Secret sauce to a design brainstorming session

Ashmita Vishwanathan
Jan 9 · 5 min read

Tips to conduct a cross-functional design brainstorming session.


This year, my fellow designer Raza Durrani and I got a chance to conduct a cross-functional design brainstorming session over two days at Groupon. It was a great learning experience and I would love to share the process we followed and our learnings.

A design brainstorm is a session where all the product stakeholders work together to identify customer pain points through numerous data sources and come up with actionable, user-friendly solutions.

Why Conduct a Brainstorming Session?

There are many reasons to conduct a brainstorming session: from aligning on a unified vision, finding new opportunities, solving user pain points or bringing consistency to a scattered system. Defining a clear goal of the brainstorm up front helped us structure our session. Every stakeholder involved will more likely have different expectations and perspectives and it’s important to align their goals. As a team, we wanted to identify user pain points and ideate towards a common north star vision and we designed our session to cater to that goal. Here are some of the steps we took to give our session a clear structure.

Involving the Right Audience

Everyone closely involved in the product development process must be a key participant in the session. It’s extremely critical to involve stakeholders while structuring the session so they can bring their domain expertise. This might include Product Designers, UX Researchers, UX Content Strategists, Product Managers, Engineers, and Business Analysts.

Structuring the brainstorm around the domain expertise of its participants plays a huge role in how effective the session will be. For example, a Product Manager will be able to shed light on previous experiments that have been conducted, the general patterns and trends in quantitative data. Since our focus was more towards a north star vision, we chose to have a small team of Product Designers, UX Researchers, UX Content Strategists, Product Managers and Engineers.

Data Collection and Identifying User Pain Points

Data collection and synthesis is a powerful way to provide proper context and constraints for the ideation process. Data analysis, competitive research and heuristic evaluation of the current experience, provide a great foundation for understanding the user pain points.

Reach out to Product Managers and UX Researchers, encouraging them to present their quantitative and qualitative findings. Always keep in mind the difference between user pain points and business requirements and ensure that the session is solving for the right balance. While structuring our session, we encouraged our product and research counterparts to actively contribute their expertise.

Creating User Stories

User stories set the guide rail for the brainstorming. A user story must be structured with three elements for it to produce actionable ideas:

  1. A specific demographic
  2. The task performed
  3. The challenge faced

Without suggesting a prescriptive solution, the user story sets a clear premise that is open to various perspectives and ideas from the user’s standpoint. The user story must be backed by qualitative and quantitative data, and should provide participants with enough context to effectively craft a user friendly solution. Based on UX Research findings, we crafted three user stories in collaboration with our researcher.

Preparing for the Session

For the brainstorming session to be effective, some preemptive preparation is also required. Establishing ground rules, assigning specific tasks to attendees, sending out pre-session homework, and preparing materials are a few simple steps that go a long way towards conducting a successful brainstorming session.

Without an agreed-upon set of ground rules and constraints, a brainstorm session can quickly derail. All constraints must be clearly laid out at the beginning. For example: the session might be platform specific, or cater only to a specific user group. Communicating these constraints up front will help attendees focus their thinking and come prepared with relevant ideas.

Identifying key roles for attendees, such as Data Collector and Time Keeper, is also instrumental for keeping the session on track. Switch up roles between participants to give everyone a chance to contribute.

Sending out pre-session homework assignments based on the goal, is a great way to put everyone in the right frame of mind ahead of the session. Encouraging participants to read a detailed research document or conduct competitive analysis in advance ensures everyone arrives well-prepared.

Take some time to prepare materials in advance — printing and displaying current scenarios and user flows provides participants with context about how the system works.

Finally, during the session, inform participants to be respectful of any conflicting opinions. Account for frequent breaks to thwart any monotony that might arise from unproductive discussions.

Post-Event Synthesis

Collecting all the ideas and making sense of solutions is one of the most challenging yet rewarding parts of the brainstorm. Teamwork is key in successful synthesis of solutions. Documenting the session, listing out solutions, prioritizing them and getting them on the product roadmap must be done in order to materialize the results. An effective way to do this is assign some time after the sessions to caste a vote on favorite ideas. Following that, measuring the feasibility of solutions and quantifying the work involved is a critical step towards productizing features.

During the session, we leveraged the expertise and influence of our product managers. The ideas that we felt were worth exploring were listed out and handed over to our product managers, who then got in touch with various cross-functional stakeholders to measure the business impact and add them to the roadmap.


To Sum the Process

  1. Start by defining why you want to conduct a brainstorming session. Establish clear goals.
  2. Identify the right participants based on the goals.
  3. Involve all the stakeholders in the preparation process. Collect data and analyze them to identify user pain points to solve for.
  4. Frame the problem at hand via user stories. Ensure that user stories are problem-focussed and not solution-oriented.
  5. Prepare for the session through competitive analysis homework assignments, printing out current user flows and assigning teams beforehand.
  6. Involve UX Researchers and Product Managers in the synthesis process. Ensure that the best ideas are checked for feasibility and added into the road map.

Thanks for Reading!

I hope you will find these tips helpful while creating your own session. Though this is catered to a specific type of design goal, the key is to always be user-focussed and maintain a balance between user and business needs.

If you have any tips to share or feel like I missed out on something, feel free to share your thoughts. I’d love to learn more from you.

I would like to thank Helena Seo and Martin Anet for their valuable feedback. Special thanks to Peter Hopkins for helping me with this article.


Hi! I’m Ashmita, a Sr. Product Designer at Groupon’s Design Union. If you like this article, click the applause button and help others find it.

Groupon Design Union

A collection of stories, case studies, and tips 'n tricks from the Product, Visual and User Research folks at Groupon

Ashmita Vishwanathan

Written by

Senior Product Designer at Groupon. Loves Japanese food and making googly eyes at Labradors.

Groupon Design Union

A collection of stories, case studies, and tips 'n tricks from the Product, Visual and User Research folks at Groupon

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