No-one says no to Sharpies

Wondering how to kick off an interview with a user? Get them to draw a picture.

This month we’ve been trying out the cognitive mapping technique I picked up at UXLibs-in-2-days. In short: it’s brilliant and I want to do it as much as possible.

So far we’ve interviewed 16 students and staff, as part of our research towards creating user personas. While every conversation was fascinating, I thought the 9 we kicked off with this cognitive mapping exercise flowed much better than the ‘normal’ ones.

With their maps to focus on, some interviewees talked non-stop for more than 20 minutes, covering acres of our discussion guide with hardly any prompting. For the interviewer it was a real workout in active listening. For the note-taker it was just a real workout.

“Draw your digital life”. We saw a lot of conflicted feelings towards technology: both students and staff rely on it in so many ways, but they’re also stressed out by that reliance.

How we do it

Spring it on them, but nicely

As soon as the welcome, explanation, permission and reward are dealt with, we gleefully run our hands through a big colourful pile of Sharpies and ask ‘Do you like drawing?’

We wanted to see how the surprise would go down, so we didn’t tell our interviewees about the drawing bit in advance.

Some people’s faces lit up, others looked sheepish or claimed to be rubbish at drawing, but no-one even came close to refusing. When asked to ‘draw your digital life’, every one of them starting scribbling immediately. At least 3 even stuck out their tongues in concentration — it was delightful.

Extract the map

  1. Give interviewee a stack of blank paper and a black pen.
  2. Choose two more pens in contrasting colours dark enough to show up in a scan, and keep these to one side.
  3. Tell them: ‘You’ve got 6 minutes to draw [concept]. Just doodle whatever that means to you, you can’t get it wrong. Include anything you want: objects, people, shapes, scribbles, even a few words if you need to label something you’ve drawn. You’ll be using these three pens and you get two minutes with each pen. I’ll hand you a new pen when it’s time to switch. Ready? Go!’
  4. Start a silent timer, shut up, and try to be inconspicuous.
  5. After 2 minutes, and again after 4 minutes, gently take the pen they’re using and give them the next one.
  6. Tell them when they’ve got 20 seconds left.
  7. If they’re still scribbling at 6 minutes, give them a few more seconds to finish what they’re doing.
‘Draw your digital life”. It’s fine if they don’t want to take the full 6 minutes: 2 of our participants declared themselves finished before they even got their second pen, but their maps still fuelled great conversations.

Use the map to navigate the interview

Once the pens are capped, thank the interviewee for being up for it and ask them if they’d like to explain what they’ve drawn.

As they talk, prompt for extra details when needed but don’t try to guide them at all. If they skip over part of the drawing then go back to it at the end with a simple “What’s this bit?” Don’t speculate - let everything be in their words.

The UXLibs method also suggests asking whether they’d draw it differently if they did it again, and if so how, but we haven’t tried that yet.

Knowing there’s a chance we’ll want to use the drawings later, for example to illustrate fascinating blog posts, we get explicit permission for that before they go.

‘Draw your digital life’. Students and staff from overseas placed a lot of emphasis on using technology to maintain relationships with friends and family.

Why 3 pens? And why 2 minutes per pen?

This helps us understand the participant’s priorities and thought processes.

Whatever came into their head first is likely to be the most central, fundamental thing they associate with the concept. We can see what that is because it’s drawn in black.

If they had any last minute flurries of inspiration on hearing there were only 20 seconds left, these will be drawn in the third colour.

And the ways the 3 colours overlap — or don’t — hints at how they went about breaking the concept down in their head. Once we know whether they were thinking chronologically, in categories, or simply scattergunning, we can tailor our questions appropriately.

‘Draw your digital life’. With just seconds of planning, this interviewee neatly segmented their map into gadgets, pros and cons. Lots more evidence of conflicted feelings too.

When to use cogmaps

Yes, that’s what I’m calling them now.

As well as in user interviews, I can see this technique working in many different contexts, and for all kinds of concepts…

  • Guerilla testing: Found a group of people willing to do a quick test, but only got one iPad? No problem, break out the pens! While one of them taps and scrolls, the others can draw.
  • Pop-ups events: Get really spontaneous cogmaps from random passers-by.
  • Workshops: Make cogmaps do double duty as a method for gathering qualitative data AND an icebreaker that’s actually interesting: get people to draw individually then share and compare in pairs or small groups.


Cogmaps rock, and we’ll be using and promoting the technique a lot.

BTW, best to avoid calling it ‘cognitive mapping’ during the interview. It’s a weird and daunting term that reminds me too much of the rat mazes of the concept’s inventor. We just call it drawing, doodling, a way to find out what and how our people think.

University of Glasgow students and staff: join the MyGlasgow User Panel to be the first to hear about opportunities to take part in our research.