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3 Intentional Exercises to Become a More Creative Researcher

Use these techniques to break out of a research rut and generate compelling insights from your next study.

Words by Beant K. Dhillon, Visuals by Allison Corr

What are the three to five words that come to your mind when you think of creativity?

When I ask this question in my webinars or workshops, people often mention words like "innovative", "new" ,"useful."

But these are only a part of the story. At the root of the word creativity, is the word create—which means to bring into being. To be creative, we first need to create. This is true for whichever area you want to be creative in—be it user research, art, cooking, or gardening.

Here are three approaches for nurturing and facilitating your creative thinking with examples from user research.

  1. Create often—and always create more than one idea
  2. Have fun by connecting unrelated ideas
  3. Use questions to unlock your creativity

1. Always create more than one idea or solution

Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel laureate, said,“The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”

When solving problems, we often settle on our default solution, or the first good solution we find. In this, we possibly miss out on a lot of fun, new perspectives, and opportunities. In contrast, creative thinking is about exploring the many "happily-ever-afters" rather than chasing after the "right" answer.

Exploring multiple ideas helps us understand the problem and solution space better, opens up our mind, and can make us feel less stressed. Also, the more ideas we create or try out, the more novel our ideas.

Example: Many ways of presenting a customer journey

We were going to present the results of a study where we had mapped a customer journey based on diary studies and interviews.

The default way of presenting the insights would be walking the team through the customer journey by presenting it from a report or deck.

After I had written down my default answer, I asked myself: What else could we do? Here are some of the possibilities that came to mind:

  • Print out the journey on a poster and walk the team through that journey.
  • Garden of insights: Create a "garden of insights" with an audio guide where people can physically walk through the journey and interact with the audio and video snippets for different stages.
  • Play bingo: Present a short list of high-level themes from the journey. When presenting the detailed insights, people will shout out "Bingo" when they recognize a theme from the high-level list. The winner gets a small reward.
  • Send around a video or a series of mini-podcasts of the presentation or a documentary.
  • Create an "interactive" journey: physical or digital where people can press on the different buttons or scan QR codes and listen to/see artifacts, summaries, and videos for that step/insight.
  • Invite people to coffee and Q&A sessions on the journey.

Why should we think about more than one solution?

This was a delightful way to exercise my creative muscles. Whether these ideas are feasible or not is the next step—but just listing them out already has advantages:

✔ Consider a variety of experiences

This experience revealed that it's possible to create different types of experiences during this presentation: pleasurable, memorable, engaging, healthy, multi-modal, asynchronous (not limited to a specific time slot and my availability), and easy to follow up on.

✔ Cater to different audiences

Brainstorming more than one solution also made it clear that for different audiences, I want different outcomes. My presentation style to each set of the audience should be guided by the outcomes I want.

✔ Save ideas for a rainy day

Lastly, even if I don't use any of these ideas for this study, now there's a basket of ideas for a future presentation already. Being creative is like being in a time machine; you might get the answers before the questions.

This is how thinking beyond the “first good idea” enables joyful ways of thinking. It makes our world bigger to create often and a lot. Wherever you want to be creative, think of more than one idea for the problem or project you're working on right now.

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2. Connect unrelated ideas

Connecting unrelated ideas is a core technique for channeling your creativity.

You can combine unrelated things in different ways: replace a part of something with something else, or adapt something to a new context and use it for new purposes.

Such combinations can give us fresh insights and perspectives, and help create innovative solutions. Within my Creative UXR course, user researchers have combined fun ideas like:

  • How an executive summary is like a coffee: Short, sweet (contains positive findings), and strong (impactful with clear follow-up actions).
  • How designing an interface is like cooking: Same ingredients can be used to create different recipes, and user research can be like tasting and adjusting.

Another example of blending: combining love letters or breakup letters with user research. I came across this example in the excellent book The Umami Strategy: Stand Out by Mixing Business with Experience Design by Aga Szostek.

Aga writes about a consultancy, Smart Design, which asks customers to write a love letter—or a breakup letter—to a product, service, or brand based on their real-life interactions and experiences.

Aga got inspired by this idea and adapted it for user research to inform the strategy of Play, a Telecom company. Here's how she describes their study:

"We asked first 600 and then 1,000 customers to think of a brand/product/service they loved and they disliked. We then asked them to write a divorce letter to the disliked brand and a love letter to the brand they admired, and to score these two brands on a scale from 1 to 10. In this way, we had a benchmark for the perception of the loved and the disliked brands.

We then asked about Play. Once more, participants were invited to write a divorce letter, a warning letter, or a love letter, together with a word of mouth story they shared with others, and then score the brand on the scale from 1 to 10. In this way, we could see whether it was evoking emotions and what kind of emotions they were.

We ended by asking customers to associate the emotion they felt using the Plutchik Wheel of Emotions. The collected stories helped to reshape the company's strategy. They showed where the company was doing well and where it was failing."

Aga Szóstek, PhD and strategic designer

I love this example because I can imagine that it's fun not just for the researchers, but also for the customers. This exercise reveals our emotional relationships with the products, brands, and services we use.

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3. Use questions to unlock your creativity

Albert Einstein once said: "Once I know the proper question I could solve the problem in less than five minutes."

Our questions define the landscape where we search for our answers—like shining a torch in the corner of a dark room. The way we frame our problem defines the solutions we find.

Here's an example that Colette Kolenda from Spotify shared at the UXinsight festival. Colette and her team use their data collection and analysis to determine compelling and creative ways to share their insights. They consider the following three questions to guide their creative thinking:

✔ What's unique about the data we're collecting?

In a study, the researchers used eye-tracking glasses to record videos from the participants’ point of view while they were listening to Spotify. They also recorded the soundtrack being listened to.

To share this unique perspective of stepping into the participants’ world, they built a website with video clips from the study. Through the clips, the viewers could "see and hear" what the users were seeing and listening to.

✔ How can we expose others to the richness of the analysis?

When analyzing data, Kolenda's team asks this question. For another study, they collected pictures, quotes, lots of video data, and graphs and charts with trends and behavioral data. To expose the abundant and rich evidence to their stakeholders and wider teams, they designed a museum.

✔ How can stakeholders interact with our insights so that they can be memorable?

This is a great question to ask once you're in the phase of preparing to share findings. Check out seven ways to ensure your research insights are heard and acted upon. Catering to your audience, making the insights fun, and using supporting evidence are all great places to start.

In summary, to be creative in user research...

  • Always create more than one solution or idea for whatever you are working on—a user research method, presenting, recruitment, etc.
  • Have fun by connecting unrelated ideas with your user research, and you'll stumble on surprising insights and solutions.
  • Finally, pay attention to your questions and use them to guide your creative thinking.

What steps do you take to break out of the box and make research interesting and engaging for your team? Let us know in the People Nerds Slack community!

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Beant is the founder of altUXR ( and a Sr. User Research Consultant with more than a decade of experience. She is also a writer and an artist. To stay informed on her workshops and courses, you can sign up for her inspiring emails here or follow her on LinkedIn.

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