Human express themselves in Metaphors. When people express their deep emotions and narrate their experiences, these metaphors are decoded by researchers and built into valuable insights.

Metaphor Elicitation technique is a technique that elicits both conscious and especially unconscious thoughts by exploring people’s non-literal expressions. It was developed by Dr. Gerald Zaltman at the Harvard Business School in the early 1990s.

It’s a pictorial Projective technique used to draw qualitative insights. It can be carried out in different ways. For example, for a research on a product website, participants can be shown a variety of random images and then asked which image they resonate most with the usage of that product. They can be further probed as to why did they pick that image.

The responses elicited during this technique of interviewing are categorized to produce a consensual thought that represents thinking of most of the target audience.

“A lot goes on in our minds that we’re not aware of. Most of what influences what we say and do occurs below the level of awareness. That’s why we need new techniques: to get at hidden knowledge-to get at what people don’t know they know.” Dr. Gerald Zaltman

The UX class at GrowthX Academy had an opportunity to witness a valuable session on Metaphor Elicitation research technique by Catherine Cooper, a veteran in the field of User Research. Professor Cooper serves as Faculty Research Advisor to the UCSC Educational Partnership Center. The talk focused on how subconscious mind creates and guides conscious interpretation, behavior & attitudes.

Dig deep into Experiences

Professor Cooper laid emphasis on Hierarchy of Human Needs and why it’s important to turn it upside down.

We as researchers do a good job in doing usability studies, focusing on the Tasks side of the hierarchy, but we often forget or undermine the importance of learning about the Experiences side of the hierarchy, where all sub-conscious thoughts reside and have key to the answer- Why humans do what they do. The idea is to turn the hierarchy upside down and concentrate on the lower bit by digging deep into the Experiential side.

Professor Cooper explained Behavioral aspects as the tip of the Iceberg (see image below), which are easy to capture as we see and hear them. Under the surface of Human behavior are the motivations, their skills and knowledge, values and beliefs and the perception of their own self that need to be studied, in order to understand what drives their decisions. This is where techniques like Metaphor Elicitation come into play.

We like to be perceived as rational human beings, but a lot of information that resides in our subconscious gets lost when we try to express verbally and rationalize our thoughts. 95% of human thoughts are rooted in their subconscious mind. These hidden thoughts shape human behavior. Deep down, these thoughts contribute to how we behave and the actions we take in our daily lives.

Framing your Question

Professor Cooper emphasized the importance of careful framing of the research questions as they play a central role in all the research efforts. Research questions must be framed to meet the objective of the research.

For example: In order to research gift buying behavior, different prompts can yield different results.

Prompt 1: When did you last buy a gift, what did you buy and where did you buy it from?
This question will most likely yield factual data.

Prompt 2: Why did you buy that gift, how did you make your decision and what was the experience of gifting it?
This question is likely to reveal details about the buyer’s thought process.

Needless to say, how we frame our questions during the research can change the course of it. Probing the participants is a good idea to get more details but prompting responses can stain the research. At last, researchers should be patient enough to hear subject’s stories. If we as researchers fail to understand the real thoughts, experiences and perceptions underlying the human behavior – products, systems and services can fail to make their impact.

The human mind is a mystery, it talks in one-way and acts like other. It’s our job as researchers to choose the right methods for a given research study and try to dive to the bottom of the iceberg.