Brainstorming and UX Development

Nothing quite strikes dread in the heart of the account executive like a Vice President inviting clients in for a “brainstorming session” to involve account, design and creative. These sessions, which have the potential to devolve into multi-hour, tangent-filled meetings where the client or creative over powers all other discussion to rail on about “this is how we’ve always done it” or “I’m the expert here.”

Which is 100% not the reason why we’re holding the brainstorming session to begin with. The very nature of brainstorming, love it or hate it, is to get new, out-of-the-box ideas out on the table. These sessions are often held when nothing else is working, or when new clients come online.

Brainstorming, in many cases, takes place for all the wrong reasons.  Some managerial level employee went to a leadership conference or read a book that said that effective teams hold brainstorming sessions and so we do them.  But the art of brainstorming isn’t that simple. Effective ideas meetings require experienced leadership, a culture of creativity, and, yes, structure.

In the world of user-experience (UX) focused design, these brainstorming sessions are of crucial importance. But they’re never free-for-alls with no goals or structure. Some lessons that any organization can take from these designers are:

1. Start with a purpose in mind – what problem are you trying to solve? What goals are you reaching for?
2. No ideas are bad ideas – this is said by everyone and acted on by practically no one. We all judge each other, that’s human nature, but the worst offenders on this topic are often leaders or creative types who feel that their processes or prestige are being threatened by a process that values all ideas
3. Create a structure – set a start and (loose) end time; use brainstorming activities to add value to ideas; never just sit in a room for an hour and throw out ideas – this is almost never effective and leaves many people sitting in the room feeling overpowered by the more dominant personalities.
4. Act on ideas – creating a work structure that shows participants that their ideas (collectively) will be acted on at some point encourages buy-in from everyone. Who likes going to a meeting where nothing happens with any of the topics discussed in there? In other words, don’t brainstorm just to brainstorm. Have a clear action plan in place and share that plan with your fellow participants.

Brainstorming works best on teams or in organizations that have more horizontal power structures, but even the most rigidly traditional company can create a temporary horizontal team by making the goals of the session clear to all participants and then actively valuing everyone’s contribution. Not everyone will contribute equally. Some participants will come up with initial ideas, others are much better at building on the ideas of their colleagues. The ideal team leader will assemble a team with a variety of strengths and encourage active participation by all team members.