Capturing More Than the "What": A Reflection on Participatory Interviews

Last week Diana and I connected with CSA members to learn about how they made decisions when preparing food. Our method of research was called a participatory interview. This method involved discussing the topic with the participant and leading them through a creative activity called an Experience Canvas. During this exercise the participants chose word and image stimuli from a collection we provided in order to reflect upon their ideal experience.

There were many aspects of the interviews that went extremely well. The scheduling with the participants was straightforward and we easily found times that worked for everyone involved. We were also very successful in clearly communicating the intent and procedure to our participants as indicated by their ease of understanding the different stages of the interview. The participants themselves were excellent to work with as they were very friendly and agreeable. They both were very willing to discuss and reflect aloud which resulted in an interview that proceeded efficiently and within the optimal range of interview time.

The canvasing activity was enjoyable for all involved. In fact, the participants indicated that they found the activity to be very useful in helping them crystallize their thoughts around the topic. One participant even indicated that he might want to use the activity as a tool for future thought processing. The participants chose stimuli with confidence and could coherently articulate why they selected them. We had to artificially speed up one interview mainly because the participant could relate almost every piece of stimuli to his beliefs in a meaningful way.

However, there were many aspects of the interviews that could be improved upon. As note taker, I believed I was capturing sufficient notes during the interviews. However, I later discovered that my notes were extremely vague and failed to provide complete thoughts and references to the context of certain ideas. Many times I wrote down the “what” while failing to record the “why”. Also, there were several instances where I failed to identify the specific stimuli that the participant was discussing which lead to confusion and frustration during the later synthesis process.

Diana also saw several things she would do differently as the discussion facilitator. The participants were enthusiastic enough on their own that she let them take the lead too often, sometimes forgetting, in her enjoyment of the conversations, to do the actual work of moderating. To avoid this problem in future she would ask more probing questions that would explore the “why” behind the participants beliefs and values. She would also be more assertive in asking to see mentioned artifacts, and being sure to document them. During the canvas activity, she would lead her participants to elaborate further or clarify their stimuli selections by encouraging them to write directly on the canvas.

Upon reflection, we both realized that the main component missing from our interviews was a sincere curiosity about our participant’s choices and values. We identified closely enough with our participants that we took too many things for granted and would constantly assume that we knew what the participant was talking about without requesting clarification or asking for an applicable story. For example, one participant stated that he he did not appreciate his food being bland and predictable. We recorded the idea and moved on with the interview without even bothering to ask why he thought these things, or what bland and predictable meant to him. The lack of understanding behind these beliefs resulted in the data being essentially useless to our later synthesis.

Overall, we managed the structure of the interview fairly well but missed the frequent opportunities to reach a deeper level of inquiry. As our confidence in our research abilities improve we hope to become more aware of those opportunities for insight and develop the skills we need to capture them.


Ben, awesome articulation of what was successful and the room for improvement. I am always surprised, as well, by how meaningful the participants in participatory sessions find collaging exercises. The notion of using any kind of stimulus to evoke symbolic conversations is a strong one, and can be applied to anything. I’ve found it helps me frame everyday conversations, and emphasizes the power of examples.

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