The design process in a nutshell: create choices, make choices. Brainstorming is what you do to create choices.

Since the goal is to produce lots of raw material for further thinking and refinement, you should avoid critical modes of thinking at this stage. The goal is to go for quantity of ideas over quality of ideas.

Conducting Group Brainstorms

Conducting brainstorms in groups is nearly always better than going it alone. You don't know what you don't know, making it hard to explore a space all by yourself. A diversity of perspecives will create syntheses that no one person could have created alone.

Two key challenges to brainstorming in groups are setting up the ground rules so the brainstorm doesn't devolve into a critiquing session, and coming to consensus.

One common approch to solving this problem is the sticky note brainstorm.


  • Sticky notes (colorful)
  • Sharpies (medium felt tip)
  • PaperMate Flair M (optional) for finer illustrations

Group homework before you start

Describe the user needs you're solving for, usually in the form of short user stories. These can be uncovered through user research, market research, user interviews, exploration or some other process. Ask "what is the job-to-be-done?" Its ok if you don't know for sure. In new market exploration, everything is a hypothesis.

Explore the problem space.

  • What analogous problems are there in other fields?
  • What other solutions are there? What isn't working?
  • Look for users that are extreme outliers. What does their behavior tell you about the underlying job-to-be-done?

Conducting the brainstorming session

  1. Set the ground rules and goals
    • Quantity over quality
    • No critiques
    • Build on ideas. Replace "yes, but..." with "yes, and..."
  2. Distribute sticky notes, sharpies
  3. Pose a question, user need or topic.
  4. Participants have 5 min to get as many ideas on sticky notes as possible. 1 idea per sticky note. Sharpies help because they are nice and thick — legible at a distance, and they prevent fine detail work.
  5. At the end of the 5m mark, go around and have people share their ideas.
  6. Put the ideas up on the board.
  7. Do this for 3 rounds. Toward the later rounds, new ideas tend to emerge, synthesized from others already shared.
  8. Cluster ideas by theme, topic, approach.

Coming to consensus: An optional step for coming to consensus is to allow everyone to signal their interest by voting. Each person gets 5 votes that they can allocate in any way, by taking a sharpie and adding a dot to the corner of a sticky note. This gives everyone a voice, and helps channel discussions about next steps in a meaningful direction.