Design Methods #18 – Picture Cards

Picture cards are a common tool in qualitative enquiry, helping people to think about and verbalise stories about their life experiences. The cards help to anchor such stories in context and detail, acting as a stimulus for conversation. Visual reference points are much easier to process than verbal questions. Images can be more relevant or more abstract depending on the context and objectives.

The images are provided to interviewees to help them to remember relevant experiences or create associations with certain objects, experience or environments. Cards can be purely visual or combine imagery and text based information, and should be designed to be relevant for current and future experiences, allowing for the possibility to create additional ideas (i.e., blank cards). Typically, such sets might contain 50-100 images and use flexible methodology, adding, removing and editing cards as required. This can be in addition to or as a replacement for the need for interviewee homework or self-selection of images, especially when the researcher already has developed hypotheses about the topic.

Participants are often asked to sort through the set of images (e.g., a set of archetype cards as I have used based on the StoryWorks archetypes) and select the cards that best represent the topic of discussion (e.g., a brand). Participants are asked to talk about the specific images selected, recalling stories about experiences that are associated with the cards. In addition, the cards can be used to ask participants to sort and group ideas, according to criteria that are important to them, and to elaborate on specific aspects relating to time, place, relationships, experiences, life events, etc. Cards can also be used as a prop to help participants sketch out future or alternative scenarios.

Card-based interviews are often combined with contextual observations / home visits and other approaches to help ground human stories in specific experiences, and work with families and friendship groups as well as on an individual basis. The value of the method lies not in the specific images that are selected by participants, but in the stories that are behind these selections. Picture cards are a useful tool in any designer’s or researcher’s method box.


Universal Methods of Design by Martin & Hanington

TapestryWorks StoryWorks archetype cards

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