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Situation Brainstorming

Brainstorming is generally known as a method to conceive of new solutions to problems, but you can apply it to help study a design problem (a situation for which you have to design something) too.


The goal of situation brainstorming is to quickly assess the current situation in terms of what is known about it, what is not (yet) known about it, and what issues will be key to eventually improve it.

Good designers can create bad designs if they do not understand what the problem really is. Often, the problems presented to designers by clients are really just symptoms of deeper problems. As in medicine, addressing the symptoms rarely leads to a successful solution. A proper design solution will address the deeper, root-cause problem that gives rise to the symptoms that the client perceives. Situation brainstorming helps you understand how things are, so that you can find out what the real problem is.

Situation brainstorming is also good for team collaboration. It helps your team:

  • to work together to develop a deep understanding of all the nuances of a situation,
  • to ensure that everyone on the team agrees on the nature and extent of the situation, and
  • to ensure that everyone is working together on the same situation.


Brainstorming is a popular method for small groups to develop a large quantities of ideas around a given topic. Though it’s often named as a “creativity technique” to solve problems, we don’t use it as such here. Instead, we use situation brainstorming to pool existing knowledge about the Design Brief, establish areas where further research is needed, and tentatively set key aspects of the current situation on which we will focus.

Most importantly:

  • Stay grounded in the present. Do not think about your future design or how you might improve the initial situation. Don't try to solve the problem; instead, explore where your eventual solution will have to exist.
  • Avoid thinking about your future designs. Do not discuss specific potential or actual solutions, parts, subsystems, technologies, or products that you think might improve the initial solution.
  • Make no judgements. Do not discuss which aspects of the initial situation are dispreferred, undesirable, or “bad.”


Situation brainstorming follows the same process as conventional brainstorming. The difference is in what you brainstorm. Conventional brainstorming is about coming up with possible solutions to a problem; situation brainstorming is about understanding the problem, not solving it.

Situation brainstorming results in questions, not answers. These are questions that you will answer by doing research in the next step of the design roadmap.

Make sure everyone on your team has studied the process before executing it; it only works if everyone contributes.

You should schedule at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time for your team to execute situation brainstorming.

During the brainstorming session, cover the following general areas of interest1).

Goals: The basic expectations evident from the Design Brief.

  • What does the design brief really expect you to do?
  • What does the design brief exclude from the scope of the project?
  • What ancillary goals are suggested by the design brief?

Users: Specific human factors that are pertinent to the kinds of activities users will perform in the circumstances of the Design Brief.

  • What are the key human factors that could impact or be impacted by the situation?
  • What distinguishing characteristics do your principal/target users exhibit?
  • What impact may users' backgrounds and histories have on their interactions with your intervention?
  • Are there any particular abilities/disabilities evident in the users within the current situation?
  • In what kind of mood or emotional/psychological state will users be in the current situation?
  • What other agents besides the clients/users could benefit from achieving a better situation2)?
  • What other agents could be adversely affected by a change to the current situation? What situational changes should you avoid to ensure non-user agents will not be harmed?

Circumstance: Cultural, social, economic aspects of situations in which existing interventions are typically used.

  • What environmental/sustainability concerns exist?
  • How is the economy?
  • Is the regional society stable?
  • What industries/businesses are typical in those areas?
  • Is there a client that is different than the end user? Are there any goals set by the client that conflict with the goals you set for your intervention?

Competition: The products, technology, or processes that constitute existing interventions.

  • What existing interventions are used in the current situation? What will your intervention have to compete against?
  • Who (what type of person) uses each of the existing interventions?
  • What do users think about the existing products and technologies?
  • What functions and characteristics are common (or unique) to the different existing interventions?
  • What environmental impacts do current interventions accrue?
  • What do users really dislike or find problematic about the current situation?

Environment: The general aspects of the physical setting in which existing interventions are typically used.

  • What is the geography or setting of the initial situation?
  • What's the weather like?
  • How many hours of daylight does the area get?
  • Are there any particular outlier circumstances that are important? (Examples: earthquakes, armed conflict, drought or flood, etc.)
  • How sensitive is the environment to pollution and other impacts that might accrue through product use?

Tips and Tricks

Visualize yourself in the situation. Imagine that you are in the situation described by the design brief, along with a few people you know (and not just people you like). How would you react? What would bother you most? What hazards would you face? What are the environmental factors that will most likely lead to harm? The other people joining you on this hypothetical voyage may well respond differently than you; how will their responses increase or decrease the hazards that you yourself will face?

Nominate a solution-stopper. Get one person on the team to pay particular attention to what's said during the session, to stop discussion about design solutions. Situation brainstorming is not about solving problems; it's about understanding problems.

Consider recording your situation brainstorming session. Instead of having a scribe, create an audio recording of your session, and then transcribe it into text later. This is much more time consuming, but also helps ensure a much better transcript.

Clean up mistakes in the summary. The summary of your situation brainstorming session is very important. Raw data (the raw notes of the session) can contain mistakes. The most common one is to start talking about actual design solutions during the session. Make sure the summary contains no such mistakes.

Examples. Here are two examples of the kinds of results one can expect from brainstorming sessions: Ladder design brainstorm and Cordless powered screwdriver brainstorm.


The results of your situation brainstorming will end up in your design journals. Teams do not report the results in their design reports. The impact of your situation brainstorming will be apparent in subsequent stages of the project. The better your situation brainstorming, the better your project will be overall, so don't short-change this step of the process.


A properly executed brainstorming session will be very tiring on its participants. Allow participants some time after the session to rest.

Brainstorming is about quantity, not quality; be aware that incorrect statements may have worked their way into the session transcript. In the case of situation brainstorming, any statement that mentions an actual design intervention is inappropriate. Situation brainstorming only feeds the subsequent stage of identifying exactly what the requirements of a design intervention are.

See Also

You can use the mnemonic GUCCE to help you remember the areas
Remember, all kinds of agents, including other products, organizations, etc., can be users of the thing your team will design.
design/situation_brainstorming.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)