Editor’s note: Lawrence Williams is a sociology professor who recently joined UserTesting. He’s pioneering the use of human insight technology in innovative ways to explore issues far beyond usability. In his first article, he described how to use card sorting to explore customers’ mental models. In this article, he digs deeply into customer sentiment through a technique he calls preference sketching.

Lasting impressions drive future customer behavior

Leading brands are laser focused on ensuring that they’re the first brand that comes to mind when people think about their product category. In 2022, Heinz put this to the test in an award-winning campaign that asked people from across Canada to “draw ketchup.” What did this exercise reveal? Well, people sure didn’t know how to draw a ketchup bottle, but they did know to label it with “HEINZ”. By finding that almost every person they asked labeled their bottles with their brand, the folks at Heinz solidified their presence as the leading ketchup brand in Canada. They also revealed the mental models at play when people think of ketchup, showing their brand was the most commonly made association with the red, delicious condiment they happen to sell.

The Heinz promotion was a great piece of marketing, but having people draw out their thoughts about brands or other issues is a very powerful research technique that I’ve been increasingly using in online user tests. As long as you have a human insight solution that gives you access to video and audio recordings, you can do what Heinz did: ask people to draw what comes to mind when thinking about your key product or service, and see if your brand makes the cut. 

But you can also do a lot more. You can go beyond brand recognition and use this method to home in on customers’ lasting impressions about anything: concerns, lifestyles, problems, and so on. Having people draw and talk helps them express sentiments which otherwise would be difficult – if not impossible – to articulate. This helps you understand customers and ensure that the experiences you present them match their needs and mental models. It can help you build the sort of nearly immediate, yet hard to articulate, brand recognition that Heinz achieved. 

I call this method preference sketching. Here’s how you can incorporate it within user tests and self-interviews to help you get your brand to the next level.

How to Have Customers Sketch Out Their Lasting Impressions 

Once you’ve unearthed your customers’ mental models via Empathy Card Sorting, you can go a layer deeper by having them sketch out their lasting impressions. A picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, and this is certainly true when it comes to this activity. By asking customers to sketch out the best and worst aspects of your product/service (or any other issue), you’ll be able to quickly see what truly made them feel good or bad. Most importantly, you’ll get a glimpse into how they will continue to think and feel after the exercise, as they’ve just gone through the work of mapping out their lasting, most salient impressions. 

To run a preference sketch test, have users perform tasks as you normally would, and then simply ask customers a question such as the following: “given what you’ve seen on [a particular landing page, checkout flow, etc.], please sketch out what you consider to be the best and the worst aspects of this experience”. By incorporating a preference sketch after a series of discovery, usability, and/or competitive questions, you can get customers to more fully articulate the aspects of your experience that really left a lasting impression. This is because this task is essentially asking them to recall what stood out most – for good or for bad! – and to get some skin in the game by actually sketching out their feelings about your experience rather than simply stating them verbally.

As an example, here’s how you could structure a combined discovery, usability, and competitive test where potential customers were asked to evaluate a global insurance company’s website:

  • Pre-Screen: 
    • Screen for individuals who have insurance, but not with this particular brand
  • Discovery and usability phase of the test: 
    • Ask competitors’ customers about their experience with insurance
    • Direct users to the brand’s homepage
    • Ask users to spend 3-5 minutes exploring the content of the website, navigating their way around the site as they see fit
    • Based on their exploration, ask users who they think the site is for, what they like/dislike about it, how likely they are to return, and how likely they are to purchase
    • Ask users for their overall impression of the brand
  • Competitive phase of the test:
    • Ask users to do a web search for what they think is a key competitor of the website they just visited
    • Repeat questions from the discovery and usability phase, now focused on this second, competitor website
    • Ask users which website was their overall favorite of the two, and why
  • Preference sketch:

Now the real fun begins. Since you’ve already primed users to think about what they like and dislike not only about your brand, but about potential competitors’ brands, ask users to put these articulations into visual format. You can do this by providing them with a link to any digital drawing tool, such as Sketch.io or Kleki.com, which you’ll see used in the examples below. If you use a human insight solution that enables you to run self-guided tests, you can simply add this task into your current mix of questions that you’d like people to answer. Since this is a rather creative task, you may want to prime them for this task by letting them know that the goal of this exercise is to really see how they think and feel about whatever you’ll be having them draw out, and not on the quality of their drawing. 

Here are three examples of what you can do:

1) Learn about the best and worst aspects of an experience. Do you currently have any hunches or data-informed hypotheses about which aspects of an experience people may not like (e.g., your e-commerce checkout experience, website navigation, sign-up process)? Do you want to test if the reasons you find your experiences to be compelling match those of potential or current customers? If so, ask users to sketch out the best and worst aspect of a specific experience. 

For example, I had customers go to a large insurance company’s homepage and sketch out what they liked most and least about the site. This exercise revealed that clean images and minimal design created a feeling of aspiration, evoking serene, nature-like imagery. However, more text-heavy sections of the site seemed to negatively offset this feeling of aspiration.

A potential customer reflects on how an insurance company’s site’s emphasis on growth and a “premium lifestyle” made her feel hopeful about her future.

2) Create an ideal version of your experience. Are you planning a potential brand refresh? If so, asking potential or current customers to sketch out what an ideal version of the experience that you offer (e.g., your website, your actual product/service, etc) could provide a starting point for future idea generation amongst your designers and product managers.

For example, in a study on a large platform that people use to create e-commerce sites, I asked potential customers to sketch out what an ideal shop template (essentially a digital storefront for their business) would look like. The common theme was that that existing designs could be improved by offering a more structured navigation experience for potential customers, enabling them to see the various unique features of the shop at a glance: 

An e-commerce shop owner draws out what an ideal shop template would look like to him, and rates his design as better than ones he evaluated on a website.

3) Understand the emotion behind an issue or idea. If you’re looking to expand into new markets, or re-engage a market segment that has gone dormant, have customers sketch out a key concept that’s central to them. Doing so can help reveal the emotions at play when thinking about this concept, ensuring that your brand is aligned with customers’ expectations.

For example, I recently had individuals who are currently experiencing financial difficulties sketch out what “debt” means to them, in the context of exploring a debt relief service. The exercise revealed an overwhelming feeling of “being shackled,” and that debt relief services need to understand the immense sense of loneliness and helplessness individuals in this situation feel. 

A woman with a turbulent financial history describes how debt feels like a tether or shackle that weighs heavily on her.

Strengthen connections with your customers, one sketch a time

By having customers sketch out their thoughts and feelings about a brand or other issue, you can ensure that you design experiences that will truly captivate them. By putting pen to paper – or in this case, finger to trackpad – you can get at the deep sentiments that will drive customers to purchase from you and feel connected to your brand.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of UserTesting or its affiliates.