Learning about learning using Contextmapping

TL;DR I used Contextmapping & generative techniques to investigate how students like to learn.


UX Researcher


April 2016 - May 2016


2 UXD's (Jess Norris, Mik Knoch), 1 curatorial director


workshops, cultural probes


I studied how students like to learn by designing research activities aimed to incrementally extract their thoughts and feelings. This was to inform Sydney Jewish Museum about how to make their exhibitions more engaging.

This project is quite old (3 years as I’m writing this!), but it is one of my favorite research projects to date because of how engaged my participants were with doing the exercises.

Preface: "Generative"

In this post I talk about using "generative techniques" I want to clarify that I'm not referring to the definition of "generative" that is commonly used in product design and tech land to refer to exploratory research that is done to define a problem space.

When I talk about "generative" techniques in this post, I am referring to the definition by the Contextmapping approach designed by Delft university which specifically defines it as

  • Techniques that ask participants to make artefacts then tell a story about what they've made
  • Research that guides the participants in small, incremental steps to access deeper levels of knowledge
In practice, the actual research methdologies used in generative techniques for Contextmapping can also overlap with the product/UX industry definition of generative.

Research plan

First steps

My first step was to learn more about the museums and its exhibitions. My group and I first visited the museum to observe how people interacted with the exhibitions, and to speak with the Curatorial Director to learn more about the challenges the museum faced.

We learned that the museum attracts over 25 000 visitors each year, with 50% of those visitors being students who are learning about Jewish history in their curriculums. With such a broad collection of artefacts and information to display, the museum was interested in understanding what sorts of mediums best engaged students when learning about Jewish history.

Talking to the Curatorial Director about the current experience helped to define the research questions and objectives for this project, the main one being to investigate the context of school students learning.

Plan of action

Our plan of action involved studying school students using the following steps:

  1. 5 days of "sensitising" participants to get them thinking about a topic before attending a workshop
  2. Workshops or "generative sessions" with participants to facilitate a discussion about learning experiences and museum experiences.

The idea of having a prolonged relationship with participants before the session was to incrementally guide them through thinking about their experiences, rather than putting them on the spot during the workshops. Our hypothesis was that simply asking participants on the day of the workshops (like an interview) would only be able to generate surface-level insights, rather than the latent and tacit knowledge we were interested in.
Different levels of knowledge about experience are accessed by different techniques. (By F. Sleeswijk Visser, P. Stappers, R. van de Lugt and E. Sanders, 2005, CoDesign, 1, p. 122.)

Sensitising booklet

I designed a sensitising booklet (kind of like a cultural probe) with a series of reflection exercises about participants’ learning. Participants were asked to complete 1 exercise a day, similar to a diary study, in preparation for the workshop they would participate in afterwards. The purpose was to trigger memories about learning, and to help participants more easily articulate thoughts and feelings during the workshop.

Some exercises were around learning in general, and what environments and contexts participants felt most engaged or productive in. Abstracting the research questions to be around learning in general as opposed to learning in museums helped me gain broader insights around participants' contexts, and the "why" behind participants' behaviours and motivations.

Some exercises were more specifically around learning at school, partially because we were targeting students for our research, but also because it's an analogous environment to learning in a museum. We intended to talk more about museums in the upcoming workshop and thought that understanding students' perspectives about learning at school (their most frequent environment for learning) would also give us broader insights.

Generative workshops

Participants attended workshops a few days after completing their booklets. We held the workshops in groups of two, split between my two team members and I.

The first part of the workshop focused on getting participants to present their sensitising booklets. This was particularly useful as an ice breaker, as well as a broad introduction into the topic of learning. Participants bonded over similar answers and discussed differences in preferences.

The second part of the workshop zoomed into the experience of learning at museums, by using "generative techniques", where I asked participants to make things such as collages and timelines in response to a question and then talk about what they've just created. These exercises involved giving participants plain maps and templates, as well as shapes and pictures to use to help with their retelling of their stories.


Synthesising rich and deep qualitative data is one of my favourite challenges of being a UX researcher. The particular challenge with this project was that we had to synthesize both abstract data related to "learning" and more tangible and concrete data around specific tools or exhibitions.

After a few hours of immersing ourselves in the data, and mapping it all out, we extracted four key themes that we discovered about learning, that would also be more tangible when looking at museum experiences.

Note - I am aware there are many typos in this. I designed this on a typical undergraduate bender with no sleep in 2016. Hopefully the original file will show up soon so that I may correct all the mistakes!


🤔 Priming ("sensitising") participants enabled them to express difficult or seemingly mundane stories

Compared to some other research techniques, priming can be seen as a "negative" or "biasing" thing, particularly for more evaluative research. In this situation, priming was successful in getting participants to have many stories to tell during the workshops by giving them time to self reflect.

🔻 Broadening and abstracting research questions gives you more of the "why" and the context

We easily could have interviewed participants about their experiences about museums to evaluate how educational and engaging they were, but instead we abstracted research questions to focus on the holistic journey of learning.

Doing so gave us multiple levels of insights that we are able to zoom in and out. We could understand participants’ high level learning needs, as well as their more specific needs to museums.
A representation of the types of insights we got. Framework is from Hayakawa 1939 Ladder of Abstraction)

🎨 Allowing participants to visualise their ideas and stories is fun for everyone involved

The benefits of "generative techniques" such as mapping and collaging are supposedly that

  1. Participants will "make" something, giving them time to self reflect during and tools to articulate their memories and feelings during the workshop and
  2. Participants will then "say" something about what they've just created, usually mentioning the memory or story that inspired the creation
This was a successful approach as we ended up overwhelmed with data and rich stories to articulate.

In comparison, I've interviewed many participants who have struggled to recall situations on the spot or were only able to recall fragmented pieces of the situation. This might have been avoided if they were given time to self reflect or a medium to express their context and experience.

👀 Visual representations of participants’ thoughts are engaging to stakeholders

The collages and maps you get at the end of these sessions are an engaging communication tool because they are a first hand representation from the participants with interesting sketches, interpretations and pictures. (As opposed to what is commonly seen in research decks such as stock icons and stock photos!)

📖 While the artefacts were awesome, the stories were even better

In addition to the previous point, the stories that accompanied the visuals were enjoyable and insightful to the stakeholders we presented to. They were a combination of stories from childhood and the present, and montages of feelings and emotions.

I also learned that asking participants to recall real stories and situations is often easier for them to talk about rather than answering hypothetical question. This learning stuck with me through the years and I have adopted the same approach when doing other sorts of qualitative research such as interviewing.