Too Big, Too Small, Just Right: Design Thinking and the Goldilocks Protocol

Framing the design question is an important step of the design thinking process, but any old question won’t do. It has to be just right.

After watching teams struggle to draft How Might We questions that strike the right balance between being too broad and too narrow, I developed the Goldilocks Protocol to help resolve this dilemma. I’ll explain how it works so you can use it too.

Importance of the HMW

In the design thinking process, after we collect empathy data and discover more about the initial problem, we synthesize that information so that we can write a special kind of question. This question is called a How Might We or HMW for short. The importance of this question stem is that it both frames the problem we are trying to solve and is crafted in a way that inspires a variety of possible solutions. The open-ended nature triggers a “flare”, or divergent thinking, causing our minds to wander before the next stage of design thinking, which is to “focus” and narrow ideas down to the ones we want to try.

Drafting a HMW is an art. It’s about whittling the problem down to the right grain size, meaning the problem isn’t scoped too big or broad nor is it scoped too tight or constrained. The defining the problem stage, which occurs right before ideation, is often one of the messiest, most critical, and most rushed steps. I think this is because people underestimate how much the question shapes the successive design steps.

When the question is worded well, and is at the right grain size, the design team gets onboard quickly and is able to focus on the intended problem. When it’s worded poorly, there are consequences. These symptoms include the design team acting confused, solving for the wrong problem, needing more clarification, feeling overwhelmed by too many constraints or details, or a brainstorm that heads in too many unrelated directions or only in one direction.

In other words, the quality of the HMW is one of the key variables that has the power to control the quality of the brainstorm and therefore how many innovative or creative solutions are presented. (Note: other key variables include the composition and experience of the design team and cues and framing from the facilitator).

When a HMW is not framed appropriately, then divergent thinking gets stymied and doesn’t liftoff. If this happens, the remedy is to start over, rewrite or revise the HMW (usually making it broader or narrower), and brainstorming again.

Example HMW’s

What if from our empathy research, we discovered the problem was this:

PROBLEM STATEMENT: Adults need ways to rest at work because their energy fluctuates throughout the day, and they desire feeling less stressed and more energized.

Here are examples of HMW questions crafted from that problem:

  • A: How might we create ways to rest and feel less stressed?
  • B: How might we create ways for adults to feel less stressed and more energized at work?
  • C: How might we create stress-free spaces in the workplace for adults?

These are three variations stemming from the same problem, yet each would activate different results in brainstorming. If you were to start generating ideas to one of the above questions, which one would be the most effective? And, why? What makes a question easier or harder to inspire brainstorming? That’s where the Goldilocks Protocol comes in handy.

Goldilocks Protocol

What does just right mean? How do we know when our design question is just right so that we can move onto brainstorming? The trick is to use the Goldilock’s test.

Remember Goldilocks and the three bears? Goldilocks visited the house of the three bears and tried their chairs, their beds, and their porridge until she was satisfied with each one. For instance, she evaluated the porridge by saying, “This one’s too hot. This one’s too cold. This one’s just right.” For Goldilocks, just right was the happy medium between hot and cold. She applied the same process to everything she tried, and this wisdom holds for HMW questions as well.

When evaluating the sample HMW questions above, which one is too big, too small, and just right? There’s a simple way to know which is which. When you read each question, here’s what to do.

If the question is:

  • Too big: you’ll have a million ideas come to mind or feel overwhelmed, not knowing what it means
  • Too small: the answer or solution is already stated in the question
  • Just right: about 3 to 5 ideas easily come to mind

That’s it.

If you find the question is too small, then revise it to be less specific. If the question is too big, revise it by adding a few more details.

Looking at the sample questions, question A is too big. There isn’t enough information to know what ideas we need to generate. When the question states “ways to rest”, ways to rest for who? And, “less stressed” needs to be modified by where and when. Without this information, the ideas we brainstorm could be for anyone, anywhere, at any time of day. This will spark too broad a set of ideas, many of which won’t apply to the problem we’re actually trying to solve, which is wasted brainstorming energy.

Question C is too small. Creating stress-free spaces in the workplace for adults doesn’t leave room to consider other possibilities because it’s already been narrowed to the category of space design. Aren’t there other ways to reduce stress aside from stress-free spaces? What about services, products, and experiences that reduce stress? We want to allow those ideas to surface too.

Question B is just right. We know who we are solving for, and we know enough context to get us started. It’s not too prescriptive, and it’s not too general. We have just enough information to get a brainstorming session going in the right direction.

One final suggestion, when drafting HMW’s, use a voting system to quickly gauge how well a question is working for the group. Ask people to hold up their fingers to rate each question you’ve drafted. Holding up 3 fingers means a person thinks the question is too big. Two fingers means it’s just right, and 1 finger means it’s too small. By holding up fingers to vote on the grain size of the question, it’s easier to see how many people in the group feel the question is working or not, and then address any issues.

In the end, I don’t think there is ever a perfect HMW question, but there are definitely ones that work better and inspire more creative thinking than others. It takes practice to get the hang of writing HMW’s and seeing the flaws in word choices, but the Goldilocks Protocol is a type of fail safe that is simple to implement and use. Design teams seem to appreciate and understand that refining the grain size of a HMW question can improve their ability to brainstorm the right kinds of ideas, so taking a little extra time to do this is helpful to the overall process.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback, especially what happens after you try this strategy.