When a group wants to generate ideas for a new product or to solve a problem, you will usually hear the clarion call, “Let’s brainstorm!” You assemble a group, spell out the basic ground rules for brainstorming (no criticism, wild ideas are welcome, focus on quantity, combine ideas to make better ideas) and then have people yell out ideas one at a time.
Brainstorming is often the method of choice for ideation, but it is fraught with problems that range from participants’ fear of evaluation to the serial nature of the process — only one idea at a time. Brainwriting is an easy alternative or a complement to face-to-face brainstorming, and it often yields more ideas in less time than traditional group brainstorming.
What Is Brainwriting?
When I teach my graduate course in “Prototyping and Interaction Design,” I start with a class on ways to generate ideas. Because brainstorming is a well-known and popular technique, I generally begin with a discussion on how to do good brainstorming, something that is very hard, and then introduce brainwriting as a worthy, and sometimes preferred, alternative to brainstorming. The term “brainwriting” often brings forth smiles and quiet laughter because it is a strange word.
Brainwriting is simple. Rather than ask participants to yell out ideas (a serial process), you ask them to write down their ideas about a particular question or problem on sheets of paper for a few minutes; then, you have each participant pass their ideas on to someone else, who reads the ideas and adds new ideas. After a few minutes, you ask the participants to pass their papers to others, and the process repeats. After 10 to 15 minutes, you collect the sheets and post them for immediate discussion.
In my experience, the number of ideas generated from brainwriting often exceeds what you’d expect from face-to-face brainstorming because you’ve reduced anxiety somewhat, followed a parallel process in which a dozen people may add items simultaneously, and reduced the amount of extraneous talk that happens during brainstorming, which takes time away from idea generation.
Instead of getting one idea at a time, lots of ideas can emerge simultaneously, if you let your participants “brainwrite” them. (Image credits: opensourceway)
When To Use Brainwriting
Brainwriting can be used in the following situations:
- You have too large a group for effective brainstorming. You could conduct brainwriting at a conference of 500 people simply by leaving a large card on each seat, asking a question, and then having each audience member pass a card to someone else, and then repeat three times for a minute of writing.
- You have quiet people in your group who are intimidated by traditional brainstorming.
- You are working in a culture in which brainstorming about “wild ideas” or expressing ideas that diverge from those of senior management is not accepted.
- Your time is limited. I’ve used brainwriting to brainstorm questions for a website visit when I had only 10 minutes to get feedback from the product team. I ended up with more than 50 different questions, without the fuss of having to set up a formal brainstorming session.
- You don’t have an experienced moderator. Brainstorming, contrary to what many blog posts claim, is difficult to do well. Brainwriting, in contrast, requires that you be able to ask a question, read a clock and collect answers.
- You are worried about loud or forceful individuals influencing others, as they might in traditional brainstorming.
Brainwriting can be used to understand how different groups view an issue. You might try to conduct separate brainwriting sessions with different internal groups. For example, if you asked groups to brainwrite about “What are the most important problems faced by our customers?” you might find that developers have a different perspective from the UX team, who have a different perspective from product managers. In my experience, the differences emerge more strongly through brainwriting than through face-to-face brainstorming.