Arts and Crafts meets Jedi Mind Tricks

You know how a good salesman/saleslady can make you feel like you can just hop right into something and take the world on? They give you a sense of confidence that ANYONE can do this? That’s how I felt when I stumbled upon this research methodology called Generative Design Research (GDR — yes I am acronyming within 10 seconds of this blog).

I found GDR on an InVision design talk and immediately fell in love with how human the techniques felt. It’s kind of like arts and crafts meets Yoda and then you Jedi mind trick each other into discovering and designing something that solves a wicked problem for the participant.

So, after I watched the video, I dug a little more (see below for more resources). Turns out — human, is exactly why this methodology is gaining popularity in the design and research worlds. Turns out — humans will say one thing and do another… Turns out — when humans make something, their say begins to merge with their do… Still with me?

OK, just give me the official webster’s dictionary definition of GDR — because basically, you’re just rambling…

Ha! There isn’t one… so — this is as close to a scientific explanation that I can offer: GDR is a participatory research method that seeks to co-create an artifact (aka a something) with a participant, while letting them be the expert of their own experience. GDR flips the script and instead of a participant being a subject (which implies you are the expert) they become a collaborator, leading you to the depths of their consciousness, taking a peek into their value system and desires.

Note — there is a time and a place for all the different types of discovery methods. From the research I have gathered from industry thought leaders, GDR is best utilized at the beginning of discovery. However, there is evidence that shows it to be valuable throughout and into later stages of innovation as well.

OK, so how does one begin this Jedi mind-trick exercise? 
You need to create a plan for what you want to discover. Always start with a problem statement. What are you trying to solve for and why and what will happen when you solve this?

Your next step is trying to understand which questions you need to answer? Once you get these, you can start the process of designing an experiment. This is more or less choosing a participatory technique. This comes with practice and experience (all of which I am learning now — high five).

Examples of just some of the techniques (them = participants):

  • Lists — wait for it… you have them make lists. It shows priorities and can be used to take inventory of physical things and also steps/process.
  • Storytelling — they write or draw out their stories and talk about it, revealing fuller experiences and emotions.
  • Game play — devise a game that has them build towards a goal, unleashing knowledge about how they feel, think and act.
  • Puppets — acting out roles or processes. This allows you to see more emotion and positioning in a given process or scenario. It also invites the participant to empathize with a counterpart or differing role.
  • Break up letter — can’t wait to use this one… you break up with the product or service in a letter. This shows you where you could fail and why, along with other major pain points.
  • Concentric Circles — Can be combined with lists. You create a paper with circles and place the lists within the different circles to show priority. You place them in the middle of the circles to make the exercise about them. The inner circle is the highest priority (because it’s closest to them) while the outer circles are of least importance.
  • Sentence Completion — Create writing prompts for them to finish. This lets the participant project meaning, leading to pain points and areas of delight.
  • Collaging — provide images, colors, etc. for them to build a collage that represents the prompt. This creates symbolic messages for you to interpret with them and creates better understanding of meaning
  • Card sorts — Images or words that are sorted to resemble preference, prioritization and hierarchy.

You’ll then need to put together a toolkit that enables the technique. This can be paper, markers, stickies, images, etc. just make sure you have enough for each session.

Had enough abstractyness yet? Yeah, me too. Here’s some examples of how I’ve used the techniques:

Example: New car buying project — we wanted to understand a customer’s experience when trying to find and buy a car after totaling their car and experiencing an insurance claim.

To do this, we chose storytelling as our technique. Storytelling is great way to empower people to recall and describe their experiences. So, we had the participants draw (yes, physically draw) their story on a piece of paper and tell us about their emotion in each stage and how the whole experience unfolded.

Drawing made the situation playful but also allowed us to dive deeper into their experience. In short, drawing made the session immediately human and allowed us to immerse ourselves in their world.

Customer Story

After the participants drew out their experience, we had them walk us through it. The visual story told us what happened and made it easier to locate and talk about what wasn’t shown on the paper. The gaps in the panels enabled the participants to project their values and needs.

While the interview was going on, we had a note-taker writing participant responses on sticky notes. The stickies were color coded to represent three buckets: “Jobs to be Done”, “Pain Points” and “Gains”.

JTBD — what the person is hiring the service or product for. What is it that they are trying to get done? Ex. Buy a car or negotiate the lowest price so they feel like they won.

Pain Point — something that frustrates or complicates or interferes with this job to be done

Gain — what aspirational needs are desired in accomplishing the job. What would make the experience delightful?

Note taking in sticky format

Once the storytelling phase was complete, we posted all the sticky notes on a wall, into the three buckets noted above. The participant was handed some dot stickers and asked to vote on the most important stickies per each bucket.

This gave us an immediate synthesis of the session and a prioritized list of Jobs, Pains and Gains. It also provided another opportunity to dig deeper around why each particular sticky was important vs. another one.

The artifacts and priorities made it easier to synthesize all the data points down into two personas. The personas then helped us for our ideation and concept validation sessions.

*Tip: Make your design up and test it before you go in with consumers.

We’re close to the end, so I’ll summate with about 100 bullets, why I like Generative Design Research approaches:

  • The activities allowed us to immediately immerse ourselves in the participant’s experience.
  • The artifact created a common ground to meet at and discuss their experience, at a human level.
  • Drawing (and really all the techniques) is something everyone has done at some point in their life and the playfulness helps to open participants up
  • The artifacts were used to find points to dive deeper on. They were also used to find commonalities in process and approaches.
  • The story panels allowed me to stay focused on the participant’s experience
  • The possibilities of toolkits and techniques are virtually endless
  • I felt we had an immediate and deeper understanding of priorities
  • We were able to interpret the participant’s story because of the visual guide made by the participant and I didn’t have to rely on their verbal recount alone.
  • It’s not rocket science. It’s interactively learning with your customer. What?!

So, If you’d like to learn more or chat me up about Generative Design Research, reach out to me or click some of the resources below:


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