“How Might We?” (HMW) questions help reframe Problem Statements into areas of opportunity and think more creatively about solutions. The method uses small but surprising instructions to recast a problem or challenge fors, s and s, creating many different questions out of one initial statement. This can help prompt more fruitful and relevant solution ideas.
- Generate questions as points of departure for ideation
- Build a broader understanding of the problem space
- Inspire possible solutions
- Number of participants: 4–8
- Time needed: 30–60 mins
- Large sticky notes
- Thick black markers
- A large board or wall space
The goal of HMW questions is to reframe an initial problem statement in a way that prompts more fruitful and relevant solution ideas. You can use it on your own, but the results profit greatly from doing it in a group of 4-8 people.
A HMW question has the format “How might we [do X]?”. To invite different perspectives on the original problem, you generate as many and as widely different questions as possible (diverge) from which you then select the most promising ones (converge).
To start, select a Problem Statement and read it closely, identifying the different aspects captured in it. For example, take the following statement:
A harried father of three, rushing through the airport only to wait hours at the gate, needs to entertain his playful children so he can avoid further irritation of the already frustrated fellow passengers.
This statement contains information about the location, the people involved, their emotional state, the immediate problem, wider motivations etc. Make sure you pay attention to all of them.
Then choose one of the following instructions to guide you to write your first set of HMW questions:
- Amp up the good Example HMW question: How might we use the kids’ energy to entertain fellow passengers?
- Remove the bad Example HMW question: How might we separate the kids from fellow passengers?
- Explore the opposite Example HMW question: How might we make the wait the most exciting part of the trip?
- Question an assumption Example HMW question: How might we entirely remove the wait time at the airport?
- Go after adjectives Example HMW question: How might we make the rush refreshing instead of harrying?
- Identify unexpected resources Example HMW question: How might we leverage free time of fellow passengers to share the load?
- Create an analogy from need or context Example HMW question: How might we make the airport like a spa? Like a playground?
- Play against the challenge Example HMW question: How might we make the airport a place that kids want to go?
- Change a status quo Example HMW question: How might we make playful, loud kids less annoying?
- Break the problem into pieces Example HMW question: How might we entertain kids? How might we slow a mom down? How might we mollify delayed passengers?
Try to generate a few statements for the first instruction before moving on. You can also use time boxes for this part of the exercise; this can increase pressure, incentivising the participants to relax their self-imposed criteria for quality, reduce self-censoring, and produce more divergent results. If you are doing this in a group, this part of the exercise is done individually to maximise the diversity of the output.
After having written the first few questions following the first instruction, move to the next instruction, write a few questions, and so on for the rest of the instructions. Do not yet discuss or evaluate the questions.
Once you’ve gone through all instructions, look at all the questions you have generated, or let everyone in the group go through their questions. Identify the most interesting questions per author and collect them on a board or wall, one after the other. When doing this in a group, read out the questions. For the number of questions to be selected, half the number of instructions used is a good orientation.
Once you have collected all “good” questions, cluster them and discuss the emerging topics, focal areas or priorities before selecting one or more questions for kickstarting ideation, e.g. as the design challenge for a Design Studio.
- If you have a group with less members than instructions, you can rotate the instructions between the participants to make sure all instructions are used and every participant has used a few of them.
- While diverging, try to generate questions on different levels of , from addressing very general needs or fundamental problems, to honing in on very specific aspects of the situation. This gives you more options how to tackle the problem when selecting questions, i.e. converging.
- When clustering the questions, pay attention to how, as a result, they are more or less abstract or concrete, wide or narrow. Mark and discuss these spectra and other relationships between different questions; this can inform your selection of questions at the end.
- Can process output of: Problem Statement, Why-How Laddering, Concept Mapping
- Can feed input to: Why-How Laddering, Concept Mapping, Design Studio
The strong focus on divergence is unusual in many social and organisational contexts. It can take some encouragement for efficiency-oriented participants to produce large quantities of content “for the bin”.
Similar to Why-How Laddering, the HMW question format was originally developed as part of theprocess at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College. It was first popularised by Min Basadur and his (later: Simplexity) innovation process, and later picked up by .
The method of generating diverse HMW questions by using a set of
brief instructions was developed by Stanford’s d.school (2017)
- d.school (2017), “How Might We?”