Periodically, we’re asked about a particular methodology – why we chose it, what the main benefits are, and how else we might apply it (or have applied it). From time to time, we’ll post here to showcase certain non-traditional methodologies that we’re particularly excited about.

In this first installment, I’ll touch briefly on a type of research that we’ve been doing an increasing amount of lately – generative (or creative) research.

“Generative research,” as a broad grouping of different methods, treats people as collaborators and idea-generators – more simply, as creators. The intention is to give collaborators enough room to express their innate creativity in some form or another, while grounding that activity within the context of a specific research question.

If you’re a content producer, an app developer, a hardware manufacturer, a web services provider, or virtually any other people-serving organization, generative research can be a powerful tool for understanding what’s going on in the lives of the people you’re trying to engage and how, specifically, to engage them better  – now and further down the road. And, if you can do it effectively, generative work has two significant benefits:

  • It produces a steady stream of new ideas and insights into untapped opportunities, from the perspectives of current or potential audiences, customers, and users.
  • Giving people the ability to influence the design of your products and services is empowering –and it also increases the chances that what you produce will be of value to them.

Classical research methods are powerful in a variety of ways, but they’re often heavily structured and necessarily limit the range of participant expression. In many cases, that’s exactly what a specific study demands, but often, it forces participants to think and respond in compartmentalized, sometimes narrow ways – and of course, in ways that might not reflect the complexities of how people think, feel, and behave.

What we’ve found is that affording people space to be creative tends to engage a different side of their brains, with a few notable benefits. For one, people don’t always know what they want – or if they do, they don’t always know how to express it. Generative can be really powerful for “unlocking” things that aren’t necessarily top-of-mind or easy to articulate. Additionally, people reveal a lot about themselves (their problems, needs, dreams, aspirations, etc.) during the creative process, creating rich context that we might not get through other means.

Generative outputs can be useful on a few levels. Individual submissions (text narratives, audio, video, multimedia collages, etc.) might be valuable in themselves – maybe a collaborator sketched out a concept for the next computing paradigm, content publication model, or location-aware app (to name a few areas in which we’ve recently collected particularly sophisticated concepts).

Taken in the aggregate, quantitative analysis of the inputs allows us to discern key unmet needs, problems, wishes for the future, changing values, and emerging expectations. Importantly, we can learn all sorts of interesting and non-obvious details about people without having to ask them point blank. As an added benefit, conducting generative work doesn’t have to involve sophisticated techniques and technologies. While those certainly don’t hurt, creative surveys, pen and paper, drawing tools, and other low-tech approaches can be remarkably useful (and accessible) tools for generative activities.

For examples of our recent projects with generative elements, feel free to take a look at:

And, in one of the most compelling examples of a generative process that I’ve come across recently, check out Studio School (and Studio Schools Trust), the result of a collaborative initiative to redefine and redesign education and the spaces in which education happens. (Piloted in 2010, more Studio Schools are slated for rollout across the UK.)


Header image courtesy of meryddian’s Flickr, (cc) some rights reserved.