Researching Imaginaries

The other day I was invited by a friend and colleague of mine, Fernando Olmedo, to run a design research workshop in his class. The workshop was designed to introduce his students who were attending the school’s Entertainment Design track (visual development for animation, film and game design) to qualitative interview methodologies in order to help them craft original stories.

Skip to the end to see some of the results!

Fernando’s class was already a research class which made things easier. In his course, he would, and still does, challenge his students to explore how narratives are structured and to come up with their own original content. To do so, he’s devised all sorts of fun exercises in which his students get to scour the web to either identify their artistic influences and present them to their peers as intricate mood boards, or deconstruct the inspiration behind classic movies, comics and games, making his students more aware of the the stories that have inspired them over time and of how this has influenced their respective imaginaries.

We decided the workshop was to build on Fernando’s approach and provide the students with a new research skill: in-person interviews, less to test relevance of plot to a target demographic but instead as a way for them to learn to find inspiration in the world around them.

The challenge on our part was two-fold:

1. We needed to prove the value of this process to the students by getting the experience to result in surprising, inspiring insights

2. We needed to structure it enough for them to pick it up over the course of a class time with enough confidence that they would be able to apply it for homework.

Fernando and I taking turns running the students through the activities.

The Approach

We’ve done this workshop twice now and it’s been a lot of fun. Fernando has the students come into class with a rough character design to present, it usually consists of a few key adjectives, a rough backstory and some visuals. The concepts are presented prior to the workshop to create a clear before and after effect.

Then I give a brief lecture in which I introduce my experience as a design researcher, my process and work samples. Early on, I point out the distinction between how qualitative research tends to be applied to the gaming or entertainment industry at large and how we, in this class, would be applying it. Namely, that when qualitative research is applied to the gaming world it’s usually designed to identify ways of engaging new audiences rather than inspiring new plots and characters (although the two are not mutually exclusive), a point I like to make with the screenshot below.

Top results that pop-up when “qualitative research video gaming” is googled.

Because conducting interviews requires a bit of structure, it’s important to get the students to understand the various phases of the process. Fernando and I decided to have them go through a couple steps before coming up with their interview questions. The first activity has the students identify what comes before and after the interview part of the process. On the board and as a class, I have the students start with the “interview phase” and work their way back and forward to identify the various phases of setting up, conducting and synthesizing a research endeavor. It ends up looking something like this:

Figuring out the steps to setting up a research project with the students
Frame problem > Identify audience > Develop screener > Find interviewees > Interview > Insight synthesis > Concept development

The rest of the activities follow this series of steps. In turn, the students are walked through framing their problem, in this case which aspects of their characters they’d like to further develop. This is where the preliminary concepts come in handy, the adjectives and backstories students have had to come up with become their research topics.

These can be traits ranging from loyalty to mischievousness to disillusionment, the students are asked to pick 2–3 traits they’d like to learn more about. They are then tasked with coming up with a couple rudimentary screener questions to help them find potential respondents that have similar qualities or might have gone through similar life experiences as the characters they are developing. I like to explain the process by using a character I obviously couldn’t find in real life… I think… Here is an excerpt from the lecture:

“If my character is an intrepid werewolf stuck in a parallel universe, I might go for some of the following respondent. The interviewee should be a person who is always doing crazy things, extreme sports for example or perhaps the interviewee is someone who feels a bit isolated where they currently live, maybe a friend you know that has had to move away from their hometown for college. Both of these would be appropriate since they’d help you understand what it it’s like to be intrepid or what it might feel like to be stuck in an alternate universe.

The most challenging aspect of this bit would be to find someone to interview about being a werewolf… All you have to do is unpack what interests you about your character. In my case I could look for someone with a hobby they keep secret, or a chronic condition that requires care and organization or simply someone who’s had an urge they couldn’t control. It all depends on what you want learn in order to develop it in your character.

Screener questions for my character could then read:

Is there a place in the world you miss?

What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done?

Have you ever felt like you had lost control?”

What’s great about this workshop is that the preparation for these exercises forces the students to be more introspective and aware of their decision-making and design process. They have to dissect why they originally saw value in their characters, and consolidate their concept before they can move on.

Once screeners have been crafted the students have to come up with a handful of open-ended questions they think would get the respondents to share personal information about their given areas of inquiry. We start them off with simple templates such as:

Tell me of a time when you [experience].

Have you ever felt [adjective / emotion]? Why?

What does [emotion] mean to you? Why?

Were you ever [adjective] as a child? Why?

By this point the themes become a little more focused. The questions are tested by getting the students into pairs and edited down to a handful of questions that have now been weaned down to only cover one character trait they’d like to be able to expand on.

Of course this isn’t easy for everyone and the process of abstraction is challenging. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised each time to notice the students understood the logic of the exercise but simply weren’t sure how to find real-life experiences that related to their topics. Some decided to explore loyalty between her character, a pet, and its owner by asking respondents to tell her of a time they themselves had felt loyal. Another, found insights on how to craft a unique disturbed Lecter-like doctor, by asking her respondents if they had ever been sadistic as a child. She found great stories about a young boy who used to burn ants, and another who would operate on his sister’s Barbies and rearrange them together.

Once the students have run through the motions in class, they get to go out into the real world! They are given the week to conduct the research, draw insights (very informally) and come up with alterations to their characters and capture quotes from the interview (which they are recommended to record) that support their concept changes.

The Results

The outcomes were captivating. Going in, I assumed the insights would only be used to improve the character’s relatability or believability, instead, the students did a great job weaving their insights into multiple facets of the storytelling. There were four types of experience-crafting devices the insights were applied to: game mechanic, story arc, character backstory, and character visual design. Bellow are some examples:

Student presenting her project.

The Skybridge

Key question: “How do you deal with sadness?”

Insights: Sadness and sorrow can become an addiction that needs to be actively kept in check. The story was originally to be the journey of a young woman on her way to commit suicide, the student wanted to find unique game dynamics to use to communicate loneliness and in the end offer the player a chance to choose whether the character should jump or not.

After the research was completed the story took a metaphorical turn, the student explained she felt suicide as a premise took away from the core of the game which is about experiencing loneliness. In the end the game was redesigned to be a first-person game in which the player’s vision gets blurred if they stop interacting with other characters and instead of building up to jumping off a bridge the game was made to end in choosing whether or not to cross the bridge making it open to a wider range of interpretations.

Mr. Switvicks

Key question: “When you were young, what did you destroy?”

Insights: The character was meant to be a direct reference to Hannibal, a failed doctor exacting his revenge on his peers by employing his amateurish surgeon skills. The student’s research with family and friends led her to realize cruel acts may appear violent in retrospect but may just be the result of “curiosity.” Her vengeful doctor became a bit of a collage artist with a taste for tools, a technician of sorts closer to a carpenter than a mad scientist making him scarier than before.

Cyborg vs. Overpopulation

Key question: Have you ever come to question your upbringing?

Insights: The original story was about a cyborg created to take the responsibility of managing over-population off of humans’ hands by randomly assassinating people until a sustainable quota is restored.

The story started as the cyborg first questions its role on Earth but the student wasn’t sure how to move forward with her character. She decided to interview recently graduated design students who felt underwhelmed, disillusioned or generally in disagreement with the education they had been given in school.

Interestingly the student did not enjoy the process, and was struggling to find ways to apply her insights to her storyline. A resolution was found in class after her presentation when we asked her what her respondents had done post-graduation to adapt their practice and she said they ended up having to break down their skill set and sell their services as simpler, separate packages rather than selling themselves as artists the way they had been taught in school. In the end, the Cyborg was re-visited to be made into a killer for hire deciding as the game goes on if it should walk away from all this and retire from killing or kill its original employers.

The most loyal companion

Key question: “What does loyalty mean to you?”

Insights: Loyalty is about reliability and commitment, the student’s main character, a pet on a quest to return to Earth its recently deceased owner, went from being a heroic, anthropomorphic figure overcoming obstacles valiantly to a stubborn, (adorably) clueless dog on an endless quest to find a person who doesn’t exist anymore. As dark as it may sound the student was adamant that this story was not about sorrow or mourning but the beauty of blind loyalty, commitment and love taken to a new extreme something that had surprised her in her interviewees’ responses.


Many of these topics may seem unnecessarily dark but it only made the research more interesting and challenging to conduct. One student summarized it as “getting people to touch their spaghetti” a very apt description. In general I enjoyed conducting these workshops with Fernando because they are a great way to revisit and reflect on my own process. How to use open-ended research for idea generation? What is the value of research in design and in storytelling? Is it about identifying broad cultural shifts or idiosyncratic moments? Although I don’t have a perfect answer for those, these workshops for me appear to be a great way to get out of one’s comfort zone and fixed ideas even if conducted with a handful of respondents.

Students’ feedback on the workshop.