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The most popular design thinking strategy is BS

The ‘How might we’ design prompt is insidious, and it’s time to bury it.

The most popular design thinking strategy is BS
[Source Photo: Paul Bradbury/Getty Images]
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Harvard Business Review lauds the collaborative prompt “How might we” (HMW) as the “one secret phrase that all top innovators use.” And it’s certainly known as the quickest way to shift design teams to think outside the box, whether those teams are staffed by software engineers or product designers. But although the original intent of HMW was to encourage open-minded problem-solving, it has morphed into something far different.

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In my data work with corporations as a tech ethnographer, I’ve seen HMW used to hide biases and assumptions. Worse, I’ve seen it exacerbate the lack of diversity on design teams and within corporations at large. The “we” in HMW refers to the people in the room, not to the users, customers, or populations for whom teams are designing their products and services. The prompt looks inward instead of outward, encouraging people to build solutions that suit their own needs and experiences. They end up with offerings that don’t serve customer needs, and may even hurt the people they’re meant to help.

We need to revisit our use of this ubiquitous tool. We need to ask ourselves if it’s truly improving design’s impact on making better products and services or if it’s just perpetuating bad habits or—even worse—exacerbating the problems that come with a lack of diversity and justice in the sector.

How HMW infiltrated innovation and design

Design became more prominent at companies in the 2000s when corporations realized they couldn’t optimize their way to organic growth with existing processes such as TQM, Six Sigma, and Kaizen. Forward-thinking corporate leaders such as Beth Comstock at General Electric and A.G. Lafley at Procter & Gamble welcomed design as a fresh way to meet their innovation and growth metrics. With that came a slew of techniques—often bucketed together as “design thinking”—that included exercises, such as HMW, which promised to create more empathy with users and generate breakthrough ideas.

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A soda company worried about losing its dominance to a competitor offering healthier soda might’ve said, “How might we create a healthier soda?” or a car company struggling with its sales might’ve asked, “How might we rethink our car models for a new generation of urban dwellers?” Many associate the “How might we” prompt with innovation and design firm IDEO, but it actually got its corporate start at Procter & Gamble. In the early 1970s, business consultant Min Basadur took HMW from its creators, Alex Osborn and Sidney Parnes at Creative Problem Solving, to steer an internal P&G product development team toward broader thinking. By shifting the team’s focus away from competing products and encouraging them to consider more ambitious questions, he got them to be wildly creative while simultaneously leveraging P&G’s innate strengths.

Basadur passed HMW along to Charles Warren at Scient. Warren moved to IDEO and introduced it to IDEO partner Tim Brown. IDEO adopted it and trained its designers to start every project with HMWs. Warren left for Google, leaving an HMW trail in his wake. (In a video of him recounting the history of HMW, he claims to hold the record for the most HMWs being done simultaneously.) At Google, Warren passed the practice to Paul Adams, who eventually took the tool to Facebook. As it spread from organization to organization, HMW mutated in form, but the core remained the same: Designers started projects by asking “How might we . . .?”

According to Warren, for P&G HMW led to creating a new soap to compete with other companies. The Google Design Sprint site states that teams use HMW during the “understand” phase. At IDEO, blog posts provide examples of using HMW to address modern issues like urbanization—which IDEO refers to as “wicked problems”—problems that are so complex there is no right or wrong answer.

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So, take a wild guess at what Basadur, Warren, Brown, and Adams have in common. That’s right, they’re all white men. Which means that the leaders championing this mechanism across multiple decades and industries are bringing multiple layers of unacknowledged privilege to every HMW discussion. Now, 20 years later, the upper echelons of design are still mostly white and mostly male. In the latest Design Census, which polled 10,000 designers in the United States, 71% of respondents identified as white, and only 11% of women designers held leadership positions. When everyone in the room is from the same culture, class, schools, gender, and nationalities, they tend to put out things that reinforce existing hierarchies and power structures. 

This inequity in the field directly affects which products come to market. Caroline Criado Perez’s research documents all the ways that design privileges men in both physical and digital spaces. It’s the reason why car crashes were more deadly for women until recently. It’s the reason that ill-fitting personal protective equipment—from masks to work vests—put the lives of women and people of color at risk. It’s the reason why digital harm is on the rise as social platforms are often not safe for women and people of color. These glaring oversights occur because the teams of designers, engineers, and coders are often homogenous in life, class, and ethnic backgrounds, led more often than not by white leaders, and they end up designing for what they know: people like themselves. Design can be life or death. And tools like HMW exacerbate how design reflects the needs of those who are in positions of power.

How the HMW question is (mis)used today

HMW may occasionally spark creative discussions in corporate conference rooms, but it also obscures structural problems in design challenges and prevents teams from doing deeper analysis. Some individual designers are beginning to recognize this issue, and call it out.

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Product and UX designer Cyd Harrell tweets: “& for real, designers, sticking a ‘how might we’ on the front of wicked problems is not useful (& the d School & Ideo can go fuck themselves for popularizing the idea that it is).” When I asked her to elaborate, she said she’d recently been invited to yet another hackathon that launched with “HMW solve racism?”

Having received many similar invitations myself, I know how disingenuous and disconnected it feels when organizers attempt to apply a corporate innovation tool to tackle complex issues. Basadur invented the HMW question at P&G to create a viable competitor for Irish Spring soap. Suggesting that designers apply the same tool to insidious, systemic issues created over centuries of colonization, slavery, and genocide is reductive and insulting.

Not only that, since the default “we” refers to the people in the room, it exacerbates solutionism, which is rife in tech. Panthea Lee, design strategist and cofounder of service design firm Reboot, leads projects where people’s lives are often on the line, and says that she sees,  “the use of HMW granting false authority to elite institutions to ‘solve’ the problem, even when they often have limited actual understanding of the issue at hand. Whereas the people who actually are qualified to represent their lives aren’t even in the room. Those with economic and political power rarely consider them as having the capacity and agency to solve their own problems.”

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This is what happened when the city of Gainesville, Florida, hired IDEO to revamp the city’s inequality problems. The effects of applying design thinking—of which HMW is a hallmark—to systemic bias were disastrous, and the city is still recovering from the resignations of qualified leaders. As designer and cultural historian, Maggie Gram says in her article about the process, “You face wicked problems by struggling with them, not by solutioning them.” IDEO did not respond to my request for comment.

More than anything, the prompt enables design-team navel-gazing instead of actual customer empathy. As a result, designers propose products that suit their own needs. That’s how we got Juul, a nicotine vaping product that contributed to the massive rise in nicotine addiction among young people. Its two cofounders, Adam Bowen and James Monsees, met at Stanford’s Product Design Masters Program where their thesis adviser was David Kelley, founder of IDEO. After graduating, Bowen and Monsees created their own design lab where Juul was born.

In the video on YouTube of their thesis presentation in 2004, they explain that they came to study at Stanford because they wanted to “design for social change.” They then elaborate that the social change they want to address is smoking: “People who smoke are at odds with themselves.” They believe there is “room for improvement in the overall experience” of smoking, therefore their HMW questions are: “Is it even possible to make a safe cigarette? What if smoking were safe? And even better, what if smoking wasn’t offensive to others?” While they didn’t use the exact phrase HMW at the beginning of their sentence, it is practically a HMW, and there’s no doubt that they were taught HMW as a core part of the curriculum.

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The bigger issue with Bowen and Monsees’s HMW-like question is that it limits the scope of visibility on systemic issues to a narrow spectrum, and in their case, the spectrum was limited to their emotional experience of feeling isolated and shamed for being smokers. During the presentation, they show a South Park video in which a teacher yells at a person who is smoking: “Get out of here you filthy smoker,” after which others chime in, “Yeah, dirty lungs,” and “Go ahead and kill yourself stupid tar breath!”

The video then immediately transitions to interviews that the pair conducted with people talking about their experiences of being shamed for smoking. One person expresses how hard it is to get rid of the smell off of her body, another person talks about the judgment he feels, and another person says he was warned he wouldn’t be able to get a job. The core emotional need that the Juul founders were designing for was the shame that they themselves felt as smokers. They found other smokers who felt like them too, who wanted the physiological effects of smoking without the shame and harmful chemicals.

Smoking is a global public health pandemic, causing more than 7 million deaths per year. And for two guys (literally guys) to believe that “innovation could address all the problems associated with smoking” means that they were so myopically focused on getting a product out for themselves and others like them that they never considered the unintended consequences, such as getting young people addicted to vaping. Eleven years after their thesis presentation, Bowen and Monseees launched their first Juul product in 2015 with a campaign featuring young models and celebrities partying. They bought ads on platforms and media channels targeted at youth.

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Going back to their original question of making a safer, more socially acceptable cigarette, they have definitely succeeded at answering it. But their HMW-like question hid another perspective, that making smoking more socially acceptable and a better experience would create new smokers. Their shallow HMW-like question kept them focused on making nicotine delivery, not the quitting process, better.

I see HMW in seemingly less harmful but equally unproductive applications inside corporations. In my consulting work and at conferences, I’ve witnessed designers throw around HMW as if it were glitter. Katy Mogal, UX research lead at Google, expresses frustration with this tactic, saying, “We need to end with insights and a point of view about what they imply for strategy and product decisions, not just findings followed by an open-ended prompt.” She even wonders if HMW is being used “as an escape hatch because maybe we don’t have the courage to express our opinion about what our insights imply for strategy and product, so we just end with ‘HMW solve this problem’!”

Part of the issue is that as design professionalized over the last decade into UX design within tech companies and beyond, user insights representing the voice of the customer  have not evolved to become a strategic input. Many companies outsource the user insights work to agencies (or what is internally referred to as “vendors”) because they either don’t have the resources to execute research or it’s seen as rote work. Product and engineering often treat UX insights as an activity to check off their list, not as a strategically foundational asset for the product roadmap.

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The reality is that while design purports to be human-centered, the most human part—user insight—is not highly valued. Design pioneers like Jesse James Garret are now being more vocal about their concern that the field of UX design has strayed far from its original goal of providing insights. Entrepreneur and interaction designer Lauren Serota speaks about this insight gap in design:  “Designers are experts at using shortcuts and oversimplifications to quickly ground in a new subject matter but many don’t ever intend to put in the work beyond framing provocative statements and being the mighty bringers of insight. The HMW is an enabling tool for this.”

Equally troubling is the use of HMW to pass the buck or shirk responsibility. In our work at Sudden Compass, we coach and train teams to integrate  thick data (qualitative) and big data (quantitative) to truly understand customer needs. We would never advise any team to use HMW when sitting down with an engineer or product manager, never encourage them to ask “How might we change this algorithm?” or “How might we align on a new product feature?” Engineers and product managers want to hear insights about users backed by evidence and recommended actions, not enter into brainstorming sessions ad nauseam.

 A CEO of an education startup, who preferred to remain anonymous, tells me that she’s seen HMW used in the human-centered design process, but applied too late to impact the company’s business strategy. “Asking HMW when the product is already defined can produce really cool experiments and ideas, but I don’t see it answering the most pressing business problems,” she says.

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Exacerbating existing inequities

Although it was created to enable broad and open creative discussion, the HMW paradigm actually elevates the voices that are already the loudest. In addition to enabling racism and sexism to proliferate, this prompt is so open-ended that it encourages powerful people to respond first and most often. Introverts, women, BIPOC individuals, neurodiverse people, new employees, younger contributors, and many others who might have insights to share are likely to be drowned out by those with seniority and social capital.

It can also be leveraged to reinforce existing power hierarchies among colleagues. A colleague of mine who used to work at IDEO’s New York office who wishes to remain anonymous told me that they have PTSD for life from watching designers use HMW to elevate their roles. “There was a power dynamic and a ‘servant’ type of vibe,” they say. “At IDEO, it felt like you were just there to keep all of the super-smart designers happy. We literally had to ‘HMW’ how to keep the office clean without making anyone feel bad because the designers didn’t have time to clean up after themselves.”

This person’s experience of colleagues weaponizing HMW is akin to a phenomenon that sociologist Catherine Liu studies: virtue hoarding. This transgression occurs when people in management and leadership positions engage in a performative action of doing “ordinary things in fundamentally superior ways.” Using a design technique to passively aggressively address job responsibilities exemplifies virtue hoarding.

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HMW also enables design leaders to masquerade as being empathetic, open to new ideas, and collaborative. Tanya Snook calls this performance “UX Theater.”  In a tweet response to me on Twitter, she wrote that she has always found the HMW condescending: “Someone brings up an issue and rather than discuss it, the others give a coy smile and challenge the speaker with a ‘HMW?’ It didn’t seem to create collaborative conversation. It was used to shut down dissent. I never use it.”

I’ve watched senior design leaders use HMW as a legitimate response for surfacing serious issues with representation, organizational structure, and HR practices. A few years ago I was leading a project where I observed that one person on my team had mental health needs. I shared my thoughts with the chief innovation officer who said to me, no joke: “HMW solve that?” and then just sat there and looked at me. I was baffled and stayed silent in shock at their reply. At that moment, I did not need an open-discovery brainstorming session. This wasn’t an abstract design challenge, it was a request for support with a team member’s well-being.

Much of this abuse of HMW by designers occurs because design roles have been elevated to a god-like level in the innovation space. Many recent design efforts decenter the designer by shifting their role from being a guru to a guide. For instance, inclusive design enables and draws on the full range of human diversity, asking designers to think far beyond their own lived experiences. Participatory design meaningfully involves communities and users as critical to the design process. But HMW works against this. It allows designers to remain the bright center of their own universes and ignore real-world, real human experiences that deserve more than a flippant call-to-discussion. HMW has become weaponized not because it was a weapon to begin with, but because people have found ways to use it as a shortcut to feign interest in users.

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From “How Might We?” to “Who Should We Talk To?”

Now that I’ve thoroughly critiqued HMW, let me quickly say that I am not demanding that we all abandon it. Solving business problems is daunting and complex, so a prompt that encourages deep creativity has innate value. And there are some prominent champions of HMW who say its utility outweighs its failings.

Machine learning experience designer Ovetta Sampson is a former IDEO employee and still uses HMW, but she doesn’t assume the “we” is limited to herself or the people in the room. As Sampson explained to me, “HMW in traditional terms refers to the designer, but the ‘we’ doesn’t involve the designer at all. The best way to solve the problem is to have the people who really understand it help you to solve it all. The ‘we’ has nothing to do with me.”

She’s applied HMW to many situations, such as when she was leading Microsoft’s enterprise technical team to diagnose the right customer problem to when she enabled one of the largest cruise companies in the world to redesign the customer journey with the frontline call center workers. As a Black woman who has worked as a journalist and now as a designer, Sampson has had a breadth of experience that informs her way of seeing the world, which means she resists putting herself at the center. Her use of HMW is unusual, but it illustrates that this tool can still be used productively—in the right hands. If you put a great design tool in the hands of someone who is not using it inclusively, it not only corrupts the methodology but anything that comes out of it.

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So I won’t suggest that we ditch HMW now and forever, but I will recommend augmenting it with prompts that decenter the “we” from the people in the room—ones that are less problematic and more inclusive. And I’ll also suggest an alternative exercise that actually fulfills the original goal of HMW: coming up with a fresh take. Here are some alternatives:

WSW: Who should we talk to? This prompt explicitly recognizes that there are people outside the room who should be considered and consulted.

WAW: Why are we doing this? This prompt forces some level of introspection for team members. It is still somewhat internally focused, but makes designers examine their true motives.

Both of these prompts mimic the HMW structure while forcing a decentering of the team members asking the question. For example, during my work in the social impact design thinking space, I’ve seen many teams ask themselves, “How might we solve for poverty?” If we apply WSW or WAW instead, we can ask, “Who should we talk to next week to solve for poverty?” “Why are we solving for poverty?” Put the same problem in a WSW or WAW context, and it both removes the magical thinking that drives HMW and reveals the true complexity of the issue at hand. It can bring a sense of humility to ask ourselves, Who are we to even work on this and how do we do this with the greatest care?

There are plenty of other alternatives, too. At Sudden Compass, we start projects with BQ to the HQ, an exercise that focuses a team on their business question and then teaches them how to translate it into a human question. We find this prompt to be more productive than HMW for generating mundane yet relevant insights about the communities and individuals our clients serve.

Design consultancy cofounder Jahan Mantin of Project Inkblot says they kick off all work with their clients by asking “Who the hell are we?” Mantin explained to me, “We need to know the different lenses our identities propel us to bring to the table because for better or worse our identities influence who we design for.” Companies like Project Inkblot are leading us into the next era of design—one that is more transparent, honest, and diverse. One that will forge better designers, ones who are more conscious of who they are excluding and including.

As these alternatives to HMW suggest, the design industry is entering a new phase. After more than a year steeped in the pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice, every industry and workplace should be examining its inclusion and exclusion practices, from sexism to racism to ageism to ableism and more. Right now is a great time to assess all the tools and techniques of design to see how useful they truly are. If designers want products and services to be more inclusive, they need to start by determining whether their design techniques are getting them closer or taking them further away.

Some people might think that HMW is just three harmless words, but anybody who has sat in on an executive review and hears buzzwords like HMW to mask a project’s shortcomings knows how harmful these phrases can be. The way we use these phrases reflect not only how we see the world, but how we design the world. Workers at companies like Facebook, Airbnb, and Amazon, have (and may still) genuinely believe that they were making the world better through disruption, an idea captured by Mark Zuckerberg’s motto, “Move fast and break things.” But breaking things feels very different when you’re the end user to the stuff being broken, especially when that stuff looks like housing, transportation, service industry jobs,  and even democracy itself. HWM is in the same class of Silicon Valley truisms that may have been born out of innovation but have come to mean something different depending on the hand that wields it. If you don’t have a seat at the table when that question is asked, HMW can sound sinister.

Design has moved beyond aesthetics, form, and function to play a strategic business role at many organizations. This is a lot of responsibility and designers need new tools to get back to the original goal of HMW: to think outside of the box. They can start by building a bigger box—inviting a broader, more diverse set of voices to the table and asking questions that get at their own biases and limitations. There is a whole new generation of designers leading the way, such as Mantin and Boyuan Gao’s Project Inkblot, Lesley-Ann Noel who made Designer’s Critical Alphabet, Bryan Lee’s Design Justice Workshops by Colloqate Designs, and Creative Action Lab’s workshops, including “How Traditional Design Thinking Protects White Supremacy.”

It’s time to redesign the field to reflect the people who are in it. From now on, don’t trot out another HMW unless it’s used with total awareness of who the we represents. Think twice before saying it. Like everything else.

Tricia Wang is cofounder of Sudden Compass, a collective of world-class strategists, product leaders, data analysts, and network-builders. She is a Geotech Atlantic Council Fellow working on cryptocurrency design. She was also a consumer insights expert-in-residence at IDEO’s Shanghai Office in 2015.

This article has been updated to correct where Juul founders Adam Bowen and James Monsees met and developed their thesis project.