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Bring Out the Best Responses from Research Participants with Literary Devices

Use these tactics to re-engage your participants, uncover fresh perspectives, and introduce a new angle to explore during analysis.

Words by Sumaya Mohamed, Hannah Muscara, Emma Davis Pakrasi, and Kris Kopac, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Personification. Analogy. Imagery. These are all powerful literary devices you may remember learning about in English class—or you tried to forget about long ago.

The greatest authors understood how to use these literary devices as tools to strengthen their stories and leave a lasting mark on readers.

Similarly—whether you're a user researcher, designer, product lead, or something in between—you, too, can massively benefit from the creative boost of literary devices.

By applying some of the ideas and principles below, you'll have the ability to ask more rigorous questions and get more out of your studies.

Applying literary devices to research questions will help you…

  • Boost completes, helping with your research budget

  • Increase response quality, supporting your research ROI

  • Respect participants' time, strengthening your relationships

As great writer Sylvia Plath put it, "The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt." These examples will leave you feeling confident and ready to try new approaches. Let’s get started!

Jump to…


What it is

Personification is attributing a human or living quality or characteristic to something that is not necessarily sentient, such as an idea or an object.

By bringing an object to life, we’re able to connect with it more deeply. In many cases, personification also allows us to simplify otherwise abstract and complicated ideas.

In research, using personification can open up the minds of our participants and help them tap into their imaginations.

By giving an inanimate object or a brand a living quality, participants can relate to it, truly making your research more human. When you allow participants to personify your object or brand, they can better articulate the characteristics and feelings they have.

When to use it

✔ Places and spaces

Places and spaces studies help you to capture a user’s experience or moment in a natural setting.

Get a better sense of where the user might see this product or service “coming to life”—whether that is a physical or digital location.

Learning how a product or service fits into our users' everyday lives gives us context into why they have a certain judgment or take action the way they do.

Example: If you were going to take this product or service out on a date, where would you go? What would you do, and why?

✔ Ideation and co-creation

Ideation and co-creation studies can give you insight into what worked well for users in the past, in addition to spotlighting features they hope to see in products or services they’ll use in the future.

Work directly with your audience to understand how your users relate to your product or service. Why wouldn’t you want the people who will bring you the most usage and engagement to tell you what they want?

Example: Imagine this app is your best friend, but they haven’t been acting like a good friend lately. What would you ask them to do differently or change, to be a better friend to you? Why is that?

✔ Personas and segmentation

Personas and segmentation studies help you to establish group traits and represent different types of users.

Establish, validate, or learn more about the groups within your audience by understanding how your users feel about your product, brand, or service. What can this tell you about your user-base?

Example: Think about [product/service] as if it was a person. Which famous person, or type of person comes to mind that captures [product/service]’s personality, image, or impression you get of this brand and why? Please be as descriptive as possible and explain why you feel this way.

✔ In the wild

In-the-wild studies help you to observe real-world usage in the most natural environment possible.

Find out the relationship users have with your product, brand, or service by seeing how a product works out or is used in people’s real, everyday lives.

Example: If you had to put a label on your relationship with this product or service, what would it be? Dating? It’s complicated? Divorced? Why?

Additional sample questions using personification

  • Start by imagining someone who you’re sure uses X. Picture them in your mind, thinking about what they’re like and what they use X for.

  • If [product/service] was a person in your life, who would they be? Why?

  • If [product/service] were a fictional character, who would they be? Why?

  • If you and this [product/service] were a celebrity couple, who would you be? Why?

  • If [product/service] were a person, how would they look? Why?

  • What three words describe this app’s “vibe” or “personality”? These words should be descriptive of what this app is like from your perspective.

  • If this [product/service] had an astrological sign, what would it be? Why?

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What it is

An analogy is a comparison between two things, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification.

By asking participants to compare your product, service, or experience to something else, you can gain insight into their mental models and impressions.

Using analogies can encourage participants to think about their experiences and opinions in more creative ways. Take advantage of widely understood items and dynamics.

Some examples:

  • Solar systems

  • Relationships

  • Movie characters

  • Sandwiches

These familiar comparisons will help your participants better understand your concepts of your products, the features within it, and the contexts they exist within.

When to use it

✔ General exploration

General exploration studies help you gain a foundational understanding of your user/audience.

When seeking to understand your customer and where you should focus your team’s efforts, use analogy to gain a deeper understanding of your participants’ relationship with your products.

Example: If you and this product/service were a celebrity couple, what couple would you be and why? What is your relationship like?

✔ Product discovery

Product discovery studies are projects designed to help you develop new ideas for your product by understanding current user experiences, gaps in understanding, and their wishes.

When looking to generate new ideas for your product, ask participants to compare their experience to another aspect of their life to better understand their current and ideal user experience.

Example: If this product/service were a tool in your kitchen, which would it be? Why? Is it a tool you use every day and can’t live without? A specialty tool for a very specific task?

✔ Competitive analysis

Competitive analysis studies help you compare your product/service to others in your space.

When you want to learn more about your product and how it stacks up against the others, ask participants to relate your product (as well as your competitors) to other real aspects of their lives.

Example: If this product/service were a pair of shoes, what shoes would they be? Why?

If this product/service's competitor were a pair of shoes, what shoes would they be? Why?

When would you choose each pair of shoes over the other?

Additional sample questions using analogy

Imagine that the product or service is a whole “world” or ecosystem.

  • Who lives in this world?

  • Who are the “inhabitants” and what are they like? Why? Who are they to you?

  • Why do you visit this world/ecosystem, and why do you leave?

  • What does it feel like in this world? What is the vibe or culture like? Why?

Imagine your experience is a sandwich.

  • What aspect is the bread? What holds the whole thing together?

  • What aspect is the sauce? What gives the experience flavor?

SAT analogies: __ is to ___ as ___ is to ____

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What it is

Imagery is the use of symbols, metaphors, or imagery to uncover deeper meanings, emotions, and insights.

Incorporate imagery into research methods such as usability testing, user interviews, and surveys.

This can:

  • Lead to richer and more comprehensive insights

  • Provide a deeper understanding of user experiences

  • Make the research process more engaging for participants

  • Ultimately result in better-designed and more user-friendly products and experiences

When to use it

✔ General exploration

Gain a better understanding of user feelings, behaviors, needs, and experiences through the use of imagery.

Example: Share a selfie that shows us how this makes you feel!

✔ Ideation and co-creation

Incorporate photos and videos to help users visualize and share their ideas effectively.

Example: Pen and paper activities. Now, grab your paper and pen/marker to get started! We want to see what this process looks like. On your piece of paper, draw or indicate each step of [process]. You can draw a picture for each step, or list and describe each step on a timeline or "map." Be creative! Just make sure you illustrate each step of the process for us in as much detail as possible.

✔ Journey mapping

Journey mapping studies help you understand the user’s journey through your product, or through a process your product might help with.

Visual representations help team members and stakeholders better empathize with users, identify pain points, and prioritize improvements in the user journey.


  • Share a photo that shows us what is going on around you at this moment.

  • Share a selfie photo that shows us how you feel at this moment.

  • Which emoji best represents how you felt after this moment? (Alternative: in this moment)

Additional sample questions using imagery

  • Share a selfie that shows us how this makes you feel!

  • Share a photo that represents how you feel at this moment.

  • Share a photo that shows us what is going on around you at this moment.

  • Which emoji best represents how you felt after this moment? (Alternative: in this moment)

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Parting thoughts

Literary devices aren’t only useful to English majors.

By leveraging specific literary techniques, you can transform complex concepts into relatable and compelling narratives. Spark new ideas and supercharge your research response quality—all while making a project more fun for participants!

These creative structures in your research design allow you to discover new insights and unlock innovative solutions that you may have overlooked with traditional questioning methods.

Literary devices can also help participants better understand your research objectives. By translating complex research questions into familiar concepts like analogies or metaphors, you can make research more engaging for participants—enabling them to provide meaningful insights.

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Get quality insights every time with dscout

Give these literary devices a try with a panel of over 100,000 engaged, quality participants.

Whether you're focused on usability testing, competitive analysis, journey mapping, or a variety of initiatives—we've got you covered. Learn how dscout can support all of your research goals in one platform. Schedule a demo today to see how we can help you scale your research practice.

Interested in more articles like this? Check out…

Emma, Sumaya, and Hannah are all members of dscout's customer experience and research (CXR) team.

Kris is a content creator and editor based in Chicago.

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