The post “Different types of research“, categorised user research as either formative or summative
(aka generative/evaluative): –

  • Formative investigates environmental and human factors, constraints, opportunities, behaviours, requirements, and objectives.
  • Summative evaluates the performance of designs and prototypes in meeting those objectives


The purpose of formative research is to inform

For example, a pop-up survey for a government savings scheme (n=14), suggested people under report their savings habit. Four people who said they didn’t save, regularly put aside their spare change. Although that behaviour isn’t exactly saving, it seems relevant. Another study for the same scheme found :-

  • 63% of savings accounts were opened by women
  • The majority of account holders lived with a partner

Insights like these are useful for marketing, advertising, functionality (e.g. making it easy to deposit and pay-in change), user journeys, support etc.


Common formative methodologies and techniques

To help decide which to use, it’s helpful to anticipate the kind of results they’ll likely produce and discuss with the team how useful thy’d be and the resource they’d take  –

  1. Surveys –
    These can be face to face, remote, online, postal or conducted by agents. They can cover large sample sizes (n) to deliver statistically meaningful (quantitative) results
  2. Card sorting –
    Typically used to define information hierarchies and navigation
  3. Contextual interviews –
    Participants are visited and questioned in their own environment (e.g. at home or work), which is more likely to trigger memories and naturalistic behaviour
  4. Focus groups –
    Useful for exploring themes and normalising e.g. asking “What does everyone else think about that ?”
  5. Ethnographic research –
    Participants are observed in their own environment. This has the advantage of revealing what people actually do, as opposed to what they say they do, and how something is actually used. If participants aren’t aware they’re being observed e.g. by using a remote camera, this methodology can address the “observer effect
  6. Diary studies –
    Though it can be a challenge to recruit and engage suitable participants, diary studies have the advantage of running over longer periods so they can evaluate longer processes, and changes
    n.b scheduling regular diary entries can be helpful
  7. Design the box (participatory design)
    A creative exercise that uses the idea that packaging should convey essential aspects of a product
  8. Data mining –
    Data is increasingly being collected and archived e.g. the UK data archive at the University of Essex and the Office of National Statistics (ONS), Citizens Advice Bureau, and much of it’s freely available

 Methodologies which can be both formative and summative ?

  1.  Wizard of Oz –
    e.g. testing concepts or call centre scripts
  2. Comparative evaluation of journeys and low-fi prototypes –
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