In product research, we love to analyze behavior in context: “Show me when you use this product.” “Tell me where you are.” “Who are you with?” “Why?”

But that kind of research isn’t so easy for a product that hasn’t been invented yet. Real people need to handle real objects before they exhibit any “real behaviors.”

Getting all that “realness” is the bittersweet challenge at the core of our coolest research projects: how do we unearth “use cases” for a product that amounts to little more than a sketch?

Use props!

Researchers have long used props for what we call “co-creation” with respondents. Getting people into a generative mode, of course, presents its own challenges. None of us is particularly adept at being creative on demand. We all need a little inspiration, a little time, and a little context. Research participants are no different. We must arouse their imaginations before we open their minds to pick their brains.

After all, here we are, design professionals who have been mulling a concept for months, and we’re coming to the users for help — not for their professional expertise, but for their experience. But real experiences don’t happen behind a two-way mirror or with a researcher lurking over our shoulders. Experience is what happens in the course of real life, at real times, in real places.

Creating Meaning

Mobile research tools are the linchpin for executing early-stage research that uses co-design in a contextual environment. Respondents can best ideate designs that fit their daily life while they’re busily living that life.

When in real situations, and without a researcher hovering, we’ve seen some respondents really have their way with those props. Putting users in a legit place and moment with the right prop gets us a lot closer to the truth for a use case than most other options.

Prop construction can run from high fidelity to, well, no fidelity. And at either end of that spectrum, we’ve seen that adding “mobile” to the methodology can open a whole new world of insights.

No fidelity

Researchers have long used stimuli as a familiar starting point. We’ve used inspiration cards, collages, and mood boards to facilitate an open-ended dialogue that targets a key research point. But what if you want to release the barriers instead of confining the conversation?

Maybe you’ve tried to spur inventiveness in the interview room with an imaginary “magic wand” that respondents can use to “change anything!” That can work.

This works better: mail the wand to your user’s home. See what happens when people carry around an “all-powerful” object and interact with it in the middle of their day. The wand also acts as a sort-of alarm clock to trigger recall: “Oh, yeah, that research project… I should be doing that!”

Low fidelity

To spur creativity, you don’t hand a kid a coloring book and tell her to color inside the lines. But, we all know what a kid can do with a cardboard box and Sharpie. Or, Post-It notes! With design direction, these dirt-cheap props turn into cutting-edge development tools.

Low Fidelity

Here are two cool project ideas to spur your research imagination:

Scenario: a washing-machine design project. Send your respondents to the laundry room with a pack of sticky notes to replace their existing machine controls with new ones. They can place the stickies anywhere and in any configuration that makes sense to them. Ask them to video themselves trying out the controls on their next load and then refine their design.

Scenario: an app. If you need to understand what respondents want to know, see or interact with, a simple piece of cardboard can be their “device,” and sticky notes can be their “screen.” Cost: Negligible. Images of their designs arriving realtime in your inbox so you can ask questions? Show stopping.

Low Fidelity

Mid Fidelity

Need something more magical than Post-Its?

Most of designs we receive from participants are confidential to our clients, but above you can see a few from Project Ara, the famed modular smartphone. With their homemade mock-ups, tens of thousands of dscout study participants managed to impress the brilliant minds at Google.

How to do it? Make your props ambiguous. What inspires you may not inspire me, so the best tangible stimuli are low-fidelity. Rough and unfinished objects and materials allow for broader expression and interpretation.

Verbal explanations are typically bounded by a participant’s descriptive abilities. But why ask someone to describe their ideal design, when you can hand them some die-cut foam, glue sticks and a fresh pack of markers?

The local craft supply store has everything you need. Or check out services like ponoko, which can help you level-up your co-creation options.

What do your respondents need most with their “undefined” toolset? Some definition. Creativity comes from boundaries. Give them flexibility within a process and freedom with objectives. Thoughtful instructions will help ensure those foam pieces you sent to that New Jersey respondent are turned into a design you can make sense of, and not a 3rd grade solar-system-in-a-shoebox.

Mid Fidelity

The aim of these activities is to elicit deep user insights early enough in the product development process that designers can actually produce a “human-centered design” — that is, a design that starts with real humans, instead of one where we design the prototype first and ask for feedback later.

Will co-creation with props give your designers an exact definition to spec out? Unlikely. But they are likely to give you a glimpse into the reality of the people who would use your product, how and where they would use it, and why.