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How to conduct UX brainstorming sessions effectively: tips and methods that work

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Brainstorming is a popular working method which is commonly used by UX design teams. It involves a group of designers meeting (whether offline or via video call) and generating as many ideas as possible to find the best solution to a specific problem or come up with creative design ideas. Brainstorming sessions are usually held at the start of a UX project so that designers could use the ideas they think are the best later in the process of product creation. These sessions can vary in duration and form depending on which problems need to be solved, how many people participate and how many ideas need to be generated. 

Brainstorming can be a bit nervous and tiring, especially for those designers who've just started their careers or are just naturally a bit shy to participate in active discussions. If you are a leader of a UX design team, it's your job to make the session effective and productive while allowing each participant to contribute to the common cause and voice out their ideas even if they're not yet confident in their professional skills. So, what steps can you take to conduct a UX brainstorming session successively?   

  1. Define the problem

Any UX brainstorming session should start with defining the target problem or goal which participants are going to generate ideas for. Brainstorming about “everything and anything at once” is just a waste of time. The more clearly the problem is defined, the easier it will be for the participants to generate ideas both in terms of quality and quantity. It's also important to make sure the participants don’t deviate from the topic, gently guiding the discussion in the right direction. 

  1. Define session’s duration

Brainstorming sessions shouldn’t last too long, as the process of generating ideas can be very exhausting, so it’s necessary to set a time limit and stick to it. An average UX brainstorming should last for about 30-40 minutes. If the problem is too complex, you can increase the time up to an hour. If, after an hour, the group still hasn't come up with the solution to a problem, it’s much more effective to conduct several additional brainstorming sessions in the following days rather than prolong a single one to a point when the participants feel exhausted and drained out of any ideas.

  1. Encourage speaking one by one

When brainstorming, it’s easy to start a hullabaloo, when everyone wants to share their ideas at once. That’s why moderating sessions is very important. Allow one speaker at a time, make sure everyone has their turn to showcase their thoughts while others listen attentively - only by listening to each other and taking each other's ideas into account is it possible to get effective results and find a common solution at the end of a session.

  1. Prohibit any judgment

Brainstorming is not a process that involves deep thinking and evaluating the quality of ideas. On the contrary, it’s an activity where people are expected to shoot off anything that comes to their mind without any contemplation - including weird, non-viable, crazy or funny ideas. Do not let anyone show any judgment towards the ideas of others, even if it’s rational (like “There’s not enough budget for that”). The thing is, sometimes the best solutions are carved out of the weirdest ideas, and if being judged, some people can close in and refrain from voicing their thoughts that could have ended up being very important for the final result. 

  1. Encourage visual representation

Visual representation plays a huge role in UX, that’s why it’s great to encourage participants of UX brainstorming sessions to present their ideas not only in words, but also in a visual form. This can include sketches, diagrams, tables and any other ways that can help share one’s ideas more clearly.

  1. Add on each other’s ideas

Saying that no one should interrupt each other when brainstorming doesn’t mean participants should only listen quietly without having a discussion. On the contrary, effective brainstorming sessions involve adding on each other’s ideas, making them more expanded and detailed. Thus a minor or under-thought idea can be turned into something really effective and valuable with the help of teamwork and collective thinking. 

  1. Challenge each other

When brainstorming, it's easy to get stuck in discussing the same idea all over again, especially towards the end of a session, when people run out of creative thoughts. That's why it's worthy to challenge each other by asking some specific questions that can provoke useful ideas. For example, you can offer your group to imagine what they would change in the product if it had to be designed for a different country or for a different target audience. Even though this might seem a bit unnecessary or even useless, the truth is, thinking outside the frames of a given problem can be very beneficial in terms of finding interesting and effective solutions that otherwise wouldn't have been thought about. 

  1. Document every idea

Another important tip is to document every idea that has been voiced during the session (no matter of its quality). Don’t rely on the memory - the amount of ideas shared at brainstorming sessions are nearly impossible to keep in mind. Run a list with short notes about every idea, even the ones that seem completely worthless - some of them may become useful later on at the following stages of a UX development process. 

  1. Present the results afterwards

The last, but not least tip for effective brainstorming is to let the participants know how the previous session has helped to make the product better. Brainstorming sessions can be tiring and chaotic, and not so rarely you can meet an opinion that it's just a useless waste of time. To prove that wrong, it's important to show your group that their participation in the sessions doesn't go in vain and that some of their ideas make it to the actual realization. This can be done by sending out e-mails with the representation of things that were implemented or changed in the product you're working on with the help of brainstorming. 

To make brainstorming sessions more effective, you can use some special techniques. Here are a few worth trying:

  • Brainwriting

Brainwriting implies writing the ideas down. This method can be applied if some participants find it hard to share their thoughts verbally, or if there is not enough time to have a full-fledged discussion. You can ask team members to write their thoughts on paper one by one, passing the sheet onto other members and thus creating a list of ideas that can be discussed afterwards. Another way is to ask each subsequent member to build on the ideas of the previous one, which will lead to evolving one idea into a whole collaborative solution. 

  • “Thinking hats” technique

“Thinking hats” is a brainstorming method that was invented in the late 80’s. It implies each participant to wear a different “hat” (not necessarily a real one), which includes: logical, optimistic, pessimistic, emotional, creative and managing hats. Depending on the “hat” you wear, you should focus on its theme and base your creative ideas around it. “Logical hat” implies thinking on the factual data about the product/problem, “optimistic” - on the best case outcomes, “pessimistic” - on the worst case scenarios, “emotional” - on the emotions it provokes in users, “creative” - on the creative ideas to make it stand out, “managing” - on the management issues of the process. Thus every participant focuses on a specific problem which helps structure the brainstorming process.

  • The 5 “Whys”

This method implies asking the “why” question until reaching a point when the further discussion is impossible to have. Its goal is to dig as deep into a problem as possible to identify its root and find the best possible solution. 

  • SCAMPER technique

SCAMPER technique was invented in the 1950's and implies discussing the following topics:

Substitution (can any elements in the product be substituted with the other ones?),

Combination (can any elements be combined?),

Adaptation (should any elements be adapted for something or someone?),

Modification (should any elements be modified to make the product better?),

Putting to other uses (can the product serve other uses apart from its primary goal?),

Elimination (are there any excess elements that can be removed?),

Rearrangement (can any elements be rearranged to improve the product?).

This technique can help brainstorming session participants stay focused on particular problems and generate ideas specifically for the SCAMPER topics without getting distracted on issues that might be irrelevant for the given session.

  • SWOT method

SWOT is another mnemonic technique that stands for:

Strength (defining the strong sides of the product that work well and don’t need to be changed),

Weakness (discussing weak points of the product, what needs to be improved and why),

Opportunities (discussing the goal of improvements, what can be achieved by optimizing the product),

Threats (discussing risks around the product, including the risks faced by the direct competitors of the product).

It’s better to conduct SWOT analysis in a written form, dividing the paper into four sections and writing your thoughts in each one. After that participants can exchange their sheets and discuss each other’s thoughts, coming to common conclusions. 

  • Mind mapping

Mind mapping is an effective method for situations when it’s necessary to find a solution to one specific problem. To create a mind map you need a whiteboard or a large sheet of paper. Sketch the problem at the center and then let participants sketch their solutions around it, thus creating a so-called “map”. Encourage participants to make detailed sketches in order to envision the solutions to the fullest, as well as build on the ideas of others instead of only creating their own. This method helps to combine all the solutions in one place, evaluate them, compare with each other and choose the best one. 

Summary  

The main goal of brainstorming sessions is to generate as many ideas as possible in order to find a creative design solution for the product the team is working on at the moment. Not all these ideas have to be neat and smart - sometimes it's the weirdest ones that bring the most value. Each brainstorming session should have a leader whose job is to provide a comfortable environment for the participants while encouraging them to generate more ideas with the help of different methods and techniques. To make the participants feel that the time and effort they’ve put into brainstorming didn’t go in vain, it’s important to demonstrate to them that some of their ideas have made it to the final product. 

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