Brainstorming a Creative Project Part 3: The Exploration Phase

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Brainstorming a Creative Project Part 3: The Exploration Phase

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In Part 2 of this series, you learned what being in the challenge space means and about some of the overall techniques used while there. Now begins Part 3 which will take you deeper into the exploration phase of brainstorming your creative project by investigating on more granular level.

Types of Questions

We spent some time over the last two parts in this series talking about the questions that you and your team ask when trying to determine the goal of your project and when you are exploring the challenge space. It’s important to have a plan of attack when you are preparing your questions for the team, even if the plan is spontaneous. Knowing what kind of questions you are asking can lead to results faster than not. Let’s take a look at some common types of questions that relate to brainstorming a creative project.

Instigating Questions

Instigating questions, or opening questions as some call them, serve as that spark when you and your team are firestarting a topic. They are meant to be very open-ended to create a divergence in thought; to force you to think of all the ways you can accomplish the same thing. In web development, the number of ways to do the same task seems infinite and opening questions help you see that.

Directional Questions

For obvious reasons, questions that try to find a path or put you on a certain path are called directional (or navigational) questions. By starting with a vague question like, “What pages does our web application have?”, your team can get off track due to all the possibilities that could be. It’s important for whomever the team leader is to interject with a question that takes the currently discussed idea and finds out whether or not it’s viable. “Is this discussion going to move us along?” is an example of a directional question. It may seem simple, but it makes people think about whether or not the topic is helpful. The answer could be yes or no, and if it’s ‘no’, the team needs to either start a new topic or another directional question like, “Is the next item on our list still a possible solution?” is needed.

Exploring Questions

It’s time to fully explore any and all ideas during the challenge phase. Exploring is about following a line or flow of ideas to a solution, or at least a common endpoint. It’s also about testing and examining whether or not an idea is viable, kind of like the scientific method.

Let’s say you want to come up with a way to get a user from a landing page to the checkout process. That’s pretty open-ended so you could either take a few suggestions about the first step of the user interaction, or you could take suggestions on entire paths and examine it. You can do this by diving deeper into a subject and looking closer at how something works; not how something might work, but how it does work. You may simply ask, “How does it work?”, when a team member suggests an image carousel. If someone wants all the buttons in the application to have a hover effect, “What is the purpose of the effect?”, is a good way to examine the idea.

Another subtype of exploring questions is testing questions (or sometimes referred to as experimental). Conversely, we use these questions to define how something might work. Oftentimes you experiment with something directly after examining, but sometimes the idea is vague enough that you can go right into the experimental step. For example, if you want to experiment with the button hover effect in different ways, you might ask, “What types of styles make sense for this application?”, for a design experiment, and, “What else can this button do when a user hovers over it?”, for a functionality experiment.

After experimenting a little with each idea, it may be helpful to go back and examine them again depending on the time and budget for the project. Re-examining may prove beneficial.

Closing Questions

These types of questions are used to bring all the explorative ideas to a ‘close’, meaning, they should finalize a topic to a solution. You may have more than one solution if you need to have redundancy, but your team should still be converging on those solutions without any remaining ideas on how to solve the problem.

More on Exploration

Now that you’ve seen a few examples of the types of questions that are useful when brainstorming a creative project, let’s take a closer look at exploring your ideas as a team.

One thing you should always keep in mind is topic scope. It’s important to not venture out of the idea zone. If your team is on the topic of what kind of options a product has, don’t offer ideas on how to display those options. That is a separate issue and it has it’s own scope. Write it down and deal with it later. You may be thinking that the content of a dropdown is just as important as the way it’s displayed. I’m not saying that it isn’t, since there are plenty of cases where the two go hand-in-hand, but functionality, design, and content are three distinct things and should be separated accordingly. True, there may be a web of dependencies, but the topics are different and can be explored separately without affecting each other.

Relative Space

Sometimes when scientists or psychologists research something, they will categorize the flow of their methods into two categories: precision and ordering. This helps them determine what is more important: knowing in which order they did the experiments and/or what methods provided them with results. Sometimes it’s more important to know when something happened after or before something else rather than during the task. In other cases, the opposite is true and in rare cases, both are true. When you are exploring your creative idea with your team, you may find yourself developing a flow for a user to follow. In the case of a web application, this might be the path a consumer follows from the home page to the checkout page.

Think about what’s more important for your application. Do you care more about the number of steps it took to get to the checkout page with one or more products or are the products that are added to cart more important?

Below, we see a flow of generic steps that you want a user to take to reach your goal. In this case, the larger picture is more of a concern than what the user was doing in between the steps.

Ordering Focus


In a precision focused approach, the basic steps are the same, but there are minuet steps within those larger steps that are important to us. In this case, the focus is more on what options are chosen rather than speed.

Precision Focus


To be clear, you do not need to decide if only one of these approaches is better for your entire project. Use them both! You may find that one topic needs to be thought of in an ordered sense, while another could use some precision thinking. Heck, use the ordered approach to get a grasp of the general idea and break into precision mode if you still have unanswered questions.

Part 3 Wrap Up

When you’re in the challenge space and the project needs to be explored, it’s important to understand the different types of questions you need to ask when properly examining and experimenting with your idea while keeping yourself and your team in line with the goals you’ve set.