It’s almost a given that you should not listen to just what your users say, but observe what they do. As the author Nassim Taleb suggests:
Yet we have companies built to measure what people say. Surveymonkey is a public company started in 1999, Google Forms is a similar product, and we even have growing startups like Typeform for creating (more aesthetic) surveys.
We also have products which help us find out what users actually do. Like Google Analytics and Hotjar.
But I don’t know if there are enough products which can help us understand users – by finding out not just what they say and do, but what they mean, and what do they feel subconsciously.
Capturing this information is the key idea behind generative design methods.
While the current methods (and products) of understanding users help us to capture what they say, think and do, there are not enough products (or awareness) about what the users feel and ‘think’ on a subconscious level, what do the users dream of.
What people say can be captured by interviews and what they do can be captured by field observations (or data capturing tools), but to capture deeper insights about users, we need to see what users make.
In generative design methods, the designers invite the users to take part in making something. The design team provides the raw materials for making, and the users arrange the raw materials into patterns – which reveal their own hidden mental maps.
(Important caveat: These methods are useful very early in a product design project, much before you have thought of the product or service to be made)
As mentioned in ‘Observing the User Experience‘,
Generative techniques allow participants to externalize emotions and thoughts by creating objects that express them. In discussing the objects with participants as they make them and then analyzing them later on their own, researchers learn more about desires, sensations, and aspirations that are often hard to explain.
Collages are one way to do this. Users are given a set of words, and a good mix of images – and asked to arrange these in patterns most meaningful for them. This can turn out insights which are not only new for the designer, but for the user herself.
These methods can be a bit tricky and subject to bias, but I think if done right, they yield rich insights not easily available through other means.