A brainstorming web application for students

Help student groups harness the creative power of all students

Project Brief
During this 5-month capstone project, my team partnered with SMART Technologies to design a collaboration tool to help undergraduate students work together more effectively. Thorough secondary and primary research led us to understand how personality type has a dramatic influence on how students work best. For example, fast and interactive group collaboration activities like brainstorming marginalize introverted students, and prevent groups from maximizing the potential contribution of all group members. The focus of this project was to design a brainstorming tool that enables different types of students to contribute more effectively.
Date: Summer 2015
Role: Project Lead, UX design
Client: SMART Technologies
Collaborators: Jackie Chui (Technology Specialist), Xiaglian Zhang (Visual Design), and Polina Charters (Research)
A review of the current literature, expert interviews, and student interviews led to several key insights that informed the direction of our design process.
Introverted students need time to form their own perspective.
Since introverts tend to have a unique capacity for absorbing vast amounts of information, they like to spend additional time on their own considering a problem before contributing to a group discussion.

Extroverts rely on stimulation from group discussion to generate new ideas.
In contrast to introverts, extroverts use active collaboration to make new connections and build on ideas. This is part of why traditional brainstorming is often effective for extroverted students.

Judgement limits creativity and inhibits contribution.
Students are often worried about being judged by the quality of their ideas. This concern can limit how much they contribute to a group brainstorm.
By comparing the core principles of traditional brainstorming to the common traits of introverted students, it becomes clear why some students are not able to work effectively when collaborating with others.
Design Question
Traditional brainstorming places students in a single context. In order to maximize the abilities of all students, a brainstorming method must enable different types of students to work in different contexts. This led us to our design question:

How might we design a brainstorm tool to help undergraduate student groups leverage the creative power of all group members?
Feature Highlight: Inspire Me
During the individual brainstorm phase, the "inpsire me" feature enables group members to inspire one another with simple keywords. This way, students can inspire without limiting others' creativity by the scope their own ideas.
How it works: For each idea they generate, a student selects a keyword that they think captures the essence of their idea. When another group member gets stuck, they click the inspire me button to view those keywords.
Interactive Prototype
Using our insights from research, we created an interactive prototype to allow users to brainstorm simultaneously but on their own before convening as a group. The goal of this prototype was to help us address these questions:
  • How does ideating individually before a group brainstorm influence collaboration?
  • Are users able to use a web tool effectively to brainstorm?
  • Is the "Inspire Me" feature helpful?
We tested with 8 students on campus and used a traditional mechanical engineering problem as a brainstorming prompt. Students were directed to brainstorm together and generate potential solutions to the design problem.

This testing reinforced the initial finding that different students prefer to brainstorm in different ways; Some students prefered the individual aspect, while others felt more effective when they got together with the group. Overall, a process that incorporates different contexts of ideation seemed effective. The Inspire Me feature was also moderately effective in prompting more submissions. Surisingly, this feature resonated more with extroverted students. We concluded that because extroverted students prefer to build on other's ideas, the keywords provided external stimulation and a way to interact with group members.
User Flow
In rethinking the process of brainstorming, we carefully designed a structured user flow that combines both individual and group brainstorming elements. By placing students in different contexts and connecting them at each phase, Cumulus allows different types of students to excel and contribute at their best.
Design Principles
As a way of synthesizing our findings and translating our research into actionable design specifications, we created design principles across each phase of the Cumulus user flow. This would help us to design interface elements that support user needs at each step of the process.
Interface Design
The process of solidifying our design began with sketches. My sketches focused on how a user would progress through each phase of the system, and explored different interaction styles with various features.
Wireframes: I used axure to create wireframes, which helped us imagine and test the desired user flow.
Visual Aesthetic
Creating a moodboard helped us to hone in on a visual design aesthetic that we felt would create an engaging experience and would match the values and context of Cumulus. As a brainstorming tool for undergraduate students, the visual aesthetic we chose is meant to balance playful creativity with refined functionality. We used a range of exisiting tools as benchmarks, and ultimately targeted a design language that is both playful and simple.
Final Design
Our final design prioritizes simplicity, and guides student groups through a series of structured steps. The colored accents, rounded aesthetic, and playful icons contribute to the creative feel of the tool.
Final Thoughts
We set out to create a brainstorming tool that helps student groups to collaborate and learn more effectively. The resulting solution, Cumulus, falls within a very crowded ecosystem of existing tools. A saturated ecosystem is not always a negative - it suggests that there is a significant need. What made our design process and final solution unique is the specific focus on a link between personality and collaboration. Thorough research led to recognition of a compelling problem that is not addressed by existing tools: Traditional brainstorming limits the abilities of introverted students by constraining them to fast-paced group collaboration. Instead of attempting to help introverts adapt to a culture dominated by extroversion, our design seeks to leverage introversion as a superpower. Focusing on this highly specific scenario enabled us to design a compelling solution within a crowded market of tools.
As always, rapid prototyping and testing helped immensely to iterate and continuously improve our understanding of the problem space. With that said, there are a few aspects of this project that I felt limited our success and things I might do differently. First, the limited timeline of the project prohibited my group from conducting the longitudinal research that would be necessary to test the effectiveness of our solution. With more time, next steps would be further design iterations in order to refine our design and visual language. Additional testing would also help us to ensure that our design not only helps introverted students, but also maintains the collaborative interaction that appeals to extroverts and makes brainstorming a powerful creative activity.