How might we… rethink this exercise?

At Inktrap, we like to regularly review and update our processes to ensure that we are constantly evolving - as individual designers and as a digital product studio.

The How Might We (HMW) prompt is a popular tool in the world of UX Design, used to encourage innovative thinking whilst solving design problems. At Inktrap, we frequently use this exercise during Discovery workshops, and it has always worked well for us. However, there has been some controversy over this in recent years, with some designers sharing their concerns that the tool doesn’t always produce inclusive results. This blog post explores some of these concerns in a review of the HMW exercise.

What is HMW?

Surprisingly, the HMW exercise originated in the corporate world - thought to have been first used in the 1970s by a product development team at Procter & Gamble. The tool quickly became popular as it was passed around companies in the emerging tech industry. Today, it is widely used by designers across the world, often during the Discovery phase of the design process.

The HMW exercise is commonly used once insights have been gathered from user research, and any user needs and challenges have been identified. These challenges are then reframed as opportunities for design using the “how might we…?” prompt. For example, if it was discovered that users aren’t signing up to a platform because they are worried that their information could be leaked, the HMW statement could be: How might we make users feel that their information is safe and secure when creating an account?

This is a flexible exercise which could take many forms - it can be used as a discussion prompt for the project team, or as a timed exercise during Discovery workshops. At Inktrap, we’ve used both methods, but found the latter to be particularly helpful when problem-solving. In this scenario, we would ask all of the workshop participants to (individually) come up with as many ideas as possible. We’ve found that this approach removes the pressure of finding the “perfect solution” to the problem, and encourages open-minded thinking.

The issue with HMW

So, what’s the problem with HMW? Tech ethnographer Tricia Wang thoroughly bashes the exercise in her article ‘Design thinking’s most popular strategy is BS’. She argues that the HMW process is one that has a tendency to involve too many assumptions on the designer’s part - claiming that the “we” in HMW often ‘refers to the people in the room, not to the users, customers, or populations for whom teams are designing their products and services.’ This begs the question: Who are “we”?

It’s no secret that the design industry isn’t representative of our society today. In 2022 the Design Council launched the Design Economy: People, Places and Economic Value report, which stated that the industry remains dominated by white men (86% of the workforce are white and 77% identify as male). While this clearly is an issue within itself, what effect does this lack of representation have on design thinking and processes like HMW?

In an episode of the Design Council’s podcast which interviews their CEO Sarah Weir, they discuss unconscious bias and how it might affect our designs. They explained that whilst many designers want to help people and solve meaningful problems, we all still have bias no matter how pure our intentions are. Unconscious bias means that we unknowingly empathise with people who we believe are more likely to look, feel and think as we do.

If we act on these biases then we are unconsciously building exclusions into our designs. After all, if everyone tends to design for people like themselves, and everyone in the design industry consists of the same group of people, then designs will only be inclusive of that group.

For example, imagine if cars had only been designed by men, and therefore, were only designed with male passengers in mind. What would that mean for female passengers? And how would it affect their experience? Sadly, we don’t have to imagine. In her book, Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez explains that cars have historically been designed using car-crash test dummies that are based on the ‘average’ male body. As a result, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash, and 17% more likely to die, than men are. This not only demonstrates how our world is largely built for (and by) men, but it also highlights just how dangerous designing with bias can be.

What can we do to fix this?

In order for design to truly be inclusive, the industry needs people of different ages, genders, social, ethnic and cultural backgrounds with different abilities, sexual orientations, faiths and life experiences to all ‘play a role in shaping our world’ (Design Economy report). There undoubtedly needs to be a systematic shift in the design industry in order to achieve this. However, there are two sides to this issue. The second part is that everyone holds unconscious biases - it’s what makes us human. So what can we do to solve this?

One designer that’s trying to tackle this issue in the design industry, is Airbnb’s lead designer, Benjamin Evans. Interestingly, he claims that the problem isn’t necessarily that we have bias, but it’s what we do about it that matters. Evans urges designers to not be ashamed of the biases they have, but rather to become more aware of them. Challenging your thinking and acknowledging that some of it may be influenced by your own bias, will help you start to eliminate it from your design decisions.

The way the HMW prompt is structured tends to make us look inwards and focus on solutions that suit our own needs and expectations - which as we’ve established, can do more harm than good. To fix this, we might not need to completely disregard the exercise, but rather adjust the way we frame the prompt itself. In her article, Tricia Wang suggests two variations of HMW that we could use to help us look outwards when coming up with solutions.

WSW = Who should we talk to?

This prompt focuses on the people outside of the room, helping us to decenter the “we” in the traditional How Might We exercise.

WAW = Why are we doing this?

This prompt helps designers challenge their own thinking and will help to eliminate any unconscious bias that has crept in.

These prompts are structured like the HMW question but unlike the traditional format, focus on the “who” and “why”, instead of the “we”. This works really well because it helps designers to decenter themselves from the problem, allowing them to confront their own biases and think about real users. Instead of throwing out the HMW exercise altogether, perhaps these new variations could be used in addition to it to ensure that our design thinking is more inclusive.

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