1. Talk to humans like a human
People being treated like “research subjects” are more likely to give you answers like “research subjects.” People you talk to like people will respond in kind.
So if you’re seeking candid, honest feedback about an experience—write in a candid, rapport-building tone.
For example, at dscout, we use language designed to be engaging for humans. We call participating in a research project accepting a “mission.” We ask for “entries” instead of “responses.” We call our participants not “scouts,” not “subjects”—and we work to be as warm and conversational with them as possible.
The key is to remember: you want a collaborative conversation, not a basic input. When you’re a fun conversation partner, you’ll spur better engagement and, ultimately, improve the quality of responses.
2. For creative results, look for creative people
Generally, Stefani’s team selects the top 20% of screened participants for a project. But after you narrow by demographic information—how do you know who’s best equipped to be a good fit?
Let’s go back to that original (absurd) question: “What would you do if you saw an elephant in your backyard?”
Here are two answers we’ve seen:
“Well first I’d try to figure out how it got there, and whose it was. And I’d probably look up who I can call to get it out of my backyard, before it destroys my house.”
“Well, I have a lake in my backyard, which would camouflage the elephant pretty well. I’d just have to make sure it stayed low enough so that only the head sticks out—and then from a distance, it’d look like a stump.
I’m pretty sure I could turn this into a business opportunity. I’d learn how to communicate with the elephant via snorts and stomps—and I’d feed it lettuce to reward it. I’d start seeing if I could train it to get give elephant rides.
I know all of this would be illegal, so I’d have to do it sort of 'underground.' The whole thing would be word-of-mouth only."
3. Frame your questions wisely
Say your client is a beverage company interested in learning about when people drink water. Which diary study framework will you learn more from?
A. Asking people to log and tell you about every time they drink water throughout the day.
B. Asking people to log and tell you about every time they do something to be refreshed.
How about if you’re working for Jeep, and want to better understand your customer voice.
Would you ask…
A. What people like about their car, and why or why not a Jeep might appeal to them?
B. What they think about when they think about freedom, passion, and adventure—the core tenets of Jeep’s brand?
In both of these cases, focusing on A is like focusing on a tree and missing the rest of the forest. Framework B is designed to reveal the larger, contextual question at hand.
4. Set aside surveys
You’ve run surveys. Or someone at your company before you has run a survey. And it’s almost certain that any participant who engages with you in a study has taken a mountain of surveys.
Surveys are easy ways to collect quick inputs at scale, but they’re not often the best framework for a qualitative research question.
Here’s a standard methodology for choosing a value proposition:
You write a survey. Potential value propositions are presented, in rapid succession, as static text. Participants are asked to respond as to whether each one resonates.
It’s a specific input—but it’s a flat input. And it may or may not hold up in the real world.
Here’s a better way to design the same question outside of a survey for a more meaningful yield:
Create an online store selling multiple types of water bottles. Give each water bottle a different value proposition—and let people “go shopping.” See what turns up in their cart. Ask them after checkout what made them interested in the bottle they selected over the others.
This matches the context of the product and offers a creative way for people to evaluate it. Just shifting the framework from “answer a question” to “take an action” or “solve a problem” can get you more varied, and more accurate, results.
5. Make your research stimuli physical
If you do your research right, your participants might just build your products for you.
For example: Stefani’s team wanted to know what an ideal screen would look like for a user.
Instead of just asking directly, they sent participants transparencies, sticky notes, and a permanent marker—and had them draw the environment they’d like to see. Participants recorded their interactions throughout the process—co-creating the product, and sharing step-by-step insight into what mattered to them in a build.
There are countless ways to have your participants engage with physical stimulus. Give them something to place in their home, and have them record how they interact with it. Have them draw out a journey map, in a way that makes sense to them. If a concept needs redesigning, send them the parts, then ask them to create their own version and explain it.
The goal isn't artistic masterpieces; it’s to see participant priorities revealed—and to learn what aspects of your offering sparks interest and engagement.
6. Make use of mental props
Your props don’t have to just be physical. Start with what you want your product, service, or experience to do—and then create a “world” to stroke that feeling.
For example—if you’re trying to evaluate a person’s day-to-day needs, you can ask them: “What would’ve been useful to you today?”
Or, you can tell them: today, they get a “magic button.” They can press it a certain number of times—and it’ll give them exactly what they need. What will they press it for? When did they think to press it? Give them a “world”—or a possibility, and see how they interact with it.
You can also take the opposite tactic, by imposing constraints on your users. Tell them to cut social media. Or not eat out for a week. Or only use public transportation. Humans are wired to find solutions that solve problems—and what they (and therefore, you) uncover could become the next best feature of your product.
7. Make creative research a priority
If you need to persuade stakeholders that your nontraditional research routes will pay off, set the tone by laying out the reasons why creative research has a positive ROI.
A few tactics that we’ve found resonate:
- Explain how engaging your participants creatively improves retention rates—saving your team time and resources spent on sourcing additional recruits.
- Remind them that doing the same research the same way will only yield the same results. A creative approach cuts back on project redundancy.
- Showcase previous creative work by featuring any visually interesting deliverables that often result from creative research design. Show, then explain, the impact that unconventional tactics had on a former project’s success.
To sum it up: don't be boring
Sometimes insights that make the biggest impact result from the simplest questions.
But to get the most valuable outputs, even the simplest questions need to be framed in a stimulating way—whether that’s in how you word a prompt or design an activity.
Because no matter the risks of experimental studies—the risks of stale, standard, unoriginal research are higher. And when creative research design yields creative, rejuvenating results—your teammates, participants, and stakeholders will thank you for it.
Want more insights on and examples of making research more creative for better results? Stream Stefani’s webinar on-demand.
Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.