The idea of participatory research is just beginning to gain traction. Still being discussed mostly in the academic realm or amongst the more innovative corporate players, it is a deeply useful method of research which I predict will become much more widespread in use in the near future.
Participatory research in theory means bringing users, consumers, and/ or other key stakeholders into the traditional research process as equal participants. It means research becomes a more collaborative exercise whereby learning is gathered and transferred in a more iterative, more flexible and more spontaneous way.
Done well, participatory research means that learning can be more efficiently embraced and applied because the people who can make the greatest difference with the learning have been an active part of the learning process.
The realm of participatory research is broad and deep in terms of methods and in means for application. Here I will share one research method that is participatory in nature and may be understood simply and quickly for a group facilitation or research setting.
Conceptual Landscaping is a research method identified by IDEO and can be found in their popular IDEO method cards deck, where it is referred to as a research method used to “understand peoples mental models of the issues related to the design problem.”
Conceptual Landscaping can be understood as a specific method of "structured conceptualization" (Trochim, 1989).
Methods for structured conceptualization such as Conceptual Landscaping serve an important role in research for their unique ability to help participants capture thoughts and perception about a concept or a problem or some other challenge situation – in a visual format. This visual depiction of thoughts improves efficiency of group activity, especially in the case of complex issues, or where there are multiple participants who need to work in a consolidated manner.
As an example, featured here is a circa 1870 Victorian Conceptual Map of Matrimony.
Using a ‘landscape’ as the visual for structured conceptualization has value because the image of a ‘landscape’ is already a familiar part of everyday life, and so can be easily grasped by diverse participant types as a unifier. Further, the image of a ‘landscape’ is naturally useful to capture relationships and proximities of concepts. Using the visual of a landscape also helps to depict scale and spatial hierarchy i.e.: what is perceived as being ‘bigger’, ‘deeper’, or ‘closer’. And perhaps most compelling, it provides the visual depiction to ground a future scenario possibilities discussion because a ‘landscape’ can be conceived of as being in a constant state of ‘becoming’: shifting, evolving, and drifting.
As a structured conceptualization method, Conceptual Landscaping has value in collaborative thinking exercises, as it:
- Ensures a group-representative outcome;
- Provides a common, interpretable conceptual framework;
- Is produced entirely in the ‘language’ of participants;
- Yields a pictorial graphic ‘artifact’ of great use;
- Simultaneously can capture ideas, as well as the important inter-relational nature of those ideas.
Step Five: It is critical to not end the method at the arrival of the visual Conceptual Landscape as the ‘shared interpretation’ of how the visual was arrived at and what it represents is as important as the visual itself. The storytelling component at Step Five serves to build a participatory narrative around the Conceptual Landscape, and fills in the qualitative ‘whys’ for the chosen depiction of the landscape.