Design Diary
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Design Diary

A Better How Might We

Have you ever come out of a brainstorm feeling disappointed — wondering how and why the excitement fizzled into a sea of mediocre ideas ? This is my most common experience. Telling the group to “think wild” does not help either. They do not know how to, and when it really matters, most people still think safe.

Brainstorming has often felt to me like a sawed-off shotgun — powerful and wasteful.

I was looking for something that felt more like a sniper rifle — targeted and precise. I had sense this was possible, but first I needed to understand why the results were the way they were today. The problem is, in my opinion, two fold :

One — The Wild Ideas Approach : The emphasis on “wild” ideas simply does not compute for most people.

People do not know where to go inside to let the “wild ideas” out.

In designerly groups where sketching is the norm, this may happen easier. In enterprise-y settings, where written ideas are the norm, the results are dismal. The emphasis needs change.

Two — The How Might We framing : the “How Might We” is a fussy instrument. It is very hard to get right, even if you are a designer.

The art of creating a good HMW — one that evokes possibility while not prescribing one solution — is hard.

Most often, in interest of time, teams simply hash something together, not realizing their brainstorm was doomed even before they began. Enterprise environments need a simpler, less fussy instrument to jumpstart a brainstorm.

The Re-Design

I believe both drawbacks can be re-designed. Here’s how:

One, shift focus to quality — from generating scatter-shot ideas to generating precise ideas. Like in sketching gestures, line quality matters even in the rough sketches.

If you get used to messy thinking, it can become a habit. Emphasize quality over quantity when ideating.

This sounds counter-intuitive I know. What about those rules which say exactly the opposite? Well, the same list also says “think wild”. Some adjustment is needed when used outside of designerly settings.

My experience has been enterprise settings requires ideas to be workable rather than sexy. If an idea is workable, the team can get behind it and make it sexy. The other way around, not so much.

This also encourages robust incremental ideas. Most implementable ideas tend to be in this category and I find these are usually under-rated. Incremental ideas are the workhorse of innovation. Nothing unsexy about that.

Two, replace the How Might We — The How Might We is an invitation. It works well with a team of designers where empathy and nuance is a given. In enterprise settings, empathy is at a premium.

For enterprise-y settings something stronger is needed: a provocation.

The Essential Question : Why Can’t You

The Essential Question is a provocation to the team, in the voice of the customer. It takes the form of a “Why Can’t You..!”

It is your customer standing in front of you, asking with some intensity, : Why Can’t You ..[insert emotional need here]!

The Essential Question can applied to an entire experience or a single moment. As an example, in Doug Dietz’s case the Essential Question might be “Why Can’t You stop scaring my baby!” Answering this convincingly, transforms the whole experience.

If you are having a moment of frustration logging into your phone, the Essential Question might be : “Why Can’t You let me in !” You can choose the size and scope of the experience your are intervening and find the Essential Question within that.

Stepping into the context allows the Essential Question to surface quite easily. You just need to feel it.

What Changes

The Essential Question has two valuable side effects on the design process :

One, it lets you ask a better question — Instead of asking : what is the Point of View, or How Might We both of which can feel clunky, you ask “What is the Essential Question from the customer’s point of view? What is her Why Can’t You ?”

This forces you to stand in your customer’s shoes.

If you fake it and write it from your own point of view, the provocation loses potency immediately. “Why Can’t You let me choose between my login and TouchID!” has zero potency and no emotional resonance. So you have to know the real issue from the customer’s perspective before you enter the brainstorm. If you do not, it is plain to see.

Two, the Essential Question is a sharper instrument — it is a challenge issued by the customer to the team. The goal now is not to push a feature but make a difference to the customer.

To answer “Why Can’t You stop scaring my baby !” convincingly you have to solve the issue. Anything less is not useful.

*Now*, go ideate. If you can say — “Not only will we not scare your baby anymore, we will delight her” — whatever ideas you come up with are useful.

Does It Work ?

I’ve used the Essential Question — which I use interchangeably with the Why Can’t You — in many different settings and situations. From customer workshops to internal workshops. From startups to corporate teams. From design to development. I’ve found it useful and powerful in all situations.

In my experience it generates more actionable ideas and creates more momentum.

You will have fewer ideas, but they will be more focussed.

You will have to dig deep to come up with the ideas in the first place. Meaning you have to know the customers context really well to be able to come up with good ideas.

How Do I Use It ?

Simply replace the Point of View and How Might We with the Essential Question, in your design process and continue brainstorming as usual. If you’re using Google’s Sprint process, use the Essential Question when mapping the challenge on Day 1

What About Lean ?

Here is how the Why Can’t You might work within the lean process for creating user stories : Create a Design-Led User Story.

So don’t think wild. Think “Why Can’t You?”



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Rana Chakrabarti

Rana Chakrabarti

Designer of learning experiences and spaces that foster learning.