Get the most out of your user research with tangible tools.

Questions aren’t your only tools in an interview. Get creative with tangible stimulus to uncover quality stories and insights.

Susie Kang

September 12, 2016

Designing a new service or product requires a lot of input.

Evaluating existing solutions by getting out into the world is a great starting point. It’s how you begin to understand the “lay of the land” in any category.

But secondary research only goes so far. It needs to be supplemented with user research to help us understand how our customers view the world.

User research interviews focus on people’s experience with a given subject. Sometimes the research topics are broad, such as, “How people manage their finances.” Other times they are as narrow as, “What’s important to people when it comes to toilet cleaning.”

To uncover new insights, you need to understand the topic with great depth. To develop empathy, you must tap into deeper motivations and emotions.

To understand how people manage money, you need to know specific information about the tools they use to track their spending and saving. But you’ll also want to understand the broad topic of how they think about and plan for the future.

Here’s where it gets challenging. People don’t spend hours analyzing isolated topics like toilet bowl cleaner.

When we ask users about those topics, they struggle to articulate what we’re hoping to learn. It’s hard for them to express their needs, values, and pain points for such specific topics.

Even the most experienced researchers struggle to elicit interesting insights with questions alone. It’s especially difficult for mundane or complex topics.

So what’s a researcher to do?

Use stimulus to get more out of your user research.

Fortunately, questions and observation aren’t the only options for learning more about users. When you want better engagement and understanding, use a “stimulus” to create deeper conversations with users.

A stimulus is an object that provokes thoughts and emotional reactions. It can be as simple as a printed card or as complex as a functional prototype.

Making ideas tangible helps users understand concepts and articulate their thoughts and emotions. The object gives people something to react to. It stimulates deeper descriptions, buried memories, and specific examples.

It would be nearly impossible for a user to describe what “clean” should smell like. But with a few scented objects, you can find out. Instead of relying on users’ imagination and memory, the conversation centers on something real. Which of the six scents smells cleaner? Why is that?

Stimulus can be used in a wide variety of contexts. I’ve found it to be particularly helpful in these three scenarios:

  • When a topic is broad and intangible
  • When a process is long and complex
  • When a topic is narrowly focused

Discover what to do when the topic is extremely broad.

One way to develop new solutions is to reimagine how to provide for a fundamental human need.

For instance, can we design something that revolutionizes the way people communicate with one another? Many products and services exist already, but with evolving technology and changing behaviors, there are new opportunities for innovation.

Good intentions aside, a question like, “What role does communication play in your life?” is overly vague. It doesn’t align with the way people think about their lives.

Stimulus can help to make these potentially abstract conversations feel more manageable and grounded.

Try this: Break down the abstract concept into familiar activities or touchpoints that people can relate to.

Instead of asking generally about communication, break it down into methods of communication that people frequently use: messaging, calling, emailing, video chatting, and so on. A sorting activity with the question, “Which methods of communication do you use most often?” can help you learn about the role of communication.

What to do when the process is long and complex.

The same method can be helpful when discussing a complex process. Most processes have a number of moving parts, so it’s challenging for users to discuss the entire system.

Breaking the process down into its component parts makes it easier to have a conversation.

My colleagues and I used this method when researching how local policies are made. We made the process tangible by creating a set of cards that described the typical activities people go through.

By making the steps tangible, participants were able to quickly dive into the details. It revealed how their process is different from what we showed them, and which parts are most painful and why.

Try this: Encourage users to “build” on the stimulus.

Don’t confine their answer to what you show them. Encourage them to add, subtract, or tweak parts to accurately capture their world. On the same project, one participant added in a new card outlining a whole new step in the policy-making process, uncovering a whole new area of user difficulty to our researchers.

Here’s what to do when the topic is narrowly focused.

Just as an overly abstract topic is hard to talk about, most people struggle to articulate details about very specific topics. Unless you are an expert in wines or home appliances, such focused topics may prove difficult for users to expand on.

Tangible stimulus helps people dive into the specifics with ease.

Try this: Create physical examples of ­different features of the item you want to test.

Instead of forcing users to picture a wine fridge in their head, make a “white model” out of foam core. The prototype helps users more clearly remember their nuanced ways of using the refrigerator, how they organize it, and what they struggle with.

You can also show them pictures of different ways the product could be. Maybe the refrigerator will have blue-frosted glass, clear glass, or black-tinted glass. Showing your participants digital images of these options gives them something to react to. They can compare and contrast the implications of different features and how these relate to their own use.

Learn more from your user interviews.

Stimulus is a simple tool to help people better understand, evaluate, and articulate concepts. Whether too abstract or too narrow, stimulus makes any research topic relevant to a user’s everyday life and results in better information.

Next time you’re doing research, think about breaking complex subjects down into smaller parts.

Or if you have a very specific topic, use physical prototypes or visuals to provoke reactions from users.

Making ideas physical makes it easier to understand concepts and articulate emotions.


About Susie Kang

Susie is a design researcher who combines her curiosity for understanding people and analytical skills to help clients define consumer needs and formulate viable business solutions. With a background in the service industry, Susie draws from her experiences in both interacting with customers in the front end and performing management function in the back end of businesses.

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