powerful insights can come when you go from station to station in a room. It’s a unique way to reach into the problem-solving space and get to more diverse, innovative, and good ideas.

Image of people engaged in a brainwalking session.

Everyone gets to flex their creative muscles in this activity.

© Michaela Haase, Fair Use

The Benefits of Brainwalking

Here are some ways that brainwalking can help your ideation process.

1. Enhanced Creativity and Idea Generation

The physical movement and exposure to visual stimuli can go a long way towards the beginnings of potential solutions. The activity stimulates creative thinking and lets you and others generate a wide range of ideas. What’s more, the combination of moving and observing helps you all think outside the box. You might make connections to fresh ideas that you may not have made while seated in a traditional brainstorming session.

2. Improved Collaboration and Communication

The activity encourages active participation and collaboration among team members. As you all move around the space, you engage in discussions, share ideas, and build upon each other's thoughts. This collaborative environment fosters better communication and ensures everyone gets to consider diverse perspectives. That diversity is going to be a major key for you to solve problems in the real world. Ultimately, it will be instrumental in how your team  arrives at the best products or services to address your design challenge.

3. Diverse Perspectives and Increased Innovation

The activity allows you and the other participants to approach the design challenge from different angles—literally and figuratively. When you move around and come upon a new item, you bring unique insights and idiosyncrasies to what you find. This leads to a broader range of perspectives and ideas. That promotes innovation and prevents groupthink.

4. Engaging and Energizing Experience

Unlike traditional brainstorming sessions that can be static and repetitive, brainwalking provides an engaging and energizing experience. The physical movement and interaction with stimuli keep participants actively involved. Everyone can enhance their focus and motivation throughout the session.

Image of two people in an ideation session.

To brainwalk is to get up and stoke your creative idea engine.

© Rebeka Costa, Fair Use

How Do You Do Brainwalking?

To conduct a successful brainwalking session, try this step-by-step process:

Step 1: Have Your Design Challenge Defined

You’ll want to have your design challenge all ready to go. For example, in the design thinking process, the define phase is when you do this. Your design challenge is vital to your ideation now. It sets the stage and guides the activities you’ll need to undertake. The most important thing to have here is an actionable statement. This is the Point of View (POV). Your POV will have this formula:

[User… (descriptive)] needs [Need… (verb)] because [Insight… (compelling)].

For example, you could have the POV of:
“An elderly person who lives on their own in a rural area needs access to healthy meals and health supplements with deliveries 2 times a week. They want good variety in the foods they get. However, they would prefer not to have to wade through a typical grocery website twice a week. But they’re still not sure about using voice-controlled devices to do the work for them.”

It’s vital to clearly articulate the design challenge or problem statement that the brainwalking session aims to address. This will provide a focused direction for everyone’s ideation efforts. You want to gear your brainwalking to how your design team might address this for the user you want to help.

Step 2: Set Up the Brainwalking Space

Prepare a designated space for the brainwalking session. Hang posters, display images, and place other artifacts related to the design challenge around the room. Ensure that the stimuli are visually appealing and relevant to the problem at hand.

For example, for our elderly rural resident, you might have a picture of an older lady doing gardening outside her cottage. She might be a great persona to use. What is her name? Does she have adult children who live far away or who might be too busy to help her? How computer literate is she? Does she have a disability? Is she wary of new technology? Who might interact with her on a daily basis? These are some of the questions that can bring her—and her user needs—closer to your design and ideation space.

Step 3: Explain the Brainwalking Process

Briefly explain the brainwalking process to participants. Emphasize the importance of physical movement, observation, and verbal or written idea sharing. Encourage everyone to freely explore the space and engage with the stimuli.

Note, this may be the first brainwalking session for some team members. So, maybe a quick warm-up activity might help break the ice, get you all in the mood, and start the creative juices flowing.

Step 4: Start the Brainwalking Session

Instruct participants to start walking around the space, observing the stimuli, and generating ideas. Encourage them to share their thoughts verbally or by writing them down on sticky notes. Emphasize the importance of building upon each other's ideas and fostering a collaborative environment.

For example, for our elderly user, it might help to suggest your team members think of their grandparents or parents. That common bond may provide the in-roads you all need to head towards truly helpful insights.

Step 5: Rotate and Repeat

After a set period of so many minutes, instruct participants to rotate to the next stimulus and continue generating ideas. Repeat this rotation process multiple times to ensure everyone engages with a variety of stimuli and generate a diverse range of ideas.

For example, everyone in your design team might spend 5 minutes looking at each poster, picture, artifact, etc. Then, from seeing pictures portraying personas, a screenshot of an existing online grocery service, printouts of news about forecast population trends, maps of rural areas, and the like, everyone can feel exposed to what they need to be able to trigger ideas.

Step 6: Share Ideas and Discuss

Conclude the brainwalking session by allowing participants to share their ideas with the group. Each participant should have an opportunity to present their thoughts. So, be mindful that some team members may be more vocal than others. Also, everyone should feel on an entirely equal footing with each other. So, be sure to leave your job titles at the door. From here, the group can engage in a more open discussion to explore and refine the generated ideas further.

To pick the best ideas, you can use various methods (e.g., “Now Wow How Matrix”). You can continue to build on these in future ideation sessions.

Illustration of a person going for a brainwalk.

This is one form of brainstorming that can arrive at good insights in a literal sense, too.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Best Practices and Tips for Brainwalking

Here are some ways to help you get the most out of brainwalking sessions:

1. Create a Stimulating Environment

Ensure that the brainwalking space is visually appealing and relevant to the design challenge. Use posters, images, prototypes, or any other relevant stimuli to spark participants' creative thinking.

2. Encourage Active Participation

Foster a collaborative environment where all participants feel comfortable contributing their ideas. Encourage active participation by promoting open discussions and building upon each other's thoughts. Remember to brief everyone that it’s vital for everyone to have an equal voice. For example, one team member might be shy. Another may have valuable insights but keep quiet as they don’t want to contend with a senior design team member.

3. Emphasize Diverse Perspectives

Encourage everyone to approach the stimuli from different angles and perspectives. This diversity in thinking will lead to a broader range of ideas. It will also raise the chances of finding innovative solutions. It can be hard to overcome the set ways we sometimes see things—called déformation professionnelle. Still, it’s essential to be able to step back and get the distance to approach from new perspectives.

4. Set a Time Limit

Allocate a specific time limit for each rotation. This is to keep the session focused and ensure that everyone engages with all the stimuli. This time limit will also help maintain the session's energy and momentum.

5. Capture and Document Ideas

Provide everyone with sticky notes or a dedicated space to write down their ideas as they brainwalk. This documentation ensures that no ideas vanish. It also means you can do further analysis and make refinements after the session.

Image of people engaged in a brainwalking session.

What you end up with can be powerful insights to shed light on innovative solutions to your users' real needs.

© Michaela Haase, Fair Use

Considerations for Brainwalking

Here are some factors to think about so you can ensure sessions are effective:

1. Group Size

The ideal group size for a brainwalking session is typically between 3 and 8 participants. Larger groups may become challenging to manage. Smaller groups may lack the diversity of perspectives necessary for fruitful ideation. If your design team is large, try to invite people with the most diverse perspectives.

2. Physical Space

Ensure the brainwalking space is big enough to accommodate everyone comfortably. A spacious environment allows for free movement and exploration so no one feels cramped or restricted. It can help to ensure team members can spontaneously respond to each stimulus when they arrive at it. It’s better than if they spot it from a distance and consider it instead of an important stimulus they encounter first.

3. Accessibility

Consider the accessibility needs of participants when you’re selecting the brainwalking space. Ensure it’s easily accessible for individuals with mobility challenges or other disabilities. For example, is the print large enough? Are the spaces between the tables or desks wide enough to allow someone in a wheelchair easy passage? Also reckon on inclusivity here. Do the stimuli depict a diverse potential user population, for example?

4. Time Management

Plan the brainwalking session carefully to ensure everyone has enough time to engage with all the stimuli and generate sufficient ideas. Time management is crucial to maintaining the session's energy and achieving productive outcomes. This can sometimes get in the way if team members need longer because they feel an idea coming on. Still, it’s vital to make sure everyone gets around everything on show.

Illustration of people gathering around an idea.

There's something about moving around that's conducive to a good idea!

© Taylor Record, Fair Use

Example of Brainwalking by A Famous Brand

Several famous brands have embraced brainwalking as an ideation technique in their design process to generate innovative ideas. Here is a notable example:

IDEO

IDEO, a renowned design consultancy, uses brainwalking extensively in its design thinking process. The company emphasizes the importance of physical movement and visual stimuli to inspire creativity and generate diverse ideas. IDEO's brainwalking sessions have resulted in numerous successful design solutions across various industries.

Overall, brainwalking can give your design team an extra edge in exploring the problem space thoroughly. It can serve as an asset to supercharge your team’s creative ideation prowess. That’s important to do long before you reach the prototyping and testing stages. Remember, too, that brainwalking involves communicating with your team members, so be sure to listen to their insights. As the “Father of UX design” writes:

“Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.”

— Don Norman, “The Design of Everyday Things” 

Consider brainwalking as a kind of a literal exploration process. It’s like being able to move around in a “magic warehouse” full of ideas stored in “boxes.” With brainwalking, you can access many areas you might otherwise miss and develop the beginnings of groundbreaking solutions. It can help you unlock the full potential of your ideation process on the road to designing exceptional user experiences.

Learn More about Brainwalking

Take our course Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide.

Read our piece Learn How to Use The Best Ideation Methods: Brainstorming, Braindumping, Brainwriting, and Brainwalking, which includes free templates for Brainwalking and other ideation methods.

For more in-depth insights into idea-generation, read this Nielsen Norman Group article.

Questions related to Brainwalking

What are the best practices for guiding a brainwalking session?

Guiding a brainwalking session, an interactive brainstorming technique, involves several best practices to ensure its effectiveness. Here's how to lead a successful brainwalking session:

1. Clear Objective Setting: Start by defining a clear and focused objective for the session. Ensure everyone understands the problem or topic being addressed.

2. Prepare the Space: Arrange a room with several stations, each with its own whiteboard, flip chart, or large paper. This setup encourages movement and interaction among participants.

3. Diverse Groups: Form small groups with diverse participants. Diversity in skills, experience, and perspectives fosters more creative and comprehensive ideas.

4. Brief and Inform Participants: Clearly explain the process of brainwalking, including how participants will move between stations, the time allocated for each station, and the best way to record ideas.

5. Time Management: Set a specific time limit for each station (e.g., 5-10 minutes). Time constraints encourage quick thinking and idea generation.

6. Encourage Idea Building: Instruct participants to build upon or add new ideas at each station, not criticize or evaluate the existing ones.

7. Facilitate Movement: Signal when it’s time to move to the next station. Ensure that the movement is orderly and that each group has equal time at every station.

8. Foster a Positive Atmosphere: Encourage a positive, open-minded environment. Ensure that all ideas are welcome and that participants feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.

9. Conclude with a Review Session: After the rounds, bring everyone together to review and discuss the generated ideas. This collective review helps identify the most promising ideas.

10. Document and Follow-Up: Ensure all ideas are documented. After the session, review and organize the ideas, and plan for the next steps in the development or decision-making process.

What is the difference between brainwriting and brainwalking?

Brainwalking and brainwriting are both ideation methods you can use to generate a wide range of creative ideas. You use them within a group setting and within a certain period of time. However, they differ in their approach to creative challenges and the execution of generating and sharing ideas.

In a brainwalking session, group members walk from one station to another. Each station contains a problem statement or another kind of stimulus like a user persona. Everyone writes down their ideas or solutions at each station. This method encourages physical movement and engagement as participants build upon the ideas of others.

In a brainwriting session, participants silently write down their ideas on a piece of paper or digitally within a set time limit. They then pass their written ideas on to other participants who further develop or refine them. It's a more structured and focused approach to idea generation.

Both brainwalking and brainwriting techniques promote idea generation within a group. Either one can generate a lot of ideas among your team members. Brainwalking emphasizes physical interaction, physical engagement and movement. Brainwriting focuses on written contributions in a structured manner. Both are effective ways of generating ideas from a group of participants. They’re also great for reaching into the problem-solving space early in design and the stages of the creative process.

How long should a typical brainwalking session last?

The duration of a typical brainwalking session depends on several factors such as the complexity of the topic, the number of participants, and the number of stations or topics to cover. However, as a general guideline, a brainwalking session should last between 30 and 60 minutes. Here's a breakdown to consider:

1. Introduction (5-10 minutes): Start with a brief introduction, explaining the objectives, process, and rules of the session.

2. Brainwalking Rounds (20-40 minutes): Allocate about 5 to 10 minutes per station, depending on the complexity of the topic. For example, if you have four stations, you would need 20 to 40 minutes for this part.

3. Discussion and Wrap-up (5-10 minutes): Allow time at the end of the session to discuss the ideas generated, identify themes, and discuss next steps.

Keeping it within this timeframe helps maintain energy and focus. It's important to be mindful of participants' attention spans and to keep the session dynamic and engaging.

What are the cons of brainwalking?

Brainwalking is a powerful ideation method that can help your team generate diverse fresh ideas on the road to innovative solutions. However, like other ideation techniques, it has its drawbacks. Here are some cons of brainwalking:

1. Physical limitations: This style of ideation session may not be suitable for all team members, especially those with physical limitations. It requires everyone to move around a space, which may be difficult for some people.

2. Distractions: Brainwalking involves a high level of physical movement and interaction with stimuli. The price of looking for great ideas this way can be distracting for some participants. This may lead to a lack of focus and reduced productivity.

3. Time-consuming process: Brainwalking can last for a long period of time, especially if the team is large. It may take longer to generate ideas using this method than other brainstorming techniques.

4. Lack of structure: Brainwalking is a dynamic and free-flowing process. Even though as an ideation process it has some structure (e.g., spending a fixed amount of time considering stimuli based on the problem statement), it may not be suitable for teams that prefer a more structured approach to ideation. It may be difficult to keep track of ideas and ensure that all team members have an equal opportunity to contribute.

Despite these cons, brainwalking can be an effective ideation method for teams that are more physically active and prefer a more dynamic approach to ideation and brainstorming sessions. By understanding the limitations of brainwalking, you can choose the ideation method that is best suited for your team's needs to look for good ideas and potential solutions.


How does brainwalking facilitate diverse idea generation?

Brainwalking facilitates diverse idea generation as it leverages the varied perspectives and creativity of all participants in a dynamic and structured manner. It fosters diversity in ideas as it:

1. Offers a Mix of Perspectives: In brainwalking, participants come from different backgrounds and possess varied skill sets. This diversity naturally leads to a broader range of ideas and solutions among a group of people.

2. Encourages Collective Input: As participants move between stations, they build upon the ideas of others. This collective ideation process integrates multiple viewpoints. This leads to more innovative and comprehensive solutions.

3. Reduces Dominance of Vocal Individuals: In traditional brainstorming sessions, more vocal participants might dominate the conversation. Brainwalking, by its structure, gives everyone an equal opportunity to contribute. This ensures a more balanced input from all participants.

4. Stimulates Creativity through Movement: The physical aspect of moving between stations can stimulate creativity. The change in environment, even if subtle, can spark new thoughts and ideas to solve a problem.

5. Provides a Structured Yet Flexible Framework: While there is a structure to the session, brainwalking allows for flexibility and free-flowing thoughts. This balance helps in capturing a wide range of ideas without restricting creative thinking.

6. Gives Anonymity and Freedom: Initially, ideas are added anonymously as participants move between stations. This anonymity can encourage more open and creative thinking, as participants may feel less judged or inhibited.

Through these mechanisms, brainwalking effectively harnesses the collective intelligence and creativity of a group, leading to a rich and diverse set of ideas and points of view to use in problem solving.

What is triggered brainwalking?

Triggered brainwalking is an advanced variation of brainwalking that uses specific cues or "triggers" to stimulate ideation. In this method, participants follow a set path as in traditional brainwalking. However, at each station, they encounter a trigger—such as a question, image, or keyword—that sparks creative thinking.

Here's how it works:

1. Set the Stage: The facilitator establishes the creative challenge and provides clear instructions to participants.

2. Design Stations: Different stations get set up, each containing a trigger. Triggers can vary, including open-ended questions, images, or design constraints.

3. Do The Brainwalking Process: Participants move from station to station, and at each one, they respond to the trigger by noting down ideas, sketches, or concepts. The physical movement stimulates fresh perspectives.

4. Pool Collective Insights: Once all participants complete the circuit, they share their ideas and insights as a group. This sharing phase encourages further ideation and collaborative thinking.

Triggered brainwalking enhances creativity by introducing structured stimuli that guide participants' thoughts. It can be especially effective when you’re dealing with complex design challenges.

What are highly cited scientific pieces of research about brainwalking?

Here are some highly cited pieces of research about brainwalking:

1. Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), 1142–1152.

Oppezzo and Schwartz's study is one of the most highly cited publications on the subject of walking and creativity. The study found that walking boosts creative inspiration and improves creative thinking while a person is walking and shortly thereafter. The study's strong findings have led to further research on the neurological and physiological pathways involved in the effect of walking on creativity.

2. Training Magazine. (2013, May 16). Brainwalking: In Search of Better Brainstorms.

The Training Magazine article is a practical guide to brainwalking, a kind of written idea exercise that is simple to learn and facilitate. The article explains the advantages of brainwalking over brainwriting, including the public nature of the ideas generated and the ability to form mini-teams to brainwalk together.


Which are some recommended books about brainwalking?

"Idea Stormers: How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs" by Bryan W. Mattimore is a valuable resource for individuals and teams looking to enhance their creative thinking and brainstorming processes. It offers a wide range of creative problem-solving tools and techniques that can be applied to brainstorming and idea generation, including variations of brainstorming methods.

Where to learn more about brainwalking?

- Take our course Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide.

- Read our piece Learn How to Use The Best Ideation Methods: Brainstorming, Braindumping, Brainwriting, and Brainwalking, which includes free templates for Brainwalking and other ideation methods.

- See "Ideation for Everyday Design Challenges" by the Nielsen Norman Group.

Literature on Brainwalking

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

Learn more about Brainwalking

Take a deep dive into Brainwalking with our course Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide .

Some of the world’s leading brands, such as Apple, Google, Samsung, and General Electric, have rapidly adopted the design thinking approach, and design thinking is being taught at leading universities around the world, including Stanford d.school, Harvard, and MIT. What is design thinking, and why is it so popular and effective?

Design Thinking is not exclusive to designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering and business have practiced it. So, why call it Design Thinking? Well, that’s because design work processes help us systematically extract, teach, learn and apply human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, businesses, countries and lives. And that’s what makes it so special.

The overall goal of this design thinking course is to help you design better products, services, processes, strategies, spaces, architecture, and experiences. Design thinking helps you and your team develop practical and innovative solutions for your problems. It is a human-focused, prototype-driven, innovative design process. Through this course, you will develop a solid understanding of the fundamental phases and methods in design thinking, and you will learn how to implement your newfound knowledge in your professional work life. We will give you lots of examples; we will go into case studies, videos, and other useful material, all of which will help you dive further into design thinking. In fact, this course also includes exclusive video content that we've produced in partnership with design leaders like Alan Dix, William Hudson and Frank Spillers!

This course contains a series of practical exercises that build on one another to create a complete design thinking project. The exercises are optional, but you’ll get invaluable hands-on experience with the methods you encounter in this course if you complete them, because they will teach you to take your first steps as a design thinking practitioner. What’s equally important is you can use your work as a case study for your portfolio to showcase your abilities to future employers! A portfolio is essential if you want to step into or move ahead in a career in the world of human-centered design.

Design thinking methods and strategies belong at every level of the design process. However, design thinking is not an exclusive property of designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practiced it. What’s special about design thinking is that designers and designers’ work processes can help us systematically extract, teach, learn, and apply these human-centered techniques in solving problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, in our businesses, in our countries, and in our lives.

That means that design thinking is not only for designers but also for creative employees, freelancers, and business leaders. It’s for anyone who seeks to infuse an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective and broadly accessible, one that can be integrated into every level of an organization, product, or service so as to drive new alternatives for businesses and society.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you complete the course. You can highlight them on your resume, CV, LinkedIn profile or your website.

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