Brainstorm With Your Users

And prepare to be surprised

by Adi Hillel

My team and I, we love to brainstorm. We usually know where to start (in Ella’s living room), but have no idea where we’ll end up. It’s our time to let go; fool around; shout our stupid ideas out loud; play some games; laugh. In some cases, we wake up the next morning and ask ourselves:
OK what was that all about? But in most cases, we reach new insights, ones we can then translate into actionable items, and act upon.

But this time, we decided to leave our comfort zone. We decided to invite our users to brainstorm with us.

We had two objectives in mind. The first was to meet our users face to face, after months of virtually working opposite them in Hubitus.
It was important that they have some fun, and get to know each other.
We were curious to find out if the online community that had been taking shape over the course of the last 6 months, could take form in real life.

Our second objective was to co-imagine what Hubitus could become in the future. Since our soft-launch in May 2015, we’ve been collecting feedback from anyone who was willing to share it with us. By now we had a good grasp of what worked in the current version, and what didn’t. We knew our messages were still unclear, that the flow was a bit clumsy and the UX/UI confusing. The app was unresponsive, we had some activation issues and we completely forgot to integrate ‘share on social’ buttons. We knew it all, from the conversations, written correspondences and interviews we had conducted with our users, and from analyzing their behavior. So our agenda for this meeting was not to get more feedback, as valuable as it may be, but to open our minds to new directions, which could later become the solutions to our next iteration round.

So we wrote an invitation to our 25 super-users. A super-user is a user who works in Hubitus at least once a week for one hour, although most of our super-users work in Hubitus on a daily basis (3–6 days a week) for 3–8 consecutive hours per session! These are quite unusual retention rates, but the downside is that we don’t have “regular” users — it’s either you’re hooked, or your’e not (for now, 10% of the people who signed up became super-users. We definitely need to work on that!).

This is how super-users look from our side — light blue rubrics indicate the days they visited the site

Much to our surprise, 15 replied immediately saying:

YES! We would love to come!

We were hoping to get some engagement, but we sure weren't expecting this! This was our first signal that our users — the ones who get value from our product — want to be involved! They want to contribute, and be part of the community that they helped form.

We sat down to write the outline. We knew we had only two hours, including a pizza break, and we wanted to get the maximum value out of this one-time occasion. I searched the web for group ideation techniques, and while many of the prompts were inspiring, we needed to create our own activity, given the nature of our product, our community and the objectives mentioned above.

Getting ready for the storm

In the next paragraphs I will describe the methods we used, in case any of you — entrepreneurs and community managers — choose to brainstorm with your users, and seek further ideas. My partner Ella and I come from the field of teaching and group facilitating, but this was a new experience for us too, and we know we have much to learn and improve.
So please, share with us your ideas and knowledge in the comments down below, and tell us what you think!

First Step: Getting to Know Each Other

OMG! You’re real!

After working opposite each other for hours per day, our users’ faces became familiar. We all knew how each and every one of us looks when trying to concentrate. We could identify their work space — whether it is a bright open-space, a dark study or their favorite coffee shop. By their choice of goals we could tell if they were writing, coding, designing or editing, and sometimes we could even see their spouses in the background. But that was it. We couldn't hear each other or send direct messages. There are no profile pages in Hubitus yet so we didn’t know what the others do in their everyday life or where they come from (we, the founders, knew many of those details via private dialogues but the users hardly knew anything about each other).
We all knew each other, in a new and peculiar way, but we were also complete strangers.

Our users in action

To fix this we handed our users some notes and asked them to write down what they usually do when they’re in Hubitus without putting down their names. We gathered the notes in a hat, and picked a random one from the pile.

“I translate weird screenplays.”

Then we tried to guess who wrote it. Once traced, this person would tell us more about herself, and then pick the next note out of the hat and read it to us.

Yes, I’m sure you can imagine how awkward it was at first (we even expressed our personal embarrassment just to clear the air), but after two rounds, it changed. People were becoming curious. People were starting to laugh.

The cute guy in the middle is Aran. He’s been writing a blog about his adventures from his last trip to the U.S.

This was also the part where we discovered that our users are an outstanding group of individuals, from diverse professional backgrounds like journalism, political activism, video editing, writing, designing, coding, marketing and entrepreneurship, and that we can learn new things from each and every one of them.

Second Step: Brainstorm Warm-up

Next, we gave each user a set of sticky notes: 4 yellow notes, 4 pink notes and 4 green notes.

We asked them three questions, one for each stack of notes, and after each question gave them 3 minutes to write down 4 different answers. We asked them not to think too much, just to write whatever pops into their heads. All answers are legit, we said, whether they’re corny, bizarre or even unrelated.

This is what we asked:

A Muse is the person who works opposite you in live streaming. A Muser is the person who sees you while you work.

Then, they were instructed to stick their notes on colored posters we had hung on the walls earlier (a yellow poster, a pink poster and a green one).
A few minutes later, we had three posters filled with more than 60 post-it notes. Quite a treasure for us, the founders.

The choice of questions was not simple at all. We put a lot of thought into it. We wrote down more than 30 questions, and tried to figure out which of them would:

a) Evoke our users to give associative responses.
b) Give us a clue about some of the issues we’re trying to tackle.

The first question — What would you like to know about the Muse opposite you — was our attempt to find out what kind of information Hubitus should collect, and what the user’s profile should include.
The answers varied: starting with What is her favorite music? (this one interested people the most) and What is his romantic status? to How does she defeat procrastination and Could he use some assistance from someone with my skill set? This taught us that our users were interested in work-oriented information about the person working beside them, but also in personal info, that can make them feel closer to their Muse and encourage interaction.

The second question — If Hubitus was a medicine, what would it cure? and what would be the side effects? was actually a question about the pain we’re trying to solve and the value we provide to our users. Many replied that Hubitus would cure: procrastination, loneliness, lack of motivation, performance anxiety, laziness and unwillingness to work, and as potential side effects we got: productivity, exposure, addiction, the need to wear clean clothes in the morning and hemorrhoids.
From these answers we learned that although we haven't gained product/market fit just yet, we have a unique problem/solution fit. We address an existing pain, by providing a solution to ease it.

The third question — if Hubitus was a game, how would one win? related to if and how can we use gamification to increase our users’ productivity and engagement. Here we got many ideas, such as: the one with the most Musers, whoever works the most in Hubitus, whoever meets his/her goals for today and the one who has the most fascinating backdrop. From this we learned that providing incentives will encourage our users to be more active and productive, and that social endorsement is a vital factor to make it happen.

Third Step: Group Brainstorm

After a 20 minute pizza break (the best part of the evening, as one can expect), we divided our users into three groups; each group got one of the post-it filled posters. Next, we presented them with a blow-up paper prototype of Hubitus.

Their mission was to build their dream button — to sketch its icon, portray its functionality and decide on its location (in Hubitus? on their cell phone? floating in the air?). But there were two restrictions: they had only 25 minutes, and each group had to base the button on the post-its, or at least use them as inspiration.

We filled the room with papers, stickers, markers, scissors, cardboard, paints, glue sticks, scotches and letter-sets. Anything to ignite creativity. And before long, this is what happened:

Fourth Step: Sharing the Outcomes

In the last part of the evening, we gathered everyone again into a big and unsymmetrical circle, and gave each group five minutes to present their creations. We heard members of each group “bragging” that their dream button is the best, and thought to ourselves: hmm… we managed to create a competitive landscape in less than half an hour, and it feels great!

And these were the results:

The Green Group had made not one, but two dream-buttons. The first one was called: Help! I’m stuck. Once pressed, the user’s video is covered with a semi-transparent overlay of a brick wall to show that she could use some help and other users can send her anonymous words of inspiration, helpful information or advice. The second button was I met my goal, I’m the best!. When pressing it, a little trophy appears next to your video stream to show that you’ve reached your goal and invites the community to give you some hip hip hoorays and thumbs up. BTW, the icon disappears after 30 minutes, so that you don’t get too full of yourself!

The Yellow Group created a Chat or Treat Button, to allow dialogue between users. But, unlike any other invitation to chat, in this case the user who was asked to join the conversation can choose if she wants to pick the treat option instead, meaning she can set a goal (like a number of words she wants to write) that will be visible to both parties. And here’s the beauty of it: the chat is activated only when the goal is met!

The Pink Group invented The Boost Button that provides you with the boost you need to keep you motivated during your work day. When you press this button, the users working beside you can send you “good vibes” in the shape of cheerful icons or anonymous words of encouragement. I can only wish there was a Boost Button like this in real life :)

One of our users even added his Fantasy Bonus Button, which he called Shuffle, that enables users to switch desktops for a while and do the other person’s work instead. Imagine you could switch places with the person opposite you, and change your entire professional mindset for an hour or two!

Conclusions

For us, this session was an extraordinary chance not only to collect brilliant ideas for the next version, or answers to some of our core questions, but also to identify one of the basic needs that the three groups were trying to tackle; the need to establish a new kind of peer-to-peer communication, that will give them the support they need without being distracting or intrusive. Although each group worked independently and based its button on different notes, all three pointed at and wished for the same emotional effect. Features aside, they were all eager to feel the community vibe, and be encouraged by it! What a glorious insight to guide us through the long nights and doubtful days of our product dev.; a lighthouse to show us the direction we're aiming towards, when all we can see are seawalls.

The evening came to an end. People stayed for a bit longer, trying to catch up, discovering shared interests and habits. The next day we met again in the virtual hub, but this time it felt different. It felt like coming back home.

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