Research & Design Strategy

Key components of a “How Might We”

April 27, 2020

Translating research into actions can often be seen as more of an art than a science. It takes practice and experience to be able to navigate this grey area. We have found that using a device such as a “how might we” question is a very useful tool.

A how might we, or HMW, is a question used to facilitate brainstorming that prompts the group to consider future possibilities within an opportunity space. This approach can help teams begin to move from insights to ideas. This article will introduce you to key components that are helpful when building a HMW question.

Turning insights into fodder for innovation

After completing field research and uncovering insights and opportunities, the design team can begin to write HMW questions to synthesize the research. These HMW questions are framed guides for possible new solutions. The team can imagine what the future state could look like within these frames. Identifying the frame with the correct focus is key because the wrong frame can exclude potential solutions or create solutions that do not address the problem at hand.

For example, if we have been doing research on dog tools an insight might look something like this:

Dog owners want to walk their dogs in all types of weather because the dogs have to go to the bathroom and get exercise, but when the dogs come back inside, they leave the floors dirty, which is time consuming to clean.

And the HMW that we create from this insight could look something like this.

How might we … create a tool that helps dog owners, whose dogs go outside in all types of weather, address dirty paw prints on clean floors?

HMW questions are challenging to write well because there is no one way to measure or judge the quality of the question. Is it good, bad, or terrible? What makes it that way? How can the quality of the HMW be known before the ideation session?

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Judging the right “level” to inspire

Getting to the right level of information—not too broad, wherein you run the risk of "boiling the ocean," or too narrow, which could limit the team's ideas—is the first challenge in writing HMW questions.

To continue with the dog tool theme, an example of too broad might be something like this.

How might we … create a dog tool to clean floors?

This question is too broad to focus the team specifically on what the research says is important. The question does not say who you are designing for, which is crucial to know when creating any sort of design.

So what does too narrow look like? It might be something like this.

How might we … create a new mop for dog owners that better cleans muddy dog prints on rainy days?

This question is incredibly specific which will limit the amount of ideas created from the question. This will focus the team on reworking a mop, when in reality designing booties or creating something completely new could get you a similar or better result. The HMW should drive at the purpose of the solution, not a specific solution itself.

So, what is needed to write an HMW question?

The key elements

HMWs have four key components that make the question viable for a productive brainstorm. These components should be supported by the analysis of both qualitative and quantitative research.

Imagine we are writing a HMW question to inspire ideation around cleaning dog messes. Think about the first HMW example shared in the beginning.

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