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Brainstorming is the process of generating several ideas based on a central topic or question. It’s a popular, flexible ideation method that is applied in many contexts. In fact, you are probably familiar with brainstorming!

While brainstorming is closely associated with the ideate stage, we can use it in any stage. For example, before conducting user research we can brainstorm several research goals before finalizing a few. When we brainstorm during the ideate stage, our goal is to envision a wide assortment of solutions for our defined problem.

Best Practices

A productive brainstorming session calls us to balance free-thinking and focus. Free-thinking is essential because we don’t want to limit our ideas. At this moment, we’re not concerned about identifying surefire solutions. We should feel inspired to toss out every idea we can imagine, even if they are outlandish or undeveloped.

To encourage free-thinking:

  • Avoid placing judgment (good or bad) on an idea
  • Combine and iterate on ideas in the moment
  • Use different methods (speaking, writing, sketching) to unlock different types of thinking
  • Set a time limit to emphasize speed over depth

On the other hand, the ideas should be relevant to the problem at hand. Thus, while we embrace innovation, the one limitation is to stay on topic.

To help ourselves stay on topic, we can make the prompt visible. We should continue referencing the prompt, especially when we discuss and reflect on our ideas.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a brainstorming technique that helps us transform one general concept into several specific, actionable ideas. As we expand our map, each new idea may spark dozens more. By the end of the activity, we have a wide variety of solutions and a visual record of our thought process.

Mind mapping is a flexible activity that can be customized to suit various contexts in the design world and beyond. This technique can be facilitated in-person or online and you can work individually or with a team. We’ll walk through a version that is conducive to our goals in this lesson.

To start, we add a topic to the middle of the page and draw a circle around it. For a design project, we could use a problem statement or a question based on the problem statement.

Next, we draw a few lines stemming from the central circle. We’ll call these our primary branches. At the end of each primary branch, we add a broad solution or an aspect of the problem to explore. For example, if our central question is “How might we connect people who share common hobbies?”, then we could add “local events,” “volunteer opportunities,” and “online meetups.”

From this point, we pick a solution from a primary branch and add some lines around it. At the end of these secondary branches, we imagine ways to execute the solution. We can still use short phrases, but these ideas should be more concrete and specific. If a potential solution is “online meetups,” we could propose ideas like: “hobby-specific social media site,” “notifications about online events related to hobby,” and “skill-sharing app focused on collaboration and relationships.”

Screenshot of a mind map created in Miro. There’s a question in a bubble, and primary and secondary branches sprawl out from there.

Now, we continue adding to the map. We can create more primary and secondary branches where we see fit, combine and iterate on ideas, and ignore branches that aren’t fruitful. The goal is to pursue different routes of thinking and move from vague concepts to tangible solutions.

Four Categories

After completing an activity like mind mapping, we need to decide which ideas to use, and which to set aside for the time being. In a later exercise, we’ll talk about why we shouldn’t throw any ideas away! Four Categories is a method developed by the Interaction Design Foundation for deciding which ideas to move forward with after a brainstorm.

We start with four predetermined categories:

  • Most rational: solutions that we can efficiently and effectively develop with the given time and resources
  • Most delightful: solutions that users may find most appealing and exciting
  • Darling: solutions that we feel passionate about
  • Long Shot: solutions that do not seem feasible. These ideas might be expensive, complex, or seemingly impossible to pull off. We might feel less confident about how users will react to these solutions.

With these categories in mind, we can sort our ideas. If some ideas don’t naturally fit into a category, that’s ok! Certain ideas might fit into multiple categories. Alternatively, we may add a category if that helps us organize the ideas we’re working with. If we’re collaborating with a team, there may be disagreements about which ideas belong in each category. This can lead to important discussions about why team members feel that certain ideas are more viable than others.

Once we’ve sorted the ideas, we select one or two ideas per category to explore further. The purpose of the Four Categories method is to identify potential solutions that meet diverse criteria. By selecting ideas that can be described as either practical, delightful, darling, or long shots, we broaden our chances of pursuing something that sticks.

Instructions

Setup: Follow the instructions in the website to the right to embed the Miro board.

Task: Create a mind map to brainstorm several ideas that could solve the problem statement you wrote for the Define exercise. Then, use the Four Categories method to sort the ideas.

Miro frames: Mind Map, Four Categories

  1. Locate the Mind Map frame on the Miro board.
  2. In the center of the mind map, write a question that is related to your problem statement. Start with “How might we…?”
  3. From the central question, add primary branches. On these branches, record broad solutions that address the question. These descriptions can be pretty vague!
  4. From each primary branch, add secondary branches. Here, record more specific ways that you might execute the solutions defined in the primary branches.
  5. Continue adding primary and secondary branches to the mind map until you have filled the frame.
  6. Review the ideas you added to the secondary branches. Sort these ideas into Four Categories: Most practical, Most delightful, Darling, and Longshot.
  7. Highlight 1-2 ideas from each category that you feel are most promising.

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