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The Rational Guide To Brainstorming

The cliché that people get their most brilliant ideas in the shower is cliché for a reason. We’re in a relaxed state so our minds are free to wander.

Physical activity can be another way to aid creativity more effectively than summoning people to a conference room and demanding they write down a certain number of ideas on a blank sheet of paper. One of our engineers has had some significant breakthroughs while holding onto the handlebars of his bike.

We’ve written before about ideating around bike accessories. I’ve also written in this space about the rational process behind choosing the right color in product design. Now we’d like to illustrate our rational guide to brainstorming through a client project that had us creating a shower for our aging population. Though we did get to ideate in a shower this time around (more on that later), typically we are brainstorming in a conference room—an environment that’s literally and figuratively drier.

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Is it possible to produce more innovative ideas together than we do alone?

Can this work? Brainstorming has gotten a lot of bad press lately. We believe it can be effective if we don’t get lazy. (We subscribe to the notion of “more brain; less storm.”) People’s time is precious so the process needs to be planned well, and the participants need the right stimulus.

Done well, brainstorming is still a technique that helps us to be more imaginative and create more ideas than we would working individually.

What makes it work well for us is not where we are when we’re brainstorming, it’s how we brainstorm and — most of all — the prep work we do before we brainstorm. This gets us thinking as freely in a conference room as we are when we’re biking down a country lane or lathering up in the shower.

Getting Started

Jacuzzi, known for spa tubs and hydrotherapy, came to us to help design an aging-in-place, walk-in shower enclosure that can easily replace the standard, American 60” x 32” bathtub — to enable those who’re getting older to bathe and remain in their own homes as long as possible. We were asked to design different accessibility approaches that, along with fitting into this limited footprint, were ergonomic, safe, and not institutional-looking. Jacuzzi came to us with a well-defined product requirements document, but mainly left it up to us to figure out where we should focus our brainstorm efforts to create unique user benefits.

A cheat sheet for our rational guide to brainstorming.

Quick tips for rational brainstorming.

1. Problem Identification

When a client wants to innovate, but isn’t sure how or where, we advise conducting front end research to unearth the problems we’ll need to resolve. Ethnographic research is an effective tool to discover users’ frustrations with existing products and obtain a deeper understanding of a user’s ideal task outcome. Analyzing these qualitative insights in terms of user importance (where emotion is often most powerful) and how well they are addressed by current products drives a filtered list of problems that are the fertile catalysts for productive brainstorming.

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Innovation catalysts are derived from the pull of user research insights and from the push of technical challenges, IP avoidance, and new technology opportunities.

Technical problems require a different approach. We are often asked to brainstorm technical ideas that either need to navigate around existing intellectual property (IP) or create new IP in an already crowded IP landscape. Even when a client is unable to provide concise IP direction or even a cursory IP search at the brainstorming stage, we prefer to get a basic understanding of the landscape ourselves. Trawling an IP landscape with tools such as Google Patents can identify early idea barriers and idea catalysts for technical problems.

intellectual property and rational guide to brainstorming

Understanding the IP landscape (in this case, for a sprayer) is often fundamental to framing technical problems.

In our initial interactions with Jacuzzi, we did a lot of listening to understand their perspective. This product would be their first venture into this bathing segment. Hydro therapy was a core Jacuzzi competency so providing convenient and effective pain relief with water became the shared problem opportunity for our brainstorming efforts. Our next task was to provide useful problem framing to focus and inspire our brainstorm team.

2. Problem Framing

How a problem is framed influences the breadth of your solutions. I’m not sure if Steve Jobs was a great brainstormer, but when other companies were centering their efforts on innovating a better MP3 player, Apple approached the problem from a higher perspective. By thinking about ‘why’ people would want to use their music player, they were able to innovate the supporting ecosystem of iTunes that integrated seamlessly with their iPod.

problem framing - rational guide to brainstorming

Abstract Laddering is one way to reconsider a problem by broadening or narrowing its focus.

Abstract Laddering is a technique that helps to consider a problem in broader or narrower envelopes. Framing your initial problem statement from a ‘why’ perspective can release your brainstorm team from micro thinking and inspire them to think about how to deliver desired user outcomes.

Think less about designing a better mousetrap specifically and think more about eradicating mice from the home.

Some problems can also benefit from the narrower framing that results from asking ‘how’. If you know that your product solution needs to operate in a well-defined category or that your technical solution needs to avoid infringing in a dense IP landscape, ‘how’ framing can be a springboard for creating new features, attributes, and cost advantages. Think less about reinventing mouse eradication and more about what will make this the easiest mousetrap to use on the market. (Check out the Luma Institute to explore problem framing in more depth.)

user personas for guide to brainstorming

Two of the user personas we considered during our brainstorming.

For Jacuzzi, we found it beneficial to frame different bathing issues from the perspective of different types of users or personas. Which problems would a ‘younger’ aging user in good health but planning for the future, look to solve in a showering product? Might they look for something more luxurious and therapeutic? What would an older user with more physical limitations and perhaps the necessity of a caregiver look to solve? Might they be more focused on having safety and pain relief at a reasonable cost? Effort invested in framing problems will ensure that your brainstorm team digests the user observations, research insights, or technical challenges in a focused and inspiring manner.

3. Session Planning

We have three guidelines for planning brainstorming sessions:

Hold multiple, smaller, and shorter sessions.

Ordinarily, we prefer small groups that max out at six to eight people. About half of our brainstorming sessions include the client. Some clients are located too far from our offices to easily participate. Other clients want a fresh external perspective or feel they don’t have the right profile of personnel that can contribute to a brainstorm.

In this case, the Jacuzzi innovation and marketing team elected to co-develop the brainstorm brief and allow us to resource the creativity internally. We used a mix of participants: industrial designers, mechanical engineers, and an electrical engineer. In framing the problems, hydrotherapy emerged as a significant opportunity for us. Water has a soft, emotional aspect to it as well as a strong technical aspect. We needed a good combination of a designer’s empathy and an engineer’s ingenuity.

Combine personal think with group think.

Not every creative person performs well in a group scenario and coming at a problem cold in a meeting room can cause the equivalent of writer’s block. Our brainstorm facilitators not only put effort into framing problems, but they also provide them to participants several days before the first session along with any inspirational info. After stewing on the stimulus, we request that brainstormers come with at least three personal ideas to help break the ice and that others can build upon.

Give folks time, and material to stew on.

For Jacuzzi, in addition to well-framed problems, we provided a mix of constraints and inspiration. Participants had key extracts from the ergonomic standards for accessible design outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They could also peruse essential plumbing and mechanical standards suggested by the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO).

For inspiration, we distributed our research into pain relief and hydrotherapy. We were particularly interested in a few areas concerning the biology of pain relief: What types of pain are most common for users 65 years or older? What’s the difference in effectiveness between heat and massage? What are the ways in which we could make hydrotherapy work? What should we know about water spray dynamics?

Each brainstorm session explored a range of questions that built upon each other: How do we turn on the water? Where does water come out while you’re sitting? If water could come out of different parts of the shower, how would each be activated? Could water fall onto the shoulders? Could there be a separate foot spa?

 Brainstorming in the shower — rational guide to brainstorming

Two of our brainstormers thinking in the shower — or in a foam-core mockup of one.

(Also: Build it, and they will think.)

Since this was literally a situation where we needed the team to be thinking in the shower, we went ahead and built one (or at least a low fidelity one). By quickly building a very basic foamcore mockup of a 60” x 32” x 80” space, we got our team to physically inhabit the shower without worrying about running up their own utility bills. The model created a visceral priming opportunity to consider what might make sense in terms of functional elements. The space could feel very small if you filled it with too much static stuff. Therapy features that we added needed to be smart with space and offer flexibility for different users with different physical challenges.

4. Brainstorm Rules

There’s no filter in our brainstorm session. And the rules are pretty simple:

1) Only be critical if you can describe a better idea.
2) Be clear and concise when voicing your idea.
3) Try not to talk over other participants.
4) Describe your idea and key benefit; even better if you can sketch it.
5) Combine and build upon the ideas of others.
6) Wild ideas are welcome.

After the Storm

For the duration of our multiple brainstorms, sketches of our ideas stayed up in the room where we initially met. We let the ideas breathe and allowed folks to build on them. Before sharing rough ideas with the client, the project leads locked themselves away for some hardcore ranking and filtering based on how well ideas delivered benefits and idea uniqueness.

Preferred functional ideas were integrated with aesthetic refinement to deliver a series of concept storyboards in which different configurations and water features underscored different potential user stories. An idea doesn’t live if it exists in words alone. It is very difficult to understand.

rational guide to brainstorming - chosen concept

The chosen concept.

Jacuzzi’s internal production team worked hard to preserve the design intent of the final chosen concept and their first aging-in-place shower enclosure launched at the end of 2014. It features wrap around grab bars, a foot rest, and an easily movable seat with wooden slats that can be positioned securely so a user can enjoy a few different types of hydrotherapy. Massaging water jets can be angled onto your shoulders and back while sitting, or onto thighs and legs while standing. Its style is not too contemporary, not too institutional, and there’s convenient corner storage without reducing the feeling of space.

It may seem conservative compared with the range of our original brainstorm ideas but it’s Jacuzzi’s first foray into this product space. Other ideas from our brainstorm will inform future iterations. And that’s the best possible outcome for us. We’re not just looking for a single, brilliant solution. We’re also trying to identify a brilliant approach our client can employ to solve future user problems that will arise as they continue to pursue meaningful product innovation.