Monday Musing: How Might We...How might we?

I’ve facilitated design thinking workshops three days in the last week, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what is often the most challenging moment for my participants: turning insights into “How Might We?” questions.

Sometimes the challenge comes from an energy dip; after extracting insights, learners are usually excited to jump into ideation, and this part of design thinking can sometimes feel like an unnecessary, process-driven, drag-y step in an otherwise exciting process.

In my experience, however, that’s not the only reason why synthesis is hard for new design thinkers. Cognitive load is a psychological term referring to how much working memory is, well, working to process and retain new information. Some people refer to cognitive overload as a state in which learners are overwhelmed with new information to the point that they’re not able to adequately process it. It is a theory often oversimplified and misapplied, but its relevance here is this: as an educator, our job is to be attentive to the cognitive load we are placing on our learners, and design ways around it. I often feel that in the moment of moving from Empathize to Understand - processing often emotional end-user data and turning it into a meaning ideation prompt in the form of a How Might We question - creates cognitive overload in our learners. I think part of the reason for that is the transition is under-structured.

As a design thinking educator/facilitator, I work hard to give my learners enough space to discover elements of the content and processes on their own - to learn from doing. That said, my time in the classroom taught me the importance of what teachers call “scaffolding” - supporting learners through difficult moments with guidance (which can take many forms). My point here is that I believe “Understand” needs to be more scaffolded to support learners experiencing design thinking for the first time.


Now that we’ve gotten my rationale out of the way, let me offer a structure.

Usually, once participants have extracted insights about their users, I present rationale and examples for the “Understand” phase, introduce How Might We? questions as a structure, provide a few examples, model making the transition on the fly…and send them off to do it themselves. While this sounds like a lot, I still see a lot of head scratching. Today, my otherwise confident and clear-minded team of learners were utterly perplexed by this. It seemed like a magical transition - a sign that I hadn’t given them enough structure to generate these questions. They expressed that they weren’t sure how I extrapolated a How Might We? question from a seemingly innocuous quote or insight.

I’m iterating this part of design thinking with every workshop, but I want to offer my current scaffold - a simple set of guidelines for what a How Might We? could focus on. It helped my participants today, and I’ll continue to play with this moment in my facilitation until I get to a scaffold that feels effective - with the big old caveat that the process of learning should never be seamless. Struggle begets growth. Grappling with new ideas is something we adults don’t do often enough. Facilitators have to allow space for this. At the same time, we need to ensure that we are providing the right balance of structure and freedom.

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Got other methods, ideas, or resources? I’d love to hear about them!

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