Thinking in the UX field requires a creative approach, one that encourages continuous change and improvement. Explore lateral thinking, a process that can revolutionize the way creative teams work

“If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”

We have all heard the saying! But chances are that whoever said it never met someone from the UI UX Design field. Constant improvement is the most natural state for user experience. And it takes an unusual form of thinking, to look creatively past our limitations and go beyond 'the way it has always been done'. The process that encourages continuous changes and improvement is called Lateral Thinking. Lateral Thinking is a simple yet effective game changer that could revolutionize the way your creative team works.

But, what is lateral thinking?

We have all experienced this to varying degrees in our lives. Simply put, lateral thinking is a disruptive and indirect approach to problem solving. In extremely plain language, you might call it thinking outside the box. 

One way to understand it is to imagine yourself as a miner, looking for gold. You put all your focus into mining in the same spot, convinced that your persistence will one day get you the gold you’re looking for. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But in another scenario, you realize that you may not have chosen the best location, or even the right tools for the job. Taking a step back and approaching it from a different angle might be what it takes for you to strike gold, literally. 

Perks of Lateral a.k.a  Horizontal Thinking

Lateral thinking, also called as horizontal thinking, can help you

  • Get out of a rut: if you’ve been struggling with a particular problem for way too long, it can help you break the cycle
  • Boost innovation: with the right techniques you can experience innovative thinking on demand
  • Entertain the extraordinary: come up with things you may not have considered in your usual protocol

Now that we have a basic understanding of lateral thinking, let’s consider two areas of your life you can enrich with lateral thinking. 

Avoid Functional Fixedness with Lateral thinking

Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias where you rely on the most traditional use-case of an entity to inform your own behavior with it. 

For example - A pen may be just a pen to you. It’s what you reach for when you need to make a quick note of something. Nothing more, nothing less. 

But to a toddler seeing it for the first time, it could be her first set of drumsticks. It could be a weapon she uses to express her dissatisfaction. It could be a way to open a packet of chips. It could be a way to color her nails. To someone who is not set in their ways, the possibilities are endless.

One of the most concerning things about functional fixedness is that as we grow older and get more set in our mental models of how the world is supposed to work, we start to lose sight of the way the world could work.

Fortunately the simplest antidote to functional fixedness is lateral thinking. When you try to disrupt the most obvious uses of things, what you are left with is infinite possibilities.

Apply Insight Learning principles to your problem solving

Lateral thinking can be made even more effective when used in conjunction with other psychology principles.  Back in the 1920’s, Wolfgang Kohler was interested in studying the phenomenon of learning. He put a chimpanzee in a cage along with a short stick, placed a longer stick outside the cage and hung a few bananas from the ceiling, just out of reach. The chimp tried to use the short stick in many different ways to fetch the bananas in vain. He soon moved onto other activities and forgot about it for a while. Suddenly, Kohler witnessed the chimp leap up, use the short stick to drag the long stick towards himself and then fetch the bananas using the latter. 

Few similar experiments later, Kohler documented his findings as what we now know of as Insight Learning. 

Sometimes, and this isn’t just for chimps, the best method is no method. Moving onto other things can give your brain the break it needs to chew on its learnings in the background and manifest a solution so abruptly that you never really planned for it. This is what many refer to as the aha moment. For a more well known example, consider Archimedes and his eureka moment in the bathtub! 

Improve your team’s brainstorming sessions

Introducing some very simple exercises to your meetings can help you generate significantly more creative solutions than previously thought possible. 

Try to

  1. Play the ‘Yes, and’ game
  2. Let it simmer
  3. Use your 6 Thinking Hats

Yes, and

Have you ever pitched an idea to someone only to have it shot down immediately with a ‘Here’s why that would never work…’. If so, congratulations. You’ve just experienced the ‘No, but’ game. ‘No, but’ effectively puts a full stop to any line of thought instead of giving it the chance to fully grow into the idea it could be. 

While some situations do necessitate full stops, it’s not the most ideal when you’re trying to generate solutions. The key to a solid brainstorming session is sheer quantity. The more ideas you come up with, the more you increase your chances of encountering a truly brilliant concept.

And this is where the ‘Yes, and’ exercise comes in. 

Everytime a team mate proposes something new, immediately try to follow up with ‘Yes and’ + something relevant that their idea made you think of just then. The goal is not to be reasonable or rational, but rather to think. Even if it’s not feasible, put it out there. There will always be time to edit later.

Watch this short video to see how this simple improv game can take your original thoughts to places you didn’t see coming. 

Improvisational Warm Ups : Playing the "Yes, And?" Improv Game

Let it simmer 

For this exercise, we can tap into what we learned about Insight Learning. 

When you have been struggling with a problem for too long, consider doing this:

  • Feed your brain as much info about the matter at hand as possible
  • Let it go completely for a while. Try not to think about the issue and keep yourself occupied with other activities.
  • Capture the 'aha moment' if and when it occurs

6 Thinking Hats of Edwards De Bono

Edward De Bono was a prominent psychologist and author credited with originating the term ‘Lateral Thinking’. He wrote a book called ‘Six Thinking Hats’ where he details how we can use the technique to tackle complex problems and situations. 

The 6 hats essentially are as follows:

Facts: Cold, hard objective truth of the matter

  • What do we know about this situation?
  • What kind of information should we try to find?
  • What have been the trends in the past?

Feelings: Visceral and instinctual emotions

  • What kind of emotions does this elicit?
  • How does ethical and social behavior factor into this?
  • What is my intuition telling me to do?

Creativity: Possibilities, alternative and new ideas

  • What could I do to improve this situation?
  • How to completely alter the current flow?
  • What can this be in the future?

Process: Protocol, convention and methodology

  • What is usually done in situations like this?
  • What is the goal / objective to be achieved? 
  • How to go about doing this?

Benefits: Positives and value

  • What is the best case scenario?
  • What is to be gained?

Cautions: Weaknesses and fears

  • What are the potential obstacles?
  • How might we fail?

To learn how to use it to your advantage, follow along with this exercise.

The year is 2078. Earth is on the verge of destruction due to an unprecedented level of climate change related disasters. Experts suggest that nearly 90% of all life forms will be annihilated in less than a decade. The time for radical action is now. 

But scientific communities are divided. 

One faction believes that our best course of action is to desert the planet and seek our fortune in a nearby galaxy - a newly discovered planet called Exibillia is promising in terms of atmospheric content and gravity levels.

The other faction however, disagrees. Even if we were to start building the spacecraft necessary to transport us to that galaxy, there is a limitation in the number of life forms we can save. Moreover, there is no guarantee that we would survive the new planet, since our intel is painfully limited. Therefore, they believe the best idea is to pump all possible resources into delaying our demise and going from there. 

Using the six thinking hats exercise, brainstorm every possible idea to figure out your answer to these fundamental questions.

  • Which faction would you side with and why?
  • Assuming you have the deciding vote, how will you convince the world to comply with your idea?
  • With your decision, what life forms will survive and what life forms will perish? What are the moral implications of the same?
  • List at least three action points to carry out your decision effectively.

Please note that you can take a few creative liberties and use your imagination while brainstorming ideas for this activity.

Lateral thinking is as natural to our mind as breathing is to our lungs. With just a couple of tweaks to your mindset, you might just be able to open yourself up to wonderful new possibilities and an endless pool of ideas.


Anjana is a UX Designer who's dedicated to making designs that are both aesthetic and practical. As a post-graduate in psychology she weaves together her understanding of the human mind and keen critical thinking skills into every aspect of her work. Moreover, with a love for the written word and all things research, she strives to uncover every aspect of the UX industry and meet fellow design fanatics on her journey. Connect with Anjana via

Table of Contents

Ready to elevate your product design to the next level?

Hire us to create cutting-edge UX/UI designs that captivate, engage, and convert.

Contact us

Related blogs