Testing Techniques Part 7: Collaging

Doodles make collages, saying "These are my innermost thoughts and dreams!" as a scientist Doodle looks on and takes notes.

Does the term “collaging” ring any bells for you, dear readers? From elementary school art class, perhaps? Maybe you pasted together images that represented who you were or what you wanted to become, and together they created a clearer picture than you could have communicated with words alone.

That’s also the idea behind collaging as a testing technique, and it’s something we get pretty excited about here at We ❤︎ Health Literacy Headquarters. Collaging is an innovative way to learn things that participants aren’t likely to come out and say.

According to Dr. Jerry Zaltman, who founded the technique at Harvard Business School (it’s also known as the Zaltman metaphor elicitation technique), collaging helps you learn what people don’t know they know. Because most of our thinking happens at the subconscious or unconscious level, images can help these hidden thoughts surface.

Collaging uses images to draw out participants’ values, emotions, and mental frameworks. It works best as a discovery or exploratory research activity — when you want to find out what people need or how they think about a particular topic. And since the focus is on images instead of words, it’s especially useful when working with people with limited literacy skills or who speak a different language than you.

You can do collaging as a one-on-one exercise or in a focus group setting. Here’s how it works:

  • Participants get a collection of images (all participants get the same ones).
  • The moderator asks participants to create a collage that represents their values, beliefs, and desires related to a particular topic.
  • After about 20 minutes, the participants share their collages and say what each image represents for them.

We see collaging as a win-win: The process can be super empowering for participants as they share stories and make connections about things they haven’t thought of before. And for researchers, it can reveal insights you never even knew to ask about. Yes, please!

The bottom line: When words aren’t quite getting you there, try collaging as a testing technique.