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How to use creative thinking in user research

The power of creativity.
6 November 2022
Beant Kaur Dhillon
Tia Alisha

What is essential for creativity?

When I ask this question in my webinars or workshops, people often mention things like “creating novel connections or ideas”, or “trying new things”. And these are indeed great ways to nurture creativity. But one of the biggest factors contributing to creativity is the questions we ask.  Like Albert Einstein said, “Once I know the proper question I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” 

Our questions determine where we look for answers, so they determine the answers we will find too. Since creativity requires us to walk in new areas for unusual insights, our questions can help propel us toward areas that are unusual for us or for the problem at hand.  

Today, I want to share three examples of how questions help us think of creative approaches in user research and an exercise where you can brainstorm questions for your problem. Let's get started.

Brainstorm with stakeholders to arrive at a clear research question

A clear and well-defined research question is essential to conducting a meaningful and impactful study. So when a team of user researchers got an initial brief where they were asked, “Can you do user research around accessibility for our website?” they found this brief to be too broad.

Instead of going to their desk and formulating different research questions on their own, they decided to brainstorm with their team. They asked, “If you have the all-knowing user here and they could answer any of your questions, what would you ask them about this topic?”

This question helped the researchers see what their team actually wanted to know and where the gaps in their knowledge were. So they all brainstormed together and eventually arrived at a much better defined research question: “For whom does the product team need to create accessible design?”  

In this way, questions can be like Russian Dolls, they can be hidden inside one another and we can use one question to uncover new ones.

Using a question to develop a creative user research approach

Questions can help us arrive at new and creative user research approaches. For example, consultancy twig and fish used a question to transform their user research approach.

Normally when we design interview scripts we focus on, “What should I ask? What’s the best way to ask this question?,” etcetera.

These are valid questions, but once in a while we should ask questions that make us think beyond the script and make us question the study approach itself. Like the team members at twig and fish who observed that some people were not able to open up during studies or were likely to forget things. And this is human. To address this problem they asked themselves, “How do we enable people to recall their experiences and to help them open up during the study?”

This brought them to a new approach for conducting interviews. They used an activity as a “hook” into the conversation with people. For example, they would start the interview by asking people to fill in an empathy map around the topic of the interview. Once the participant had filled the map, they would walk the researchers through their map. This led to better data collection in multiple ways:

  • It gave people the time to collect their thoughts and to feel comfortable with being in a study

  • Also, it empowered the participants when they were leading the conversation instead of being led by the researchers’ script

Using a question to change the way we share insights

We were going to present the results of a study where we had collected a lot of data on end-to-end workflow—almost a three- to four-meter long poster, with lots of details. We knew that people from higher management would be attending the presentation as well as designers who would use the insights. The people from the other teams or higher management would not stay until the end. And yet, they would be essential for prioritizing the design work. How could we present the findings impactfully?

To synthesize everything we had found, we asked, “If we had only five minutes, what would we say so that the team still knows what to follow up on?”

We considered many different ideas for presentation of study results, for example, creating a garden of insights that people could walk through, playing bingo, recording mini-podcasts. As an aside, generating multiple ideas is another key ingredient for creativity.

Eventually we selected the BLUF (Bottom Line Upfront) principle which says that we should communicate the bottomline of the information at the beginning, so that if anybody stops reading or listening midway, they still get the most important information within the first few minutes. 

We created a five minute summary of the results with three main topics and one example each, and these key examples showed the gist of the whole study. This might seem like a simple approach, but often simple solutions can be incredibly powerful. 

After the presentation, my design colleagues told me that this was one of the best user research presentations they had been a part of. And later, I came to know that the study results were being used even one year after we completed the project. Like I said, simplicity is intertwined with creativity.

Ten question exercise to arrive at multiple questions

If you want to explore your problem space, here’s an exercise I created for you. It is called the “10Qs exercise” and it is inspired by the words of one of my writing teachers Giulietta “Julie” Nardone, who says, “There’s one rule that comedians use: The Power of 10. For some reason, it takes 10 attempts at anything to come up with something good. Push yourself to come up with 10 of everything...the first nine ideas are cliche. But the tenth ones and the ones after that cross into brilliance. The creative mind needs to be pushed and the only way to do that is to keep going.”

The goal of this exercise is to (re)frame the problem you are working on in at least 10 ways.  This will help you uncover new perspectives and sometimes may even turn your questions around completely.

  1. Select any problem from work or life. For example, something you or people around you complain about often or a problem that keeps recurring, or a problem you have been procrastinating over, a research question, the goal of your next or last study, or the goal of your next presentation.  

  2. Now try 10 or more different formulations of your problem in two minutes, all in one sitting. Do it quickly because working fast makes you let go and produce novel ideas. You can use the following prompts to get started:

    • At first glance, I think the problem is…

    • But what I really want to find out is…

    • It would be funny if I ask…

In summary, the way we frame a problem or the way we ask questions determines where we look for answers. And questions can lead us to creative ways of determining the research questions, new study approaches, and change the way we engage with our stakeholders. So take the time to explore the problem landscape before settling on a solution, it will bring you to interesting destinations.

  • Questions are key to creative thinking and in user research questions can help us think of new study approaches, better ways of communication, and articulate clearer research questions

  • Always begin a problem by first brainstorming on the nature of the problem you are trying to solve. You can use the 10Qs exercises for that

  • Finally, I leave you with the words of Keith Sawyer, a creativity researcher, who says, “Mastering [questions for creativity] means you’re always looking for good problems, always seeking new inspiration. You know where you’re going, and yet you’re receptive to questions that emerge unexpectedly”

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