Visual Tools for Research Participants

Getting research participants to articulate the “why” can be challenging in an evaluative session. And getting them to articulate what something “should be” is even tougher. I created a bunch of (50 or so) visual cards to help them evaluate existing products, services and messages, and to help them create new ones.

Here’s a couple of pics of a few of 'em. I’ve found they help a lot.

Why bother?

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. - Henry Ford


The “should be” question is always about something that is there that is there, tangible, in front of them. I agree with your point - getting people to invent things and see the future is a poor path to developing something new. For making new things, I would begin with observational/ethnographic/contextual research (though that’s not exclusive of course: new things can be made with no research as well).

Honestly, I gave up on “should be” years ago. I find it much easier to pose the question as “what’s the problem”. Which then can easily be articulated by the design team to “what it should be”.

And I would even go as far as saying you should ignore any respondent’s “should be” answer. It is human nature to want to provide an answer instead of articulating the problem. The problem is I need to get from A to B quicker. I need to get from A to B without taking a break. I need to get from A to C without stopping at B. You need to draw that out of your respondents. Given a choice, they will give you the answer, “I need a faster horse” instead of giving you the problem.

Yep, all that.
As I mentioned, if I were looking to create new things, I would use an observe approach vs. an ask approach. But it can be interesting to hear what people say when they’re thinking aspirationally. And knowing what data to safely ignore or drop is a good thing to keep in the back pocket.

It’s a nice idea but seems a bit vague. So how do you go about with these cards, is it part of a method?

I personally prefer a more ground up way of working by targeting a specific area or context for innovation, researching that by experiencing the actual issues with the participants in the form of a contextual inquiry, ethnographic approach or contextual probes research, and further including the participants in well structured focus groups or co-design sessions to get a lot of ideas from many perspectives.


I use them more as a part of a larger research process than a specific method: it’s mostly (but not always) during very front-end research where the goal is to identify unmet, under-met, and/or unarticulated user needs in a focused domain. The cards are aids. Sometimes they’re helpful. They’re not always helpful. For someone you’re interviewing who needs encouragement or help in feedback or detail, they can jog thoughts. They’re are one tool in the quiver with lots of others.

There’s lots of cards, and there’s sets of cards, and of course, they’re not all applicable to every situation. For instance, I made the ones I show here for a design and research project in the CE domain, specifically around input. This particular project had both generative and evaluative components, and I used the cards for both parts.

I totally agree on the visual approach! By looking at visuals instead of words we use a different part of our brain that fires different associations. In my experience it litteraly gives you more insight and stimulates creativity at the same time. I teach a visualisation class wherein I use the visualization process itself as an instrument for research as well. by acting out a scene with some people and taking pictures from multiple perspectives you really get into the scene and start to understand the point of view of each of the stakeholders. If you are interested, here’s the class blog: Setting the scene | Exploratory Sketching

I would caution the use of your visual cards - part of the role of ethnographers and designers during research is to see beyond the limitations of what a research subject can show and/or tell us - we observe & listen but then we use our expertise to make judgement assumptions based on the context of the problem at hand - and your cards, while offering a different approach to explanation or choice, are still limiting (in this instance, limiting the users’ choices to the visuals you’ve placed in front of them - because they will always defer to a visual aid rather than search themselves for further explanation). Just my two cents.

The Henry Ford quote is a perfect example. Lee Iaccoca is credited with a similar quote regarding consumer research.

Some legs to that initial post: nice!

A few comments have pointed out how this could hurt your findings, especially in an observational/anthropologic/enthnographic research methodology. Agreed!

I would not use these while doing generative research that is observation-based and meant to uncover unmet/under-met or unarticulated needs. But I would consider using these for aiding in evaluating concepts (product/service/message) that are a result of generative, observational research. I’m thinking here 1:1 interviews, not focus groups.

Every case is unique. The cards are mearly tools. I’m not suggesting a blanket methodology. Choose the right tool for the right job.

For the record, of course there are projects where you don’t need to ask anybody anything; you just make The Thing because 1) you are the expert, and 2) it is a truly new and an innovation.

visual tools are more important for the research and i totally agree with visual approach…