Leave Personas in The Graveyard

How to Use Pictorial Research Tools to Generate User Insights

Excellent, forward-thinking UX design incorporates both the functional and emotional aspects of users’ decision-making. Design grounded on deep empathy creates compelling and engaging site experiences, leading to positive user experience and engagement — and, ultimately, the prized halo effect that elevates users’ overall site satisfaction.

Personas don’t capture the complexity of human nature

Our digital graveyards are lined with the remains of personas that once guided UX design. While helpful in their time, personas don’t offer a complete picture to guide UX design today. Top-notch UX must meaningfully engage users, enhance their experience and create emotional bonds. With so much accomplished on digital devices, UX encompasses more than on-screen elements: it encompasses brand differentiation and is key to cultivating loyalty. As UX professionals increasingly align with content managers, marketers, and engineers to deliver unified messaging and experiences, it becomes ever more important to examine users’ choices and behaviors through the lens of human nature.

Personas fall short in another critical area. They’re often created through observation and direct questioning methods that lend themselves to self-reporting, over-simplified answers, and post-hoc fabrication. As human beings, we’re often unaware of the true drivers of our behavior — and because of this, we can’t articulate them to interviewers. As a result, research falls short of uncovering the deep truths beneath the surface.

In fact, scientists estimate that only 5% of all human decision-making is based on effortful mental activity and up to 95% of human mental operations occur unconsciously. Thus, people have little direct access to their own thought processes. Knowing this, do you have as much confidence in decisions generated from traditional research?

Thinking fast and slow

Nobel Memorial Prize winning behavioral economist and author Daniel Kahneman described two distinct modes of thinking in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

  • “System 1” — instinctive, emotional, automatic, stereotypic, subconscious, frequent and fast
  • “System 2” — more deliberative, calculating, conscious, logical, infrequent and slow

The very best research and design begins with empathetic thinking. UX designers need high-quality information and deep user insights to do their best work. Knowledge and recognition of the core values at play in users’ unconscious minds — and their emotional relevance — is key to success.

A picture is worth a thousand words
 Pictorial-based research techniques have catapulted major brands like Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, Audi, Bank of America, Cisco, Capital One, General Mills, and Disney to the top of their respective industries. Borrowing those techniques can help UX, too. Pictures are a natural and efficient way for research participants to access what is really going on in their heads and to share it with UX professionals. As the old British idiom “a picture is worth 1000 words,” suggests, pictures convey complex notions or ideas quickly, are information-rich and attribute-laden. They can be associated with multiple related higher-order constructs such as trust or loyalty — and they can guide meaningful discussion and dialogue.

Using pictures, images, or photos in UX research studies has several benefits:

Reveal unconscious emotions: The most powerful opportunities have the potential to tap feelings and motivations that users are not aware of, and that they cannot ordinarily articulate in a typical interview session.

Uncover hidden truths: Images give users a new vocabulary to explain familiar concepts or experiences, thus creating an atmosphere to uncover and explore new insights. In cases where personas continue to play an active role, pictorial-based work can fine-tune ingrained personas or develop newer, more relevant ones.

Users frame the findings — not UX researchers: With a pictorial-based exercise, users are more apt to express and project their deepest feelings and emotions — including their hopes, aspirations, and opinions, removing the potential for researcher projection and bias.

Diminishes the “say-mean gap”: Renowned cognitive scientist, psychologist, and linguist Steven Pinker conveys in his 2007 book The Stuff of Thought, that words are not the same as thought, so UX designers need vehicles to understand what is going on in users’ heads, not just hear what comes out their mouths.

Eliminates bias: This approach provides ways for participants to honestly reflect their views and opinions without being inhibited or unduly influenced by research team members.

Photo Resonate Technique

One pictorial-based research technique is Photo Resonate. Here’s how to implement it in 5 simple steps:

Step one: Gather Photos
 Gather an array of random images. These can be physical or digital images. The important consideration is to have lots of them and to randomize the order in which the research participant views them.

Step two: Ask respondents to choose
 Each respondent is asked one or more questions specific to the project — and is asked to look through the images to find one that resonates with them. For example, in a CA Nurses Association study of hospital nurses, participants were asked to choose an image that resonated with their feelings about recent changes in medicine.

Step three: Ask respondents to describe
 Remember the Rorschach ink blot test from Psychology 101? Respondents are asked to describe the image they have selected — leaving wide room for descriptions that can go deep.

Step four: Ask respondents to interpret
 Respondents then describe how the picture they selected relates to the question they were asked.

Step five: Synthesis and analysis
 Report back to the UX designer team the images research participants picked and their corresponding descriptions of why the image resonated — and discuss those findings. Consider posting the images and sentiments on the wall or sharing via PowerPoint to provide a visual and engaging way for the team to identify and name core themes.

Photo Resonate in action: Payday Loan Debt

Photo Resonate proved an effective technique to ascertain the emotional state and vocabulary of underbanked consumers seeking financial solutions to get out of payday loan debt. Many of these consumers juggle multiple payday loans — and struggle with sky-high interest rates on these loans. A typical two-week payday loan has an annual interest rate of almost 400%; by comparison, credit card annual interest rates range from about 12% to 40%.

In this design research study, underbanked mobile users* were randomly exposed to an array of generic photos and asked to select an image that resonated with their feelings about debt. (Many underbanked consumers’ digital lives do not play out on desktops, laptops, or tablets; they rely heavily on mobile phones to tackle their online needs.)

“I feel lost, I am in a maze and can not get out.”
“I am like this factory. I am working and working and not getting anywhere.”
“Having debt is like clutter. Like those hoarders you see on TV. I can’t breathe with debt. It clutters my life and is over-whelming.”
“Having debt is like a sinking ship and I am the ship …. I’m sinking. I am ½ way down and I don’t take out more payday loans because I don’t want to go all the way down.”
“I feel TRAPPED. It is like I am Waiting for it (debt) to attack me & there is NO way out!”


Collage is another effective pictorial vehicle to enhance the validity and generative ability of UX research. Here’s how to do it in three easy steps:

Collage in three easy steps

Collage in three easy steps

Step one: Gather materials: Large poster boards (23” x 22”), an assortment of visuals (such as magazines representing a diverse spectrum of topics) and glue sticks serve as the basics for collage creation. It is important to ensure availability of a wide range of visual stimuli for the participant to choose from. A wide range of visuals encourages greater insights. It eliminates personal bias, giving research participants a full range of visuals to represent their unique inner voices.

Research participants can independently choose their own visuals prior to the research session. Consideration should be given to research respondents’ ability to cooperate and complete the task in advance without supervision.

Step two: Assemble collages

Research participants assemble collages at home before their scheduled interview or can prepare their collages on site before being interviewed. On-site preparation offers key advantages, including eliminating extended decision-making (thus more closely matching human “System 1” impulses), keeping the research topic unknown until instructions are given, and enhancing completion rates for target user segments.

Step three: Interview participants

Discuss with participants their collages, the images they selected, and why they selected them.

These insights can help uncover deep insights and unconscious behaviors key to decision and design.

Collage in action: the Underbanked

Collage was used to explore how underbanked consumers felt after having utilized a new financial product, that helped them consolidate their payday loans and eventually get out of the cycle of debt. This research technique uncovered key System 1 product benefits, including one very compelling emotional benefit derived by single mothers. It had up until this exercise remained elusive to the client company.

Below are two examples of collages created by underbanked individuals in response to “How do you feel now you are out of debt?”

A female underbanked research participant’s view of life without any financial debt.
A collage of how it feels to not be in debt created by a male underbanked research respondent.

Originally published at empathywise.com on October 21, 2015.