Design Thinking Handbook
03

Define

Reframe the problem

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by Eli Woolery

In 1968, when Apollo 8 became the first spacecraft to circumnavigate the moon, the crew had one photographic mission: to capture detailed images of the moon’s surface. As the astronauts rounded the dark side, Earth became visible—a brilliant blue and white marble. Earth was remarkable not only for its serene beauty from this perspective but also for its apparent fragility. The only life-sustaining planet in our solar system is dwarfed by the vast emptiness of space.

With the photograph from this event, which became known as “Earthrise,” the Apollo 8 astronauts inadvertently sparked a spontaneous reframing of the environmental problems threatening our planet. No longer were we on a vast planet with seemingly endless resources, but rather a small, very finite lifeboat in an infinite universe.  This change in perspective helped charge the modern environmental movement, inspiring the creation of Earth Day in 1970.

Reframing the way that a problem is viewed can inspire a movement, as it did in this case. It can also be a powerful way to create innovative design solutions to challenging problems and even create new and disruptive business models. During the Empathize phase of the Design Thinking process, you collected stories and insights from your users. This Define phase will give you an opportunity to synthesize these findings and come up with a problem statement, called a point of view (POV), that can help you reframe the problem and open new and innovative solution spaces.

Developing a point of view (POV)

A POV is composed of 3 elements:

  • Who is your user? (Note as many specific details as possible.)
  • What is their deep, unmet need?
  • Why is this insightful? (List the insights you gleaned from your empathetic needfinding process.)

As an example, below is a POV from the founders of AwesomeBox, a gift-giving platform, used in the early days of developing their product. They were trying to design for people who have a hard time giving thoughtful gifts. They interviewed and observed hundreds of potential customers, from which they created POVs like the following.

Let’s create some hypothetical POVs using Netflix, as they’re a good example of a company that disrupted an existing business model by reframing the problem for users.

In the early days, Netflix might have framed their POV like this:

“Caroline is a 26-year-old single mom who loves sci-fi movies. She needs a way to rent DVDs that doesn’t clutter her already-busy schedule, while making her feel relaxed after a long day of work and taking care of her daughter.”

Using this point of view, Netflix certainly could have come up with a solution that only delivers DVDs by mail—but the solution space would have been constrained and they might’ve missed a larger opportunity.

Now consider how Netflix could have reframed the problem with a different POV.

Caroline is a 26-year-old single mom who loves sci-fi movies. She needs a way to access new and entertaining content in a way that allows her to consume it at her own pace, while making her feel excited about discovering new shows to share with her friends.

With the problem statement rewritten, Netflix opened up all kinds of opportunities for innovation. Let’s unpack them.

“She needs a way to access new and entertaining content … ”

This doesn’t even mention DVDs! In the early days, a mail delivery solution may have worked, but over time Netflix developed the streaming services that helped make them so popular. Also, “new and entertaining” doesn’t necessarily limit them to licensing content. Netflix could also develop and distribute their own shows.

“ … in a way that allows her to consume it at her own pace … ”

Again, mail delivery of DVDs would be a partial solution to this constraint, but with streaming as an option, there’s an even bigger opportunity. Add in original content, and now Caroline can binge-watch House of Cards while her daughter sleeps. (We never said that innovative solutions always have a positive social impact.)

“ … while making her feel excited about discovering new shows … ”

Netflix famously developed a “recommendation algorithm” that helps viewers discover new content based on the shows they already watch—and the ratings they give to each. This feature wouldn’t have necessarily stemmed from the previous POV.

“ … which she can share with her friends.”

This last insight, while minor on its surface, is a huge reason for the viral growth of Netflix—especially after the company began developing original content. Once rave reviews about shows began to surface—with the only way to access them being Netflix—the continued growth was almost assured.

Clearly, there would have been a lot of value left on the table had Netflix used the first POV to guide their designs. In addition to helping you reframe a problem, a good POV can align your team, provide a way to compare competing ideas, and help fuel brainstorms. In fact, the d.school at Stanford came up with a great checklist of all the things that a good POV should help you accomplish:

Point of view (POV) checklist

Your POV should:

  • Provide focus and frame the problem
  • Inspire your team
  • Provide a reference for evaluating competing ideas
  • Empower team members to make decisions in response to the high level goals of the team
  • Fuel brainstorms by suggesting “how might we” statements
  • Capture the hearts and minds of people you meet
  • Save you from the impossible task of developing solution concepts that are all things to all people
  • Allow you to revisit and reformulate the POV as you learn by doing
  • Guide your innovation efforts

In the remaining sections of this chapter, we will dive into a case study where developing a POV provided inspiration for a healthcare project with a lot of impact. Then, we’ll share an exercise to help you quickly generate POVs of your own.

Case study: GE Healthcare MRI redesign

We first met Doug Dietz when doing the research for this chapter. Over the phone, Doug is a kind, affable midwesterner—the sort of guy you imagine it would be fun to go to a Milwaukee Brewers game with. But beneath his unassuming presence is a formidable design mind with over 25 years of experience at GE Healthcare. First as a principal designer and now Innovation Architect, Doug has helped develop medical equipment such as MRI and CT scanners for one of the world’s largest corporations.

In 2008, Doug ran into a problem. He was at a hospital where one of his new MRI machines had recently been installed. The machine had won a prestigious industrial design award and Doug was eager to see the machine in situ.

Before he had much of a chance to ask the technician about the machine, he was asked to step outside of the room, as a patient was scheduled to come in for an appointment. What he witnessed in the hallway changed the course of his career and helped him reframe the MRI user experience.

A young family walked in, their 7-year-old daughter obviously distressed. As the family got closer, Doug could see that she was weeping. The father leaned over and said, “Remember, we talked about this, you can be brave.”

Doug peered into the room where the young girl was about to enter the scanner. Crouching down, he had a new perspective on the room—and on the machine that he had so proudly designed. He could immediately understand why the girl was terrified: warning stickers plastered the machine and yellow and black tape marked the floor like a crash-test scene. The machine itself looked like a beige “brick with a hole in it.”

Given this new perspective, it’s no mystery why many children have to be sedated to get MRI or CT scans. Everything about the experience can be frightening, from the room and the machine to the claustrophobia and loud noises. Doug came away with a new mission: to understand how GE might redesign this experience for children so that it’s a positive experience and not something to be dreaded.

Doug’s boss recommended he attend an executive education workshop at the d.school at Stanford to get the Design Thinking toolkit and help him solve this big, emotionally-charged problem. The workshop helped him frame the problem as a POV, in the form of a Madlib which was structured in the following way:

“We met … ”

“We were amazed to realize that … ”

“It would change the world if … ”

Using this framework, Doug and his team were able to iterate on their POV until they came up with a statement more aligned with the goal.

“We met scared families trying not to fall apart during the hospital visit.

We were amazed to realize that they have to sedate 80% of children between 3 and 8 years old, in order to have them scanned.

It would change the world if we could capitalize on the child’s amazing imagination to transform the radiology experience into a positive, memorable adventure.”

By reframing the problem using this POV, Doug and his team realized that the beginning of the user experience started at home, when the parents were trying to figure out what the procedure was like and how to explain it to their children. They were able to outline the whole user journey for the family and determine the different touchpoints that they could influence or redesign.

The team didn’t have the budget to do a full redesign of the machines, so once they had identified a few promising opportunities, they decided to implement a low-fidelity prototype. By applying decals to the exterior of the machine and the walls of the scanning room, they were able to transform the dull, monotone experience into a colorful pirate adventure, where the captain’s helm led to the inside of the “ship” (this feature had the added benefit of making the opening seem much larger and less claustrophobic). They created a script for the operator, who led the children through the pirate adventure.

The results from this redesign and from others like it were no less than amazing. Sedation rates dropped from 80% to fractions of one percent. But to Doug, the human stories behind the numbers are just as important.

While visiting the pirate-themed scanner, Doug talked to the parents of a little girl about the room’s piña colada scented aroma, something they were getting a kick out of. The little girl came up to the mom and tugged at her shirt. “Can we come back tomorrow?” she asked.

For at least one family, Doug and his team had transformed the experience from something terrifying to something to look forward to. By using their POV as a way to reframe the problem, his team was able to change the world.

The exponential power of reframing

In their wonderful 1977 film for IBM, designers Charles and Ray Eames explored how perspectives change by looking at the relative scale of objects. For example, the film zooms out from a man and woman on a picnic blanket to the grass surrounding them.

The short film Powers of Ten by designers Charles and Ray Eames

The film quickly progresses through Earth to the edge of the universe, then zooms back into the nucleus of a carbon atom. In the process, viewers get a wonderful understanding of extremes at both ends of the scale, but also of how reframing your viewpoint can create a new perspective on something familiar and ordinary.

As designers, we can leverage the power of reframing to help us innovate and solve wicked problems. We can create POVs to help guide our product design process and connect us to our users. And if we’re lucky, we might just see the world in a new light along the way.

Design Thinking Handbook
04

Ideate

Beyond basic brainstorms

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The Apollo 13 Mission Control team faced a huge number of seemingly insurmountable obstacles after an oxygen tank exploded on board the 1970 mission to the moon. They needed to find a new route that would get the astronauts back to Earth quickly with a limited supply of life-supporting fuel and power.

The most pressing problem was a buildup of carbon dioxide in the ship. Without a replacement scrubber, stored out of reach in a different module in the craft, the crew would soon asphyxiate from their own exhalations.

In the 1995 movie version of this dramatic event, Apollo 13, Flight Director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) assembles the top engineers and scientists in a room for a brainstorming session. He tells the group to forget the flight plan, and that they would be “improvising a new mission.” Standing in front of a chalkboard, he quickly sketches the original route of the ship. Then, when one of the engineers suggests a new route, Kranz alters the original route to show a slingshot approach that would use the moon’s gravity to whip the astronauts back toward Earth.

In a later scene, a group of engineers tasked with devising a new filtration system dumps the same items aboard Apollo 13 onto a table. They proceed to prototype a fix that the crew can build from the objects at hand, ending up with a literal “duct-tape solution.”

In each case, the route to resolving the problems seemed relatively straightforward, if fraught with urgency: get a bunch of smart people in a room, and have them collectively come up with ideas until the best solution was found. We can assume that the film was faithful to what happened in the real life control room in Houston, but what conditions created such a successful environment for brainstorming?

The term “brainstorm” was popularized by the ad agency executive Alex Osborn in his 1953 book Applied Imagination (though he had outlined his method in a 1948 book, Your Creative Power). Osborn claimed that by organizing a group to attack a creative problem “commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective,” creative output could be doubled.

Osborn created 2 main rules for a successful brainstorm:

  1. Defer judgement
  2. Reach for quantity

Deferring judgement reduced social inhibitions in the group—no one would be stigmatized for shouting out a crazy idea. By reaching for quantity, participants would boost their overall creative output and increase the likelihood of coming up with innovative solutions.

As we discussed in Pencils before pixels, brainstorming in a group might not work as well for original ideas, as compared to individuals working independently.  However, brainstorming adds value to the creative process in ways that don’t just involve coming up with ideas.

Brainstorming isn’t about new ideas, really

It turns out that the power of brainstorming doesn’t really come from spontaneously generating new ideas. Rather, the real strength in brainstorming stems from the process’s ability to:

  • Quickly generate lots of ideas, to help get an overview of the conceptual landscape. These are not necessarily new ideas (or good ideas). They may have been brewing for a while as individuals considered the problem beforehand. These ideas can become the seeds for solutions, to be investigated with prototypes.
  • Gather a team into a physical space where everyone can share perspectives on the problem and become aware of the potential solution spaces as they are surfaced. Done well, it can energize a team (and done poorly, it can deflate one).
  • Get clients or stakeholders to buy into the design process, and also learn what is important to these decision makers.

Generating ideas, sharing perspectives, and gaining stakeholder buy-in are lofty goals. To achieve them via brainstorming requires careful planning. In the next few sections, we’ll cover how to properly set the stage for success.

Prepare for brainstorming success

Before we dive into suggestions for making your brainstorms more successful, a caveat—just like any other creative tool, there are a lot of ways to run a brainstorm, some of which might work better for certain types of problems. The only way you’ll learn which technique works best for you is to experiment with a few.

You’ll remember from our introduction that Alex Osborn sets 2 guidelines for a successful brainstorm:

  1. Defer judgement
  2. Reach for quantity

While these are fundamentally important, there are a few additional guidelines that will make your brainstorm more successful.

Before the brainstorm

A key part of the brainstorming process is the facilitator—someone who will lead the session, keep track of time, and set up the space for the group. This facilitator can also make sure that the group comes prepared with a mission framed by problem statements.

Set a mission

Your brainstorming session should have a clear goal. What problem(s) are you surfacing ideas for? What is the best method for coming up with this goal?

Recall that Stanford’s d.school design thinking framework (below) alternates between generative (flaring) and selective (focusing) phases. As you Empathize, you gather data and stories from your users, generating insights and flaring out.

As you begin to synthesize that information and come closer to Defining your point of view (POV), you become selective about the solution space you will pursue, and you focus.

In the current Ideate phase, you flare out again as you generate a multitude of ideas and select promising solutions for Prototyping. Doing this helps your team step beyond obvious solutions, harness the collective creativity of the team, and discover new and unexpected areas to explore.

How do you go about generating those ideas? The POV that you generated in the Define phase is a great platform to help start the process. Using your POV problem statement, come up with “How might we … ?” topics that are subsets of the entire problem. If your POV is well constructed, these topics should fall naturally out of it.

For example, let’s go back to Doug Dietz’s POV.

“We met scared families trying not to fall apart during the hospital visit. We were amazed to realize that they have to sedate 80% of the children between 3 and 8 years old, in order to have them be scanned. It would change the world if we could capitalize on the child’s amazing imagination to transform the radiology experience into a positive, memorable adventure.”

With that POV, you can pretty easily come up with problem statements like “How might we make the MRI scanner a more imaginative space?” or “How can we reduce anxiety before appointments by sparking children’s imaginations?” With these topics, you can then set up brainstorming sessions to surface a lot of ideas.

Set up the space

For a good brainstorm to happen, the energy in the room needs to be right. First, pick a space that has large whiteboards or room on a wall to set up poster-sized Easel Pads. The room should also be somewhat enclosed if there is a worry about bothering other teams (brainstorming can get boisterous)—but there are alternate techniques for a quiet brainstorm, which we’ll get to a little later.

Get into the right headspace

If you’re coming into a brainstorming session from individual work, it can be a little jarring to adopt a collaborative mindset—and hard to ramp up your energy level accordingly. The facilitator should spend a few minutes getting everyone acclimated. There are quick, improv-based techniques for this, like Sound Ball or Knife, Baby, and Angry Cat. You can also use the 30 Circles Exercise that we outline later in this article.

Limit the time

A brainstorm can quickly run out of steam if the facilitator doesn’t establish time limits and keep the conversation moving. Setting a time limit for each topic is a good idea (15–20 minutes works well, depending on how many topics you need to cover). You can also set a goal for the number of ideas per topic (e.g., 100 ideas in 20 minutes). Use a Time Timer so everyone has a visual indicator and benefits from adrenaline-powered sprints as the time begins to run short.

During the brainstorm

When the brainstorm kicks off, the moderator’s job is to keep the momentum going, stay on topic, and make sure all ideas are captured.

Always say yes

To keep the energy high and the ideas flowing, a good brainstorm shares a lot in common with the improv technique of “Yes, and … ” When an idea is put forth, participants should be encouraged to build on it, putting a positive spin on the contribution. Critical energy can be diverted into productive ideation in this way. For example, “Yes, I like that idea, and we could go even further by … ”

Stay on topic

In the heated environment of a brainstorm, it’s easy to get sidetracked and start diving down rabbit holes that have no relation to the problem statement at hand. It’s important for the facilitator to gently guide participants back to the current topic. Sometimes this is best done by noting adjacent topics and mentioning that the group can come back to it later or during a future session.

Be visual and headline

One way to run a brainstorm is to have the facilitator serve as scribe, logging all the ideas as they come. Another is to arm the group with sticky notes and sharpies, so that they can walk up to the board, verbally share an idea, and put a summary of the idea on the board.

Either way, it’s important to be visual. Encourage quick sketches— these will help to clarify and group ideas.

Also, ideas should be headlined as they are produced. A participant can say, “We could create a way for the user to leave feedback for us directly via a comment form,” which someone would then summarize as “Feedback comment form.”

Whatever method you choose, ideas should be shared one at a time. This allows the scribe to write them, or the participant to be heard as they post their idea to the board.

After the brainstorm

When the brainstorm is finished and there are a hundred ideas on the board, it’s easy enough to give high fives all around and walk away without really having accomplished much. Leave a little time after the brainstorm to review and capture the ideas that were shared.

Narrow down, but not too fast

If you’ve run a productive brainstorm, you’ll likely have a lot of different ideas on the board—some funny, some weird, perhaps some verging on insane. It can be tempting to cut any idea that isn’t feasible, but by doing so you may be tripping up the ideation process. Sometimes good ideas can come from a place that initially seemed silly.

Instead, give the participants a way to select ideas across multiple criteria. One way to do this is to use color-coded sticky dots or pieces of colored Post-its. Each color can signify a person’s top choices in each category, such as the lowest hanging fruit, most delightful, or the long shot.

Capture and move to prototyping

Once you’ve selected ideas in each category, carry them into prototyping, ensuring that you don’t walk away from the session with just the safest choice. Use a phone to photograph the whole board, and then extract the top ideas in a document which can be used to kick off the prototyping process (Google Docs is great for this).

Prototyping is a flaring part of the design thinking process. Even if a selected idea is so crazy it doesn’t seem worthy of a test, figure out what’s attractive in that solution, and use that to inspire a prototype. The goal is to come into the Prototype phase with multiple solutions to build and then test.

Remember that brainstorming is just 1 step in the process of coming up with a solution. In all likelihood, you won’t come out of a brainstorming session armed with the exact idea that you’ll bring to your users. But you will hopefully compile an overview of the conceptual landscape, gain a shared perspective on the problem with your team, or get key stakeholders to buy into the design process. All of these things will help seed the minds of your team.

Here are some more insights from Peter Macdonald on how brainstorming at IDEO has evolved over the years:

“Our favored approach today is to start with everyone working heads-down for 5 minutes to begin brainstorming around each key question. Then we have people share those ideas with the group and continue with a classic brainstorm process.

“It ensures a diversity of ideas and prevents the first ideas from setting the direction of the entire brainstorm—it also helps the group build strong momentum.

“At IDEO we aren’t dogmatic about creative techniques. You should use whatever process or format works for you. Sometimes different approaches work better for different problems.

“Our industrial designers often hold “design-storms” where everyone is sketching form or design ideas at the same time and sharing back as they finish each sketch. Instead of Post-its, they use 8.5” x 11” sheets or half sheets (8.5″ x 5.5″) and a variety of pens, pencils, and markers so they can add more details.

“Our toy invention group does “tinker-time” where they build in 3D together. Every team is encouraged to experiment and create and evolve new techniques.”

Alternatives to brainstorming

You may have noticed that the “classic” brainstorming method we described requires a fair amount of coordination, and ultimately practice, to run well. It also relies, as Peter Macdonald from IDEO notes, on a “culture of trust.”

But what if you don’t have the resources to pull this off, or are working with a new team or client and don’t have the time to build this culture from repeated brainstorming sessions? There are ways to get around this.

Sketching

In Sprint, Jake Knapp outlines a method for sketching and discussing ideas in a group (listen to Daniel Burka talk about this technique in the clip below). The GV team explicitly does not call this brainstorming (which they have some strong opinions about)—but the point is to find a process that functions within your workflow and organization.

Performing ideation with individual sketches—which are reviewed by the group silently, voted on, and not discussed until the end of the session—is a way to address situations where a strong collaborative culture may not yet be established.

Mindmapping

What if you’re on your own, with no one to run a brainstorming session with? In that case, mindmaps are your friend! The concept is simple, but mindmaps can be a powerful way to move from conventional ideas to unpredictable, innovative ones. The following version of this technique is adapted from David and Tom Kelley’s Creative Confidence. You can start with a problem statement like, “A better birthday party for a 1-year-old.”

Write your topic or problem statement in the middle of a piece of paper, and circle it. Make connections to that central node, and write them down. In this example, you might write down “cupcakes to devour” and “make it for the adults” as 2 directions to investigate.

Each connection should spur new ideas (“make it for the adults” could inspire “baby birthday adult beverages,” for example). If an idea becomes a new cluster, circle it to indicate that it is a new node in the map. Be visual where possible; simple sketches can inspire new directions. You’re done when the page is full, but you can always continue the mindmap by reframing the topic and starting a new map.

Mindmapping will help you get the early, obvious ideas out of your head. It can help you look for patterns, reveal the structure of a subject, and—once you have an opportunity to move beyond a solo mission—communicate the ideas and process to others.

Related: Ideate with Craft Freehand

Sowing the seeds of innovation

In 1869, the Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleev fell asleep at his desk. He was in the midst of a 3-day working sprint, during which he was trying to arrange the elements in a logical manner. He was stuck.

Asleep, Mendeleev dreamt of a solution. “I saw … a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.”

Dreaming helps our brains organize and consolidate the information that we are exposed to throughout our working day. Much like taking a shower or a long walk, it’s a time during which solutions to the problem at hand come to mind.

But these solutions only appear after the hard work of exposing your mind to a lot of diverse ideas. Ideating, whether through brainstorming, sketching, or mind mapping, can help you and your team seed this field of ideas—which you can carry into the prototyping process.

About the Authors

Eli Woolery
Director of Design Education, InVision

Eli is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

  • Currently listening to: audio book version of Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
  • Currently giving me inspiration: MasterClass series from folks like Neil Gaiman and Aaron Sorkin
  • Cultural thing I’m loving: Nerding out on the last season of Game of Thrones