Contact  |  Login  Volunteer


A method for generating ideas, intended to inspire the free-flowing sharing of thoughts of an individual or a group of people, typically while withholding criticism in order to promote uninhibited thinking.

Good brainstorming focuses on the quantity and creativity of ideas: the quality of ideas is much less important than the sheer quantity. After ideas are generated, they are often grouped into categories and prioritized for subsequent research or application.

The outcomes of brainstorming are:

  • A list of ideas or solutions related to a particular problem
  • The ideas or solutions organized into groups
  • Some form of prioritization based on attributes like cost and feasibility


Related Links


Osborn, A. F. (1963). Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem-solving (Third Revised Edition). New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Paulus, P. B., & Brown, V. R. (2003). Enhancing ideational creativity in groups: Lessons from research on brainstorming. In P. B. Paulus & B. A. Nijstad (Eds.), Group Creativity: Innovation Through Collaboration (pp. 110-136). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Published Studies

Milliken, F. J., & Martins, L. (1996). Searching for common threads: Understanding the multiple effects of diversity in organizational groups. Academy of Management Review, 21, 402-433.

Milliken, F. J., Bartel, C. A., & Kurtzberg, T. R. (2003). Diversity and creativity and work groups: A dynamic perspective on the affective and cognitive processes that link diversity and performance. In P. B. Paulus and B. A. Nikstad (Eds.). Group Creativity: Innovation through collaboration. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 32-62.

Paulus, P. B., & Dzindolet, M. T. (1993). Social influence processes in group brainstorming: The illusion of group productivity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 575-586.

Related Topics

  • Metaphor Brainstorming: A method for generating metaphors and extracting aspects of those metaphors that can be applied to the design of hardware, software, processes, and services.
  • Brainwriting: Brainwriting is the generation of ideas by writing them down on sheets of paper and passing them to other members of a group who then add their ideas. There is no verbal component to the brainwriting process.
  • Nominal Group Technique: In this variation of traditional brainstorming (and brainwriting), participants are given a topic or question and asked to write down ideas or solutions privately. The ideas are then listed on a board by going around the table and having each person read out their new ideas. When all ideas are listed publicly, the facilitator asks if any clarification is needed. If clarification is needed, the person who proposed the idea has 10-30 seconds to explain (but not defend the idea). After everyone understands all the ideas, the participants vote on the ideas using a secret ballot. This method is designed to remove social pressure from participants.
  • Braindrawing: Braindrawing is a technique for gathering visual design ideas from a group. There are several variations, but the general approach is to ask everyone in the group to start sketching out ideas related to a design question. After a short time the ideas are handed to someone else who then adds or modifies the previous sketch. After several rounds, the sketches are collected and posted on a table or wall (or computer screen). The facilitator then reviews the sketches with the group and good ideas and comments are recorded.
  • Video brainstorming: Participants use various prototyping components to "act out" possible interaction scenarios with a product. The scenarios are videotaped.
  • Posting: In posting, an idea is written down along with two columns labeled "Advantages" and "Disadvantages". The group then brainstorms the advantages and disadvantages.


Detailed description

Benefits, Advantages and Disadvantages


  • Many ideas can be generated in a short time.
  • Requires few material resources.
  • The results can be used immediately or "preserved" for possible use in other projects.


  • Is a "democratic" way of generating ideas (assuming a good facilitator).
  • Is a useful way to get over "design" blocks that are slowing development.
  • The concept of brainstorming is easy to understand.


  • Requires an experienced and sensitive facilitator who understands the social psychology of small groups.
  • Requires a dedication to quantity rather than quality.
  • Can be chaotic and intimidating to introverts.
  • May not be appropriate for some business or international cultures.


How To

Appropriate Uses

Brainstorming is useful for:

  • Identifying a wide range of ideas and solutions to existing or new problems
  • Creating group ownership of ideas
  • Improving group cohesiveness


  1. Decide on the question or topic that you will present to the group during brainstorming. Avoid questions and topics that are too narrow (you will only get a limited set of ideas) or too broad. For example, brainstorming on the color that you will use for menu background would not be appropriate because it is so narrow; brainstorming on how to make customers happy might be too broad for a product team.
  2. Develop a set of brainstorming rules and review those with the participants. The most basic rules could include:
    • No verbal or non-verbal criticism.
    • Quantity, not quality is the goal so extreme ideas are welcome.
    • No belaboring ideas or telling of war stories (be succinct).
    • Clarification is OK, but should be focused and brief.
  3. Choose the participants for the brainstorming session.Consider two issues here: heterogeneity is likely to bring out more diversity in ideas, but a group that is too heterogeneous (bringing in outsiders who are unknown to most of the team) may not achieve a comfort level in a short time. Research on brainstorming seems to support a group size that ranges from five to twelve participants.
  4. Plan how you will record and track the results of the brainstorming session. Make sure that you have enough notetaking resources to keep up with a volley of ideas. Have a clear plan for how you will use the ideas that emerged from the brainstorming session.
  5. When you convene the group for a brainstorming session, describe the topic and procedures for the session. Review the brainstorming rules. Describe what you will do with the data (for example, you might prioritize the ideas at the end of the meeting) and how the results will be used (high priority ideas will be presented to senior management).
  6. Ask if anyone has any questions about the session and begin the brainstorming by asking participants to call out their ideas as quickly as possible.
  7. At the end of the brainstorming, walk through all the ideas and make sure that the meaning of the idea is clear. You don’t want to be wondering what something meant three days later.
  8. At this point, you might want to choose a subset of ideas for subsequent use. You can do this in number of ways including: consensus, rating of all items, and having another group decide which ideas to consider further.

Participants and Other Stakeholders

The participants are generally a group of people involved in the design of products. Participants can include a wide range of stakeholders (to ensure some diversity) including customers and users of the product.

Materials Needed

Brainstorming can be done almost anywhere and requires few materials. Ideas can be written on sticky notes, long rolls of paper, or other inexpensive materials. The ideas can also be recorded using online systems. The materials chosen should be transportable (for example, you might want to use a roll of paper taped to a whiteboard rather than use the whiteboard to make it easy to transport the results).

You can do online brainstorming using blogs, listserv software, or dedicated online brainstorming software.

Who Can Facilitate

The basic brainstorming procedure seems simple enough that anyone could facilitate a session, but the social dynamics of product groups are both complex and subtle so facilitators should have some training on how to:

  • Motivate participants.
  • Keep the focus on the topic.
  • Understand the issues that affect small group interaction.

A facilitator also needs to understand how to organize and analyze the data from brainstorming sessions.

Common Problems

  • Brainstorming should focus on the quantity, not quality, of ideas or solutions. Quality assessments can occur subsequent to brainstorming.
  • Facilitators must not let participants belabor their points or start telling war stories. This can reduce the quantity of items and act as an inhibitor since the stories often include some subtle guidance or implied criticism.
  • A critical rule for brainstorming is "no criticism" of ideas. This sounds simple, but can be difficult because you can have non-verbal criticism (negative facial expressions) as well as overt and subtle verbal criticism.
  • Shy colleagues may feel inhibited from expressing creative ideas in group settings.
  • The presence of managers may change the focus from quantity of ideas to quality of ideas because of evaluation apprehension -- fear of the manager thinking less of his/her colleagues. Facilitators should avoid inviting someone that is generally feared by the group since this is likely to reduce the quantity of ideas.
  • Brainstorming is more effective when there are short breaks. For example if your brainstorming session lasts 30 minutes, you might include a 3-5 minute break after 15 minutes of brainstorming and then continue brainstorming for 10 more minutes.
  • Asking participants to do some individual brainstorming before group brainstorming can stimulate a greater quantity of ideas. For example, you could ask people to list ideas on cards about a particular questions or topic before the meeting and then bring the cards to the brainstorming meeting.

Data Analysis Approach

There are several ways to analyze brainstorming data.

  • Affinity diagramming -- The brainstorming group or another group using brainstorming data, organizes the ideas into related groups. Each of the groups of ideas can be further organized into sub-groups. The groups are often given names. After forming groups of related ideas, the brainstorming group will choose the best ideas by voting, ranking, or prioritizing the items on multiple dimensions.
  • Decision matrix -- A decision matrix (sometimes called a "prioritization matrix") uses the ideas from brainstorming and a set of criteria (feasibility, impact on users, cost) for rating the ideas. Participants rate each item on the criteria. The ideas with the highest average rankings across the criteria are considered further.

Next Steps

After prioritizing the ideas from a brainstorming session, the best ideas are evaluated further for their feasibility. Ideas that aren’t used can be entered into a database for future use.


Special Considerations

Costs and Scalability

People and Equipment

The cost for people and equipment is low. Brainstorming requires a facilitator and a small group of 5-12 people (of course, a single person could brainstorm ideas but a small group is important for some diversity). If you require special participants who are difficult to find and schedule, you could drive up the cost.

Group brainstorming at a single location is not easily scalable beyond 12-15 participants, however, you can employ online brainstorming or use techniques that are suitable for gathering ideas at large meetings (professional conferences for example).


Brainstorming sessions are generally short, lasting from 15 minutes to an hour. Longer sessions are possible, but would require multiple breaks to prevent brainstorming fatigue.

International Considerations

Group brainstorming where people shout out ideas in a group may not work in all cultures or with multi-cultural groups where there are inhibitions about espousing unusual or "out-of-the-box" ideas. If there are cultural inhibitions, you can use brainwriting or the nominal group technique.

Ethical and Legal Considerations

Participants in brainstorming sessions might feel undue pressure to generate "good ideas" if their managers are observing the session. Trying to generate "good ideas" goes against the principle that the shear quantity of ideas is much more important than the quality of ideas.

Political Issues

Since group brainstorming sessions are most effective with small groups, there is the potential problem of people feeling left out if they aren't invited to participate. One solution to this issue is to hold multiple sessions and also provide debriefings to stakeholders who couldn't attend and invite them to submit ideas as well.

The realities of product development mean that many good ideas will not be used. Participants need to understand this and teams should consider ways to keep good ideas available for the next iteration of design or the next version of the product. If participants don't see any ideas from the brainstorming applied to a project, that might result in people feeling as through no one was listening.


Sources and contributors: 
Chauncey Wilson, Carla Saraiva.
Released: 2005-10
© 2010 Usability Professionals Association