In Raising Places, our design teams stretch themselves to think boldly and broadly about how to transform their communities. Facilitators in the Raising Places process were tasked with arming design team members with tools that enable their daring imaginations to thrive in brainstorming and concept development. In another post, Greater Good Studio co-founder Sara Cantor Aye shared how the positive goals exercise is used in the human-centered design (HCD) process to transition community members from identifying problems to envisioning what tangible change a desired outcome may accomplish. How Might We (HMW) is another design tool used in Raising Places to strategically guide designers through a fruitful brainstorm process. During HMWs, numerous suggestions are generated for how to achieve the intended outcome.

How Might We is a sentence structure that prompts designers to envision how to solve the problem at hand. It’s a decades old, tried-and-true HCD technique used across projects to “help us transition from thinking descriptively to writing prescriptively,” says Sara Cantor Aye. HMWs are typically used at the end of the synthesis process after gathering research, highlighting key learnings and developing insights from that work. Now that designers have learned more in depth about challenges related to the problem, HMW prompts a brainstorm for what resolution looks like by first assuming the problem is solvable.

“‘How’ assumes that the solution is possible, so it encourages the audience to come up with different ways to achieve it. ‘Might’ relieves some of the brainstorming pressure, by letting folks know that any single idea may or may not be right, and that’s okay. 'We' implies that a collaborative effort will be needed.” – Sara Cantor Aye

When prompted with the phrase, “How might we…” designers must complete the question with the outcome they would like to see. And after completing the phrase, designers now have a basis with which to move forward into creating the processes that achieve the desired vision.

Ultimately, HMWs are meant to be big and inspiring questions that open the door to big and inspiring ideas. But this is not always easy. For example, a group of design team members in Hudson are working to increase youth employment. During their Ideas Lab , this group dug deep into their research findings to craft themes and insights from the information they learned through observing, interviewing and immersing themselves into the experiences of residents. Then the design team members brainstormed a number of HMWs before settling on the ones featured at the community event. Initially, this group struggled a bit to generate HMWs that would expand the scope of ideas for solutions beyond existing pathways to employment in the Hudson community.

This team started with, “How might we help teens find jobs in our community?” This question would likely lead community members at the event to think of the ways they themselves found a job, and to come up with ideas that are essentially one step removed from the status quo. Through some hard work of collectively re-thinking the best way to communicate a question that widens the possibilities of solutions, the group turned to the use of a locally contextual metaphor and eventually came up with: "How might we make posting and finding a job in our community as easy as posting and finding an Airbnb in our community?" Since many Hudson residents are familiar with the home rental website Airbnb, and the question referenced the process of “posting and finding,” great ideas and exciting sketches flowed throughout the community event.

A poster from the Hudson design team features an insight they derived from research (left) and the How Might We question they posed to the community (right) to generate tons of ideas.

Another challenge is that in research, it can be easy for a designer to become attached to a particular idea and then attempt to write their idea within a HMW prompt. In North Minneapolis, a group working on youth education proposed, “How might we create a positive messaging campaign to showcase the strengths of our community?” In this case, the HMW essentially has an idea embedded within the question and this would make it very difficult to activate a brainstorm that would create tons of varying ideas. Any ideas developed would likely only relate to the positive messaging campaign, rather than the overarching goal it's meant to achieve. Through collaborative efforts, the question became, “How might we create a positive narrative about our community’s past and present that will boost our children on their path to success?” This reframed question was presented at the North Minneapolis community event. It produced a number of ideas from North Minneapolis community members, including a positive messaging campaign, but also media education, partnerships and changes to the physical environment.

A poster from the North Minneapolis design team features insights they derived from research (left) and the How Might We question they posed to the community (right) to spark ideas.
“Writing inspiring and effective HMWs is about more than being a good designer. It’s about being a good design facilitator, and being able to pull good ideas out of other people.” – Sara Cantor Aye

“How might we” is a phrase designers use across fields when they want to think collaboratively and expansively about actionable solutions to the challenges and problems they face. In Raising Places, participating residents continued to hone their design skills through embracing the HMW activity with the support of GGS facilitators. With these sort of fundamental human-centered design tools at their disposal, participating Raising Places community members truly become prepared to initiate creative change in their communities.

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