It’s not unusual to hear new clients quote Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The sentiment is that consumers cannot see the future, and it’s up to businesses to define their future visions with authority.
While I would never ask consumers to define an organization’s next innovative product concept, consumers absolutely can see futures—their futures! And collectively, their future visions are very powerful portals for human-centered design and innovation.
Welcome to Participatory Visioning Research, a research method that guides consumers to express and articulate their future visions in collaboration and connection with an organization.
The what and why of Participatory Visioning Research
No, the focus isn’t on generating concepts. The focus is on depicting change in your category: healthcare, transportation, apparel, architecture, cryptocurrency, or whatever it may be. By understanding consumers’ visions for change in that area, we learn about their aspirations, hopes, and desires. From there, we can identify the gaps in the current state and the whitespace for innovation that matters to people on very deep, fundamental levels.
For example, in the space of finance, we might learn through Participatory Visioning Research that there is a significant desire to move towards an ethical investing future that prioritizes local communities and impacts. We can learn why the system falls short of that today, and how folks are trying to move in that direction with their personal choices. Those collective visions and associated insights inspire us to generate new financial service concepts aligned with future values, if and where possible.
By visioning together, we also invite more voices and more lived experiences into our visioning process. As an organization, we’re limited by the perspectives of our innovation team, right? Whose utopia are we building towards? Is it too singular? Too techno-centric? These are some of the traps into which organizations can easily fall.
When we choose Participatory Visioning, we seek a broad range of views on future change. This is more ethical and equitable for our end-design outcomes, more inspiring for our team members, and smarter for business—helping us check our blind spots while expanding our view.
Innovation Consultant, MADO
I developed my approach to Participatory Visioning as a Researcher and Creative Director at Ziba Design and in my practice at MADO, a Foresight consultancy—often in collaboration with SuperDeep Studio. I’ve led Participatory Visioning Research on the topics of food, home, wellness, sustainability, sportswear, and more.
In conversations with other design leaders and researchers, I see more of this type of research being utilized across organizations and industries. Here, I’d like to share my learnings on how to approach this type of research and why I’ve found it so valuable for design.
How to conduct it
✔ Be a time travel guide
Different from traditional insights—which may focus on today’s ideas, values, and behaviors—Participatory Visioning asks participants to move through future timelines regarding a specific topic.
For example: Let’s imagine what healthcare might look and feel like in the year 2040.
The good news: Anyone can think about the future. As Maree Conway put it, “The capacity to imagine the future and to locate ourselves in those futures is as innate and subconscious as remembering the past. It is a primary human capacity.”
The bad news: Practically, it requires a bit of setup to get participants into the mindset and firing up that frontal lobe which is responsible for future thinking.
Here are some examples of what you could do to guide folks into a time-traveling space.
- Create a five minute introductory time-travel meditation exercise to get participants into a free, open mindset. Introduce year marks or milestones. Encourage closing eyes and prompt them to think about different aspects of their life and how they’ve changed.
- Provide a simple written or visual timeline framework. Ask participants to write down some hypothetical world events that may unfold across those years to help set the stage that we’re in an unknown/all-is-possible conversation space.
- Share some tangential foresight research your team may have uncovered that gives participants something to respond to and reflect on in their visions. For instance: Our research shows that by 2040, 10% of households may have personal robots, and AI could be designing 25% of our cities.
✔ Flood the space with stimulus
The goal of Participatory Visioning Research is to understand future trajectories that are of interest to people. It’s not to gain specific intelligence, quantitative data, or detailed product ideas. It’s thematic. It’s directional. It’s illustrative. It’s very qualitative. Visioning is expansive and so should be our toolkit.
In order to aid this process for participants, we want to fill the research space, physically or digitally, with a wide range of creative stimuli. This supports each participant’s articulation of their vision within the short time they’re dedicating to your research session.
Here are some approaches to providing stimulus to encourage deep visioning:
- Create an extensive image bank that includes a spectrum of images in color tone (bright/dark), scale (regional/interpersonal/macro), and graphic symbolism (energies/structures/etc).
- Create a word bank that includes a spectrum of language from everyday to extraordinary and from specific to broad.
- Provide physical props and materials with a wide range of unusual shapes, textures, and colors that participants can assign new/future meanings to.
✔ Encourage collaboration
Participatory Visioning Research provides value not only through individual vision outcomes but through the process of participating in collective visioning conversations. The act of thinking through future ideals together is a powerful one that draws out tensions, assumptions, and shared interests.
Collaboration creates stronger, more resilient futures thinking. This is true at an organizational level and within the small research groups. We want to harness that collective perspective and help our participants feel the value of that engagement and dialogue.
These are some ways in which to encourage collaborative, participatory visioning:
- Give participants ample time to develop their independent future visions, and then introduce a participatory activity.
- Ask participants to build on each other's visions with the “Yes, and…” construct. What else do you see as a potential part of this vision? What shared interests are exposed?
- Recruit participants with an existing relationship or association and ask them to build a vision together for their place of work, community, etc.
- Bring your brand/organization into the conversation. Allow participants to express their visions for their evolving relationship with your organization over time. Share and gather feedback on a current organizational vision.
✔ Get to the why
Participatory Visioning Research isn’t necessarily about the end vision results. And we don’t expect participants to craft our organizational vision for us. Like all research, it’s about the why. Why are these visions important to people? Why do they drive us? And why do people see their visions as drastically better than today?
By understanding the why behind participants’ visions, we unlock insights around latent needs that exist today, and perceptions and associations with future themes of progress. For instance, only through a deep “why” discussion did I learn that consumers had a very different interpretation of a keyword that my client was using heavily in its internal innovation vision. This allowed us to re-think not just our language, but the fundamental direction of our innovation efforts to be more human-centric.
Here are some simple ways to unpack the why behind visioning:
- Use a mad libs format for a vision statement that includes an explanatory narrative. “In 2040, I see a self-care future that is ________________. This vision inspires me because __________________.”
- If participants present/share their visions, simply ask a few follow-up questions like “Why is this vision important to you?” or “Talk about why this feels different from today’s world, to you.”
- Do a short implication activity. If this vision comes true, then what might be possible? Ask other group members to answer and encourage a back and forth discussion.
✔ Break future-state biases
So you’ve conducted the research. The results are in, and they’re full of rich, qualitative, visionary information. Now, what does the organization really need to know? I often find that the most valuable outcome of this type of research is that it keeps internal organizational biases in check when teams need to strategize for the future.
For example, one home appliance client team of mine was very focused on a mechanical innovation concept they had heavily invested in for their future. But Participatory Visioning Research across 20+ consumers and two countries revealed a stronger interest in home futures with new social dynamics—putting a number of new social-based form factor designs at the top of the agenda.
Here are some tips for breaking biases about the future:
- Share the breadth of individual vision outcomes to demonstrate how dynamic and diverse future aspirations are.
- Share collective synthesis of major vision themes and directions, clearly noting the overlaps and misalignments with internal thinking.
- Bring in secondary trend research to support the market validity of newly revealed directions from participants.
✔ Generate ideas in vision value spaces
One of my favorite reasons to conduct Participatory Visioning Research is that it is hugely generative for design teams. We have all of these rich descriptions and associations of the future state through various mediums—visuals, words, props. And we have a deep, human understanding of the emotions and values behind these visions. All of these outcomes are fertile ground for ideation.
Whether your team is defining entirely new innovation spaces, one new hero product, or a few new features, this research can be applied in that divergent phase to really open the landscape and populate unexpected solutions.
These are a few ways in which I’ve kicked off ideation:
- Hand select individual visions that are especially divergent to brainstorm off of. Give credit to and celebrate the participant author(s).
- Use a “What if….” framework with participants' vision statements to get ideas flowing.
- Play “artifact from the future” and have designers build rough prototypes to fit participants' visions. Extra bonus points for re-engaging the participants to talk through the prototypes and evolved visions.
Participatory Visioning Research is a unique style of research that yields great bias-breaking power for innovation-minded teams. In this article, I have included just a few of my learnings on how to approach this work and unlock value for business and design. I believe that we’re just getting started with this methodology, and hope more teams feel comfortable trying it out.
Jaclyn Suzuki is a Design Strategy leader specializing in Foresight Research and Innovation activation. She has been a Creative Director and Researcher at Ziba Design, a speaker on Gen Z at SXSW, and a cultural trend analyst in Tokyo. Jaclyn currently co-leads futures research studio MADO and organizes the Speculative Futures chapter in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on LinkedIn.