Generative Research: Everything You Need to Know

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Cassie Wilson
Cassie Wilson



To understand your customer, you’ll need more than answers on a feedback survey. Generative research can help you understand your customers' lifestyles. With this knowledge, you can uncover and solve previously unknown problems.

focus group in a generative research study

Through generative research, you’ll find out who your customers are — not only as users but also as people. This guide provides an overview of generative research, including the benefits and how to conduct your study.

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Table of Contents

Generative research is a qualitative research method designed to help uncover users’ problems and find viable solutions. This process often involves interviews with customers, exploratory research, and observation of your customers. 

generative research definition

Not every question will relate directly to your product. Instead, this process aims to create a well-rounded picture of your customers as human beings. The goal is to better understand your client. By conducting generative research, you’ll create meaningful solutions — not just what you think the answer should be.

Generative Research vs. Evaluative Research 

You can conduct several different kinds of research to help make better business decisions. However, not all research performs the same function.

For example, evaluative research focuses on one specific problem your team has already identified. If you are conducting evaluative research, you already have a product to help with the problem. Your goal is to find out if the product works as intended. During evaluative research, you ask for your client’s feedback on a pre-existing solution. 

Depending on when you conduct evaluative research in the product development cycle, the information gathered from your research will help you make tweaks to your product’s design. 

Unlike evaluative research, generative research uncovers unknown problems. With this research method, you can better understand your clients, their unique needs, and how your product could benefit them.

generative research versus evaluative research, assessing the differences 

Types of Generative Research

There are several research methods you can use to conduct generative research. Tailor your approach to the needs of your business and the services that you provide. You can see popular types of generative research below.

Focus Groups

Focus group participants share their feelings and opinions on a particular topic. To gather the best results, ensure that your focus group represents the diverse range of customers that interact with your brand. 

By talking with your clients in small groups, you’ll gain a broad understanding of the problems they are facing in their industry. They might even help you brainstorm ideas to solve their problems as a group. 

Pro tip: Make sure you’re asking open-ended questions to get the best possible answers.

Literature Review

During a literature review, your team will explore research already published on a topic. This process will help you gather data without needing to run surveys yourself. 

There are publications for nearly every industry. Review the literature to determine popular issues. From there, use these insights and data to determine a viable solution to the problem. 

Best for: Teams who are still defining their customer base. If you’re still learning who your users are, a literature review offers a helpful starting point. 

User Interviews

Talking with your clients one-on-one is a great way to conduct research. With one-on-one interviews, you can better build trust and rapport with your clients. During the user interview, ask open-ended questions to gather as much information as possible. 

Best for: Teams who are looking to uncover unknown pain points in an already existing offerings. Your customers’ challenges might surprise you! 

Field Studies and Observations

Don’t just ask how your customers use a product. See for yourself.

Field studies allow you to observe how customers interact with your offerings. You can also learn more about their behaviors. This information can help you tailor your services to best fit their lifestyles. 

Pro tip: There are several ways to conduct field studies and observations. However, there’s one tip that applies to them all: Go where the people are. 

If you know your clients are hanging out in online communities, browse the forums to see what they’re talking about. If you know there are industry meetings where leaders gather to discuss the state of the industry, find a way to attend.

Diary Studies

During diary studies, participants keep a log of their behaviors and the different ways they interact with your company. Ask your participants to record how their pain points change over time. With this record, you’ll be able to see your clients’ habits and possible improvements over time.

Pro tip: Send your participants the occasional prompt to remind them to fill out their diary, suggests Nielsen Norman Group. That could include a notification sent directly to their phone.

How to Conduct Generative Research 

Just like using the scientific method to conduct experiments, conducting generative research involves set processes. Although these steps are necessary, they’re also relatively easy to follow.

No matter which method of generative research you choose, start with the following.

1. Define your research objectives.

With other types of research, you may start with a clear problem. However, the point of generative research is to discover unknown challenges. 

Instead, start with a set of objectives. That could include discovering who your customers are, exploring user lifestyles, or gathering unknown pain points associated with one of your products. 

2. Create a research plan.

After taking the time to understand your clients, multiple objectives may surface. Don’t be tempted to solve everything at once. Create a research plan to keep you on track.

Your research plan will act as a guide to help you focus your work. Your plan should:

  • State the objectives of your research.
  • Outline how you’ll choose participants. 
  • Determine incentives, if you have any. Will you offer participants anything for participating in your research? If so, list the details.
  • Explain your method of research. 
  • Determine the length of time you’ll conduct your research.

3. Conduct the research. 

Now that you have a solid research plan ready to go, it is time to do the work. Contact your participants to start the process. Follow your plan to get the most accurate data from your research.

4. Analyze the data.

After you’ve finished your research, take some time to compile the data. Study the data gathered. To guide you, consider the following questions:

  • What does the research show?
  • How does this affect my clients?
  • What are possible solutions to these pain points?

5. Apply the data.

Generative research should help you understand the challenges your clients face. Additional digging can help you zero in on client behaviors and lifestyles. Use all of this information to create solutions to common pain points. Then, you can begin testing in the marketplace. 

generative research steps, define your research objectives, create a research plan, conduct the research, analyze the data, apply the data

Getting Started with Generative Research 

Conducting generative research can help you understand the real-world challenges your users face. Use the data you gather to help you better serve your clients — and retain them. 

If you’re looking to get started with interviewing your customers, consider starting with a simple survey. That can help you kick off a more robust research process.

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Topics: User Testing

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