Creative Sessions: Getting what we really want

12‑04‑2018 Didi Groenhoff 3 min.

Focus on the research goal

When holding a creative session with our users we always make sure to get all brains empty and loosened up first, making sure everyone is in a positive, constructive vibe ready to give us as much quality input as possible. (Read how we go about that here) But then we get to the point we want to get down to the nitty gritty. We prepared a research goal, and we want answers. In this blog we share how we get them. We offer our users a set of exercises, and keep our ears and eyes open while they work on them.


First we ask our users to describe their entire work process, specifically on the research goal set for that day. With ‘entire’ we mean we’re not only interested in what they do in our application, and if that works for them, but also what they do outside of our application, how, and why. This way we get a complete view of all work flows. To complete this task we offer very simple means: paper, markers and optionally stickers to point out where the process fits the application very well, or where the process gets stuck.

Often we want our group to focus on a specific part of their work process. To focus on that we tend to do another small exercise pointing them in the right direction, or give them a questionnaire bringing certain subjects to the front of their brain as a conversation starter.

Every exercise leads to a discussion between users. Listening in is the best input for us. The more diversity we have in our group, the better view we get on the complete work process, linking workflows of users that follow each other up in the real world. This also leads to users talking to each other while penning down their work process, which helps users detach from their own world, have an objective look, compare their process to others, and see overlap and confrontations in other people’s needs. This helps us determine where one solution can fit all, or where different users have such different needs that one size fits all will not meet them. Our users also learn from each other, seeing someone else performing a comparable task in a totally different manner. We are all winners here.

Last but not least we spend the last 20 minutes on a ‘free exercise’. This is where we let our users go completely bananas, and because of the relaxed atmosphere and interesting conversations they’ve experienced in the earlier exercises, our users usually  feel they have the freedom let it all go. One exercise we like is posing a problem, having a small group of people draw up a sensible solution, and the having them draw up something they know will never come in to being, but would be really cool. What this leads to is always a surprise. Some groups come up with sheer nonsense, but other groups come up with sheer nonsense that actually gives us more insight in what they really want our application to do for them. Looking at the shaping of ideas that normally would have never been shared because ‘it’s never going to work’ can be just the input we need to get a better comprehension of the problem, and developing a good solution that does work.

What do we do?

So during all this writing, drawing and discussing, what is it that we, the UX-designers and information specialists, do aside from giving instructions for the exercises?

  • We listen: we listen to what people are saying, and make sure people know we are truly interested and value their input.
  • We ask questions: if users come up with working processes or issues we don’t fully understand we keep asking until we do fully grasp what’s going on.
  • We write: we make sure to write down what people are saying, so it’s documented and will not be forgotten. Where needed we make pictures. We also make sure to document who came up with what issue or idea, so that we can always ask them for more input once we’ve started working on their problem.

Simple as this may sound, paying attention to actually doing this well and focused makes that we get much more and better input. Also, this attitude creates trust with our users that we appreciate their opinions, are going to work with their ideas and their time and energy is valuable to us. Offering attention and focus is the basis of a good relationship.

Closing the session

To once more bring across this message, we put time and effort in closing the session. We thank our users, try to summarize what we’ve picked up that day, and very important: offer them a small present to thank them again. As one participant once said: ‘It’s not the company note book and mug you just gave me. It’s the fact that you took time to wrap it up nicely tie a ribbon around it that shows me you really care.’ That is what we try to do during our whole session, and after.

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