Skip to content

Stuck in a Research Rut? Infuse These Creative Solutions Into Your Routine

It's easy to get a little too comfortable with your tried-and-true methods. Here's how to mix things up and keep them fresh.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Nicky Mazur

For a long time, I ping-ponged between interviews and usability tests. I synthesized using the same tags, no matter what the study. I used the same report template and always followed a one-hour share-out format.

Now, none of this is inherently wrong. I talk about using templates—such as my research plan template—all the time to be more efficient and consistent with our work. I also recommend using a presentation framework rather than starting with a blank slate.

However, there are times when we can get stuck in a rut. I negated the creativity that is necessary for user research. And it showed. My day-to-day impact became uninspired, tired, and bored.

When I realized the boredom extended to my colleagues, I knew something had to change. So I pulled at the creative strings I used in other parts of my life and brought them into my user research process.

Why care about creativity?

As user researchers, we aren't trying to sell fiction novels or film a best-selling movie. We aren't painting pictures or spinning pottery on a wheel.

Or are we?

Before, I thought of my creativity as separate from my job. I used it in my fiction writing or when I dusted off my film camera. Not at work.

But creativity brings a lot to the table, such as:

  • Allowing us to think outside the box
  • Opening up conversations and collaboration
  • Encouraging innovative thinking
  • Bringing fun and excitement into a process
  • Allowing for different perspectives and approaches

All of these are essential for being great at our jobs and keeping ourselves happy during work. Unfortunately, I was burned out after non-stop usability tests and interviews. I couldn't stand to write another report and hold another shareout.

I wanted to do something different, to surprise myself and my colleagues. I wanted to approach problems differently, experiment, fail, iterate, and learn.

Bringing creativity into my process and permitting myself to do so helped immensely.

How to infuse creativity into your process

Now that I've sold you (hopefully!) on the importance of creativity, let's talk through how to get this great stuff into your day-to-day. Below are a few things I changed in my process to spark more creativity (and fun)!

Thinking and creativity time

I would argue this is the most crucial element of getting more creative. Unfortunately, creativity does not strike us when we sit in front of our computers, willing ourselves to do something imaginative or original.

Creativity comes when we are doing other things and often in downtime. For example, have you ever had the best idea in the shower? Or when you were walking? Or waking up in the middle of the night having to write down something that finally clicked in your mind?

I used to force creativity between meetings and heads-down time. I thought that if I was writing a report, I could channel creativity during that report writing. I should have known that wasn't the case.

Instead, I put creativity time in my calendar and still have it today. I have at least three hours of creativity and thinking time every week. It was hard to adjust to not doing anything during this time, but when I took the time to sit and think or take a walk, I immediately saw the benefits. Suddenly, that impossible research project became a possibility, or I had a new idea for generative research, or a new way to present results.

If you give yourself the time and space to think, you will unlock your creativity.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier
Founder, User Research Academy

Choosing and mixing methods

I don't only mean this in the mixed methods, qualitative and quantitative sense. Whenever I faced a research question or problem, I generally chose one or two methods: interviews with surveys or usability tests starting with a small discussion.

First, I looked at the problem from different angles and wrote down all the methods I could use to answer the question.

For example, one of my projects was understanding people's perceptions of booking leisure travel. So naturally, I would have jumped right into generative 1x1 interviews.

Instead, I sat with the research project and thought about everything I wanted to learn:

  • How do people get inspired to book leisure travel? (Or do they?)
  • Where do people get inspiration for booking leisure travel?
  • When do people book leisure travel?
  • Who do people book leisure travel with?
  • How do people book leisure travel?
  • How do people perceive the experience of booking leisure travel?
  • What considerations go into leisure booking travel?
  • What are the major pain points or frustrations when booking leisure travel? How do they manifest?

I could go on and on with questions, but I had to prioritize. So once I made a list, I sat with my team and asked them to help me prioritize the questions.

I told them we could choose three to five questions for the study. I made this activity more creative by giving them each a total of (fictional) $100 they could spend on the questions. The questions with the most amount of money were the winners.

We decided on:

  • How do people get inspired to book leisure travel? (Or do they?)
  • How do people book leisure travel?
  • How do people perceive the experience of booking leisure travel?
  • What considerations go into leisure booking travel?
  • What are the major pain points or frustrations when booking leisure travel? How do they manifest?

Armed with the prioritized list, I made a list of methodologies that could help me uncover the answers:

  • How do people get inspired to book leisure travel? (Or do they?) -> Run of post + survey
  • How do people book leisure travel? -> Walk-the-store interview
  • How do people perceive the experience of booking leisure travel? -> Journey mapping exercise
  • What considerations go into leisure booking travel? -> Walk-the-store interview + survey
  • What are the major pain points or frustrations when booking leisure travel? How do they manifest? -> Journey mapping exercise + survey

I ended with a fascinating mix of walk-the-store interviews, a journey mapping exercise, a survey, and a run of post. I then considered the budget, timeline, and my capacity for the project (including the priority of this particular project).

But, first, creativity. You still exercise your creativity even if you can't do everything you want.

Workshops and presentations

As I mentioned, I had the same presentation template and one-hour shareout after a study. And my colleagues got bored. It became predictable and uninspiring. As a result, more and more people declined the invitation and read the report later on their own.

I couldn't blame them. My presentation was me reading the report out. So why should people come to the meeting? When my manager asked me that question, I couldn't tell him why people should attend my meetings or workshops.

At first I felt defeated, but then I used some of my creative time to brainstorm new ways to approach these sessions.

I thought of how I could help stakeholders engage with my results for my presentations. So instead of reading out my presentation, I put in video clips, included activities, and created new ways of sharing.

For one of my shareouts, I made a usability bingo sheet. I put together a bunch of clips of usability fails during a study and printed bingo sheets with each of the fails. The first person to get bingo got a prize. People paid attention and were excited afterward to discuss the next steps.

Other ways I spiced up my presentations include:

  • Roleplaying scenarios of users: One stakeholder is the technology, and one stakeholder is the user trying to do something
  • Gallery night, where we have wine and cheese, and I hang up larger deliverables such as personas and journey maps
  • Creating storyboards or comics with common findings/scenarios
  • Making sure my insights were actionable

Instead of using the same ideation technique of everyone sketching and dot voting for my workshops, I mixed it up with other activities.

My favorites include:

  • Crazy 8s
  • Rating how well (or not) we support people during each stage of our journey
  • Roleplaying vision exercises of how users would describe the product in six months, one year, three years, etc.
  • Worst possible idea

Overall, one of the most important things you can do is give yourself the space and permission to get creative. Yes, we can follow the scientific method as much as possible and apply rigor to our craft, but user research is art. We need time to think, experiment, and have fun.

Put some space in your calendar and see what happens!

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest