The Markup Method
The last method is simple yet engaging in its approach. I picked it up from my colleague Nash, who has a great article on how to win over skeptics with qualitative design, by the way.
It’s called the Markup Method because it asks users to create drawings of abstract concepts on designs. The materials are often symbolic in nature, such as shapes or colors.
When to use it
Use this method with value prop–heavy screens—for example, landing pages—especially those that are trying to communicate value with both visuals and text. I say this because the method helps you assess whether certain pictures, illustrations, or color arrangements are influencing people more so than copy.
How it works
Ask a participant to look at your design, similar to an impression test.
Instead of showing them the design and taking it away, give them a pen (physically or digitally) and ask them to mark up the design. You can suggest colors (like green/yellow/red highlights) or symbols (like X, 0, and stars). Tell them to use shapes and colors to represent what’s working conceptually for them—and what’s not.
The important part is to ask them to describe why they made a particular mark—use this process as a probing mechanism to understand how they are perceiving something. Instruct them to think aloud while they’re drawing or to summarize their drawing after the exercise.
After the tests, aggregate the shapes and/or colors into a heatmap that shows where the design is strongest and weakest. Success in this case is unpacking a visual design’s relationship to users, as well as identifying its strengths and weaknesses.
Against validating visuals
I want to underscore that these methods are not about validating a design direction. They’re about finding a reliable and rigorous way to involve people—users and customers—in complex, multi-stakeholder design initiatives.
At Dropbox, we’ve found these types of methods useful when relaunching our logged-out website user experience or refining our go-to-market brand strategy. These cross-functional projects include various perspectives of marketing, growth, design, and sales, so it is important to focus on the why rather than on what’s popular—internally or externally.
As Bill Moggridge, co-founder of the firm IDEO, once said, “If there’s a simple, easy design principle that binds everything together, it’s about starting with the people.” Why not start with people the next time you want to research and refine your visual design?
Thanks to Michelle Morrison, Christopher Nash, Lisa Hanson, Lauren LoPrete, and John Mikulenka for feedback on earlier versions of this blog post.