Generative research sometimes referred to as discovery or exploratory research, is defined as “a method of research that helps researchers develop a deeper understanding of users in order to find opportunities for solutions or innovation.” Contrary to evaluative research, which is about evaluating our design and our product by using usability testing methods, the goal of generative research is to generate information about our users and explore the problem space related to our product.
This method plays an essential role in the product design process. Without developing a deeper understanding of our users we are building for, we might create something that no one actually needs or will use. And we don’t want to end up with a failed product, right?
That’s why we do generative research. In this blog post, you will read about three methods of generative research, what they are, why they are useful, and how to perform them.
Steps of Generative Research
Before we get into discussing specific generative research methods, we will first have an overview of the general steps of conducting generative research, regardless of the method you choose.
1. What type of project are you working on? At what step are you in the product development lifecycle?
Whether you perform project-based research work or you do research for a specific product, first, you need to define your goals, the given timeline, and the resources. Use this assessment to decide if generative research can provide you with useful insights and if it is feasible for your research work at this point.
Think through the following questions:
- What questions do you want to get answers for with this research project?
- What type of answers are you expecting or assuming to get?
- What is the ideal outcome for you?
- What decisions are you trying to make with the support of the insights from this research project?
2. Create your generative research plan
If, based on the initial assessment, generative research seems like a useful approach for your research project, you can start to create a research plan for it.
- Outline the background of your study, detailing why you are conducting it.
- Define the objectives and goals of your research project, like what other teams and departments want to learn from your research and what kind of outcome they want to achieve.
- Have a breakdown and specified details of the research participants, define the details of the recruitment.
- Choose your research methods.
- Create an approximate timeline of when the research will take place and when the report can be expected.
- List resources, such as links or any other documentation.
3. Carry out the research
Now, using the research plan as a guide, it’s time to conduct the actual research with the appropriate generative methods of your choice for the project.
4. Synthesize generative research
Document the data you collect, synthesize the research findings using thematic analysis and affinity maps. There are tools that can make this process more efficient, effective, and fun, such as Condens.io and EnjoyHQ.
5. Present generative research insights in an actionable way
Lastly, present the research findings in a digestible format with actionable points. The goal is not only to understand but also to act on the newly gained understanding. Provide insights on how the findings can be useful for your design and development focus and feature prioritization.
Now that we have a general overview of the process, we can go into more detail about specific methods that can help us generate information about our users and the product space.
What is a discovery interview?
The Nielsen Norman Group defines the term as ”a preliminary phase in the UX-design process that involves researching the problem space, framing the problem(s) to be solved, and gathering enough evidence and initial direction on what to do next.”
Why do we do it?
Discovery interviews are very useful during the exploration phase of building a new product and for redesigning existing products. It helps to uncover users’ past experiences, motivations, pain points, needs, etc. It also enables you to understand the contexts of users’ lives related to using a product.
You can start conducting discovery interviews with a set of questions; however, leaving some freedom and putting aside your set of predefined questions can enable you to discover new points of focus that you did not know would be relevant to your design process.
How to do it
Step 1. – Gather Stakeholder Inputs
Whatever UX research method you use, you should always start by defining your goals. During the initial research planning phase, you should determine what you want to achieve with the research project in general.
Now it’s time to look at the overarching research goals and think about what discovery interviews can help accomplish and what questions can be answered through conducting discovery interviews. List these as specific discovery interview goals and research questions.
You can define the overarching research goals and specific discovery interview goals based on prior research findings and stakeholder inputs.
Reach out to the various teams working on the product and gather a list of problems and questions they have. For example, from stakeholder interviews, you learned that the product owner thinks that introducing a new way of marketplace interactions can be attractive to customers, the sales team is having a hard time attracting and retaining customers, and the developers would like to reduce the number of support tickets from the platform.
Step 2. – Translating the inputs into research questions, more specifically, discovery interview questions
After gathering the inputs from the stakeholders, translate the problems, assumptions, issues into the overarching research questions. Pick some specific research questions that can be best answered through discovery interviews. These will be the guiding questions and focus points for you to start with.
Step 3. – Conduct the interview
The actual session of a discovery interview can be visualized as an hourglass shape (Kuniavsky, 2003). Start with warm-up and general questions about users’ experience and attitudes that are related to your product. Then drill down by asking about concrete examples and specific incidents. In the end, wrap up the session with more general questions that help users to summarise their experience and needs.
Nethnography, or virtual ethnography, is “an approach to ethnography which is almost but not quite like the real thing.” – says Christine Hine, author of Virtual Ethnography & Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday.
Ethnography is a qualitative research method where the researcher observes a chosen group in their natural environment for a long period of time. Netnography is its virtual counterpart, which was born due to the spread of computer-mediated communication.
As in ethnography, the main focus here is observation. Observing users, with a twist: not out in the field, but in the digital world, such as in forums, social media channels, or discussions under blog posts; anywhere where some kind of virtual interaction takes place between people.
Looking up such channels of thought exchange when we are gathering insights on a specific topic — may it be in the very beginning of the process of hypothesis generation or even further in the validation phase — can be of great help.
What is the added value of netnography?
- Getting answers without asking questions.
- Getting answers to questions we have never even thought about.
- Providing us with a great number of virtual interactions and discussions available.
How to do netnography?
Before breaking it down into steps, let’s keep in mind — and practice — the core principles of performing netnography:
- Understanding before measuring.
- Reading before analyzing (observing before interpreting).
- Passive observing before interacting (listening before asking).
As in other qualitative research methods, you will come across lots of different ideas and viewpoints. It is essential to have an open mind to be able to derive meaningful and actionable insights using this research method.
Step 1. – Defining the process
To start with, do desktop research on your topic of interest and its subtopics. Read articles, forums, make yourself familiar with the subject. After having an initial understanding, start to develop a mind map of all the relevant topics that allow the identification of potential trends and patterns.
Step 2. – Community selection
Having the basis laid down, now you have to look for relevant online sources to gather information. Look up articles, forums, blog posts, social media groups, threads: all realms of the digital world. Identify and evaluate these sources, and select the three or more relevant communities.
Step 3. – Qualitative data gathering & analysis
Form research questions you want to answer about your target audience. Be very specific! Like:
- How do people buy bus tickets with smartphones in Pakistan?
- On what platform(s) do quality engineers manage their quality solution service orders in the USA?
Or choose a topic you can’t find the answers to by evaluative research. Then, from the selected online communities, start to collect input.
Step 4. – Insight generation
Code and analyze the collected information in detail. Look for emerging patterns. Group inputs, name them, and derive insights.
Step 5. – Generate solutions
Translate the gathered data into user needs, and provide initial solutions for them.
What is a photo collage in generative research?
According to Chauncey Wilson, author of 100 User Experience (UX) Design and Evaluation Methods for Your Toolkit, “A collage study asks users to find pictures, words, and tangible objects from magazines, clip art, newspapers, the internet, and physical artifacts that represent their feelings, emotions, and personal experiences with a particular product, service, setting, person, organization, or environment. The user is then asked to organize the clips into a physical or online collage.”
Why do we do it
There are several advantages of using this method:
- It is a more engaging, interactive, and fun experience for users to describe their experiences and emotions about a product or service.
- The making and result of a photo collage can help users uncover and reflect more about their experiences and emotions. The photo collage can be used as an anchor for users to explain the present, recall the past, and envision the future. More details and feelings of the users can become accessible to the researcher with the aid of a photo collage.
How to do it
Step 1. – Create a photo collage component toolkit:
First, collect images (of locations, objects, people, etc.), shapes and colors (square, circle, red, green, etc.), stickers (e.g., emojis), words (e.g., adjectives: happy, sad, bored, excited, etc.) and categorize them. When deciding what components to use, preliminary research can help (desktop research, competitive analysis, pilot interviews, etc.). You can also ask users to bring their own images related to the topic.
These days, with only remote research available, we can use tools such as Miro. You can add and organize all the components on the board and then guide and observe users making their own photo collages within the tool.
Step 2. – Creating the collage and observation
Once you have the component toolkit arranged, a session can start with an introduction about what the user needs to do. Then allow users 20-30 minutes to make their photo collage. You can observe the process and take notes of interesting points you noticed.
Step 3. – Interviewing and Defining
After the users complete making the photo collage, you should have an interview/discussion about it for another 20-30 minutes. Here you can ask them to present the collage. You can ask them follow-up questions on why they choose certain images and elements, what do those images and elements mean to them, or what is their overall reason for making the collage the way it is.
Let’s get into it!
To summarize, generative research generates information about users and the product’s potential problem space. It can be very useful not only at the beginning of your product design process but also along the way if performed continuously, as it provides an in-depth understanding of your users. There are many generative research methods you can use. Here, we focused on talking about three of those methods and, more specifically, on what are they, why they can be useful, and how to conduct them:
- Discovery interviews
- Photo collage
Let us know if you tried the methods, how they worked, and which one you liked the most!