an experiment using generative research
As opposed to evaluative research for an existing design, generative research helps you define the problem you’d like to design a solution for. To evaluate generative research techniques, I conducted a research activity on a 24 year-old female participant who lives in Austin, Texas. Detailed below are my questions for her and her responses.
The Research Activity
1. Close To You
There are 2 concentric circles on the page.  First, identify the "stuff" you cannot live without (5-6 items should be good) in the inner circle, closest to the icon of a person.  This "stuff" can truly be anything that comes to mind.  If you can draw a representation of it, or, as a last resort, just write it down on the page.  In the outer circle, identify the stuff (again, 5 or 6 items) that you care about but may not rise to the level of "can't live without" and do the same thing (drawing or write). 
In addition to what you placed in the circles, please give a very brief description of the item, if it's not obvious, and provide a VERY brief reason for why you either can't live without it or care about it so much.  You do not have to do this for every item, just the 2 or 3 in each circle that you want to tell us more about.
2. Digital Ecosystem
For this exercise, we would like to understand your digital or online world, especially in terms of how you receive news, information, updates, and other content.  Please indicate which of these digital and online sources you commonly use to get news, information, updates, or other content by drawing a line from the appropriate circle to the image of the person in the center. 
Next, if there are any sources that you use a lot more frequently than the others, please draw a second line from the appropriate circle to the image of the person in the center.
  If you use something that you believe does not fit well in the categories provided, describe what that is and how you use it in one of the corners of the document. 
Finally, for the 2 or 3 you use most often, please explain for what, how, and/or why you use that source.
3. Typical Weekday
Using the timeline towards the bottom half of the page, divide up your day from when you wake up until you go to sleep.  Please draw small lines intersecting this timeline at points where you transition from one part of your day to the next and please write some very brief description of that part of the day just above or right on the timeline.
  Next, browse through the categories of information/content that we have provided in the top half of the page and, for the information that you might receive or access during a typical weekday, draw a line from that category box to the appropriate place on the timeline for when you receive or access it.  If it makes it more visually clear which content you are drawing from, then circle or highlight the box - if it does not help, don't worry about doing that.
  Finally, look across your timeline and see if there are any parts of you day during which you seem to access a bit more information categories and, just below the timeline for that part of the day, provide a brief description of what is going on that time of day and why you are more likely to access this information then.  If there is anything else about your timeline and information accessed that you would like to describe, also provide that just below the timeline in the most appropriate place.
Summary of My Findings
From this research activity I was able to learn a substantial amount of valuable information about my participant. For instance, she defines her pets, hiking, coffee, her boyfriend, and music as things she "cannot live without". She "cares about" leisure time, travel, wine, HGTV, fashion, and the Spurs.
She believes that radio and podcasts are a significant part of her digital ecosystem. This is because she spends a considerable amount of time in traffic, and cannot access social media and other digital platforms while she is driving. Her other most used sources include web, and "online" friends.
Her typical weekday seems to align with the typical female graduate student. In the morning she listens to the news, the weather, and entertainment. Mid-day she's online shopping, listening to more news, and searching the web. In the evening she reserves time for homework and leisure, and is engaging with more web searches, entertainment, and art.
As a researcher, the most valuable information that I received from this activity is a combination of all three exercises, and the ability to draw connections between the three. For instance, she states that she cares about leisure time, and even in her typical weekday she makes time for leisure. She writes about listening to NPR radio when she drives, and clearly outlines the time in her weekday that she is in traffic. As a marketer, drawing connections between these exercises allows me to identify clear connections between what my participant cares about, her digital ecosystem, and how she spends her time.
My Experience as a Researcher
As a researcher with these tools, I found the approach to be rather time consuming for the participant. The activity had three goals: find out what the participant can't live without/cares about, define the participant's digital ecosystem, and reveal the participant's typical weekday. My participant spent extra time both on the aesthetics of her sheets, and figuring out exactly how she wanted to lay out her responses. This was especially true for the "typical weekday" response sheet, where clearly defining which activity she was choosing proved to be a challenge.
I believe this research activity would have been more successful with digital responses. I see value in having the researcher present to administer instructions, but a user-friendly digital platform to deliver responses would eliminate ambiguity and pressure to make the response sheets aesthetically pleasing. After all, as a researcher, I am interested in the participants responses to my questions, not his or her ability to doodle and draw straight lines.
Below is a simplified version of a digital interface for the typical weekday, where a participant can drag the icons to the timeline rather than construct confusing diagrams by hand.
Aside from just the user experience, digital responses would allow the researcher to quickly process the responses. This would become particularly useful when there are hundreds of participants. The researcher would save time processing the information and deriving useful takeaways.
The most potentially valuable tool is the option/request to elaborate on his or her responses. Should the simple and quick responses not provide a deep enough understanding of the participant, the elaborations provide deeper insights. This would be a simple addition to digital response platforms as well.
This generative research activity was designed by Stephen Walls, Ph.D. for Design Thinking for Business Innovation at the McCombs School of Business.
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