Tips for understanding what motivates your users

4 min read
Misael Leon
  •  Nov 28, 2016
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We need customer input to create products people love—products they want to use and pay money for. You can use questionnaires to try and understand your users’ motivations, but the problem is that questionnaires lack flexibility and don’t get to core human emotions.

The solution: generative research.

Hands-on exercises unlock the mental space where your customers’ motivations live. There’s always a gap between what we say and what we doTwitter Logo—that’s just human nature. Generative research gets past the cognitive filters and brings out the deeper levels of human experience.

“Hands-on exercises unlock the mental space where your customers’ motivations live.”

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Elizabeth B.-N. Sanders wrote (opens PDF), “When all 3 perspectives (what people do, what they say, and what they make) are explored simultaneously, one can more readily understand and establish empathy with the people who use products and information systems.”

Benefits of hands-on exercises for interviews

  1. Become a better listener and reach a shared understanding
  2. Make a conversation unfold naturally and achieve a strong rapport
  3. Get rich information on users’ motivations and expectations
  4. Discover ways to get stories full of emotion and detail
  5. Learn from the participant’s own insights about themselves
  6. Feel true empathy to generate a solution

Types of exercises

The cool thing about the generative research method is that it’s just a framework. It’s a way of thinking and conducting research, and it encompasses many types of exercises. Let’s explore some of them.

“Exercises create a bridge from the superficial to the deeper levels of human experience.”

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This exercise is basically asking participants to recollect ideas related to a given concept. What you’ll get are ideas from the top of their mind, which is good because it means those are the most important to them. Lists are low effort to complete but yield rich discussion.

Lists are useful for:

  1. Collecting elements of a category (e.g. “Types of meals I cook”)
  2. Gathering feelings and needs around a topic
  3. Compiling inventories (e.g. “What’s in my bathroom cabinet”)
  4. Capturing schedules about a day

Sentence completion
For this exercise, you give participants a series of incomplete sentences that they must finish. This is a good trick to have them project their inner associations with the concept you’re exploring. These are easy to complete and are good conversation starters.

Use sentence completion to:

  1. Elicit associations, desires, preferences, and values about a topic
  2. Gather a participant’s own words to understand the symbolic meanings associated with the concept
  3. Assess motivations and attitudes


Card sorting involves giving participants set of cards, each labeled with a piece of content or functionality, then asking them to sort the cards into groups that make sense to them. The result you get will help you to increase the system’s findability.

With card sorting, you can:

  1. Identify and explore categories
  2. Understand relationships among elements, which leads to uncovering users’ mental models
  3. Learn about preferences and priorities (when participants rank order elements)
  4. Remember stories (when participants select or sort images)


This is a broad range of exercises, but they all center around the idea of giving participants tokens they can arrange to tell a story about themselves. They’re also useful to help them exemplify subjective and complex ideas, like thinking about the future or health-related issues.

Some activities to consider:

  1. Drawings
  2. Collage
  3. Sculpture, models
  4. Building (e.g. with Legos or paper cut-outs)

Keep in mind participants need lots of time to create and explain.

Useful for:

  1. Expressing hard-to-articulate ideas
  2. Capturing moods and feelings
  3. Generating future scenarios

“To create meaningful solutions we must understand the emotional range of our audience.”

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Design is all about people

Customers are no longer passive consumers.Twitter Logo In order to create meaningful solutions, we must understand the emotional range of our audience.

We can gain access to the emotional space of our users if we use hands-on exercises. If we empathize with them, chances are we can design a product that will fit into their lifestyles.

“Design is all about people.”

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Generative research techniques will help you explore the hidden nuances and create solutions to their problems. Let’s not forget that people are the real experts at understanding their own ways of living.

As Steve Jobs said: “It’s not the consumers’ job to figure out what they want.”

More from Misael Leon

Don’t miss Misael’s InVision DesignTalk, How to really understand your users’ motivations.

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