Managing Design Innovation

with Matthew Beebe

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Great answers come from great questions

Matthew Beebe

Design & Idea Expert, User Experience, Human-Centered Design

Lessons Learned

Bad brainstorms come from bad preparation.

You can only come up with great answers if you have great questions.

A great idea is a unique fit between your solution and the problem you observed.


Lesson: Managing Design Innovation with Matthew Beebe

Step #2 Brainstorm: Great answers come from great questions

I've read a lot of brainstorm hating — people who just don't believe in the method. I think they've experienced bad brainstorms, and bad brainstorms come from bad preparation. Basically, it's very hard to have a really great brainstorm if you just kind of walk into the room with a simple question and expect a bunch of great answers. You can only get great answers when you're asking great questions, and the only way to ask great questions is by doing a lot of hard work.

Boundaries for the brainstorm should be defined by a bunch of, in my case, doing design brainstorms, user research. You're trying to understand what the problem is that you're trying to solve in someone's life. Until you have a unique understanding of that problem or a detailed enough understanding of the problem, or a unique enough understanding of the problem, you are not going to come up with detailed, unique and exciting solutions. Focusing on the problems that you're trying to solve first is the first step to having a good outcome at a brainstorm.

When you're running the brainstorm, what I would like to do is I come into the meeting with maybe a high level topic or several high level topics, but also several sub-questions. One way to think of the worksheets is to provide a structure for this preparation work that leads into the brainstorm and give you basically an outline to follow during a brainstorm or a series of brainstorms to ask the right questions to prompt good brainstorming, and then a way to capture the outcomes of the brainstorm.

Then, I think this is less a part of the worksheets themselves, but the structure that the worksheets are meant to create makes it easier to make sense of and analyze the outcomes of the brainstorm so you can start to identify the good ideas. Running the brainstorm, a good rule of thumb is that you can't go much more longer than forty-five minutes because people get kind of tired, so you need to pick your highest value questions and run through those first. Plan, for very large projects, you probably need to do a bunch of brainstorming to get through all the different things you want to cover. It can't be just one event, probably.

When the energy dies, you might as well stop. When people stop coming up with ideas, it gets slower and slower and the same things keep coming up over and over again, it's time to wind it down or try to pepper it with a new question. You go into it with the list of questions and sub-questions, and as you're going through the questions you sense the excitement starts to dwindle, move onto the next topic. But you can only move on to so many topics before people lose their mojo.

To me and idea is great when I think it's a unique fit between the thing we came up with and the problem we observed. Kaiser Permanante, with the nursing staff in the perinatal ward, and I guess it's sort of stereotypical, but a lot of these nurses probably felt a little bit undervalued and felt like they were cogs in the system, but during this project we were engaging them and helping them design a better patient experience, being able to look at problems from a patient's perspective, and their own perspective as well, solving their own problems.

This is more the experience of the overall project, but these brainstorms were just so liberating for them and there was so much momentum coming out of that project, and that's a very satisfying thing about the brainstorming, just like the human centered design approach where it’s a really a fun, satisfying way to work. I think if more people had this positive tilt on things in their work life, I personally believe, without any super solid evidence, that we'd have better work outcomes in general, but certainly I think people would be happier at work, which is super important.

One of my favorite brainstorm stories from IDEO is when we were designing food packaging. It was an on-the-go salad container and during the user research, we observed this issue which a lot of people had experienced. When you buy a salad off the shelf at Trader Joe’s, let’s say, and it has a little cup of dressing, so you flip open the lid, you pour a little dressing on and you close the lid and you try to shake it to get the dressing kind of distributed around and then you take the lid off and all the dressing is stuck on the lid.

We had observed this issue, we had some clever name for the problem, and we ran a brainstorm around how we could solve it. So going into this brainstorm we had identified, I call them strategies, but basically high level strategies, so they’re just short of actual concepts. They’re not things you could go build but they’re high level approaches to solving a problem. How could you expand the volume of the container to make it more shakeable?

The solution we came up with, which is so tied to the observation we just made, was we ended up in this direction which was the container had this big bowl holding the salad greens and then a little inset bowl holding the toppings, so the tomatoes and everything else, a piece of foil across the top. You remove the foil, you take the little tray out, you dump the dressing on, you put the toppings on that you want, and you flip the inner cup upside down, so now it's got extra volume coming of the top and there's plenty of room to shake it.

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