Design Methods #34 – Photo Studies

In photo studies, participants are asked to document ideas, events and aspects of their lives with photos, allowing researchers and designers to collect visual insights into their behaviours, motivations and beliefs. Such studies are very personal and provide inspiration for design and co-creation based on the worlds of the users of products or services.

At the start, participants are provided with a camera (or may just use their phone) and instructed on the purpose of the research and the focus of their photo collection, making clear the things that they are asked to document through pictures. This could be focused on an event or idea or specific behaviour, or may be more generally that they capture context and occasion when they have a specific feeling or experience a certain emotion. This can also include interactions with other people, although this can be difficult because of confidentiality and discomfort of the participant (e.g., at work).

Photo studies complement other methods such as diary studies, and are generally enthusiastically embraced by participants as a more engaging and enjoyable approach to recording their lives than other more traditional methods. The output is often visual collages which are great stimulus for design and co-creating ideas when provided with context an background information on the topic and the profiles and lives of users.

Designers can use the photos by themselves or in combination with the stories participants tell around the pictures that they bring, often creating collages and sorts of the images that help make sense of the pictures and how they relate to each other and the life of the picture taker. This is very much an exploratory technique and is a good start point for exploring the emotions and motivations around a topic, behaviour or event. Often patterns emerge across different pictures that provide deep insights into individual behaviours and how they relate to other individuals and similar triggers and barriers that they face.

Photo studies are stimulating for participants and inspirational for researchers, providing rich insights into behaviours and the motivations behind them.


Universal Methods of Design by Martin & Hanington

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