Making Thinking Visible:

The Improved Discovery Session for Fueling Qualitative Research and Client Communication


By Linda Yaven
All photos by the author

“We cannot request creativity to appear upon demand, but we can extend it an invitation.”
— David Whyte

While it is said that a picture is worth a thousand words it may also be true that a picture can set off a thousand thoughts and conversations.

We are awash in the information technology makes so freely available. How do we discern relevant information? How is content cultivated? How to get traction in our thinking and conversing? In prescriptive times how do we invent?

Over the last six years, in my learning consultancy and as a professor in a graduate design program, I have worked with others to develop a model of qualitative documentation research which has applicability in the workplace. It is designed to avoid the mind-numbing “death-by-PowerPoint” data dumps.

Called “Making Thinking Visible: The Improved Discovery Session”, it is an interactive, hands-on/minds-on system for qualitative research. The process combines educational theory, the latest work from the design studio, and professional practice — recently performed with Department of Defense as client. My intent here is a snap-shot introduction to this model.

This process is an alternative to a “here’s the binder/read it/come back with insights” mentality. One of the puzzles of work is how to discern what information is relevant, convey this so it can be absorbed, and next actions effectively designed. This diagnostic addresses the challenge of pulling out the insights within data collection and using that as the jumping-off point. A company able to make their thinking visible to clients is positioned as expert. The diagnostic accomplishes this, while also providing clarity to in-house collaborative and qualitative research.

Phrases of the Process

  • The Antechamber
  • Hands-on/Minds-on Research
  • Presentations
  • Next Action Design
  • Optimized Implementation


Unsanitizing the Data

Unlike the heavily edited, sanitized, formatted, and spun presentations that are so typical, this process requires users to get used to the imperfect presentation — by intent. As Malcolm Gladwell said in his book, Blink “We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.” Peter Senge has written how managers believe they must always “know what is going on. It is unacceptable…to not know what is causing a problem”. Convention too often rewards the appearance of knowledge — but at a cost. This diagnostic pushes against the usual way of doing things — and can take people out of their comfort zone.

Creativity implies weathering the period of not knowing. Making Thinking Visible: The Improved Discovery Sessions sustains this tension — we can never predict what will crop up. It makes visible the concrete testing of ideas. It is a font of information yielding graphic evidence of differing lines of inquiry, diverse approaches to subject matter and multiple points of view. It has been said that uncertainty is the key emotion of the documenter.

What It Looks Like

A paradox of business is that to work “fast and light” as David Kelly, Founder of IDEO put it; opportunities for beneficial reflection must be embedded in work life. The diagnostic accomplishes this through the key phases: a) the antechamber, b) research, c) presentations & evaluation, d) next action design, and e) optimized implementation. The process can occur over a day, several days or months. It is a way to collect, map and sequence information so that new directions, content and insights surface.

This methodology is also different from usual practice in that it allows the documenter(s), themselves, or someone who was not there (a stakeholder, decision maker or client, for example) to enter into and follow the trail of another’s thinking. The evaluative critique phase affords time to step back and collectively see what the documentation is revealing — something that we, immersed in the acceleration of practice, could not otherwise get at with such coherence.

Because we can never predict what documentation will reveal, liveliness is returned to group inquiry. We are more apt to get the hang of the improvisation that goes hand-in-hand with innovation, than had the project been spelled out in an iron-clad way from inception. Animated debate is a part of the process. Those who engage in this model are transformed into stakeholders with buy-in. The mood is lighter while the work is deeper, conversations have traction and the level of final product outcome rises.

This approach has an ensemble nature — Steve Siedell, Director of The Harvard Graduate School of Education, likens it to jazz improv. Participants can follow their own lines of inquiry and collaborate. The group constructs, and interprets, the evolving archive as a team.

An Example

Here’s a non-proprietary example from one of my graduate design workshops, where my students were asked to document, design, and teach a six week art/design lesson at a school in the community. Documentation takes digital (video, audio, photography) and non digital form: walking through “19 Non-Tech Ways to Document” always lightens things up. The students created visual records of their teaching and, importantly here, its back story — preparation, critiques and presentations. We documented the documenters in weekly sessions over the course of the semester. Daily practice — nothing out of the ordinary — is esteemed as a subject. The documentation acts like a fresh pair of eyes and ears so that we see anew what our assumptions too often blind us to.

This minds-on/hands-on diagnostic makes individual and group inquiry public and shows how individual effort contributes to the whole. In fast and wired times it allows for a close read — no subject is too modest to investigate. In the graduate design student example, viewing the sequence of mask making allowed us to tag along and observe how one student’s struggle with construction yielded a smarter way to do it, or how another’s charting the different teams added to the group’s understanding of itself and its goals.

The intelligence of the team rises. We learn to discern fact from opinion — and when to apply each. As one participant wrote “it naturally encourages self-assessment…and receptive listening skills”. Visuals substantiate. There is an honesty to documentation as it artlessly uncovers what is working, or not. The collective, rigorous looking and conversing gives us finer clarity about what needs to be continued, reworked or abandoned. Higher order decisions are made.



One can document what is tangible or intangible. The student projects, including papier maché mask-making, a “blind” coke taste test and one about favorite buildings in the neighborhood, were tangible subjects. Professional applications include in-house research: the formulation of a new store, branding analysis, rolling out new products or strategies and framing case studies and focus groups for clients. We can also document the intangible. In the student case a sustaining question floated at the semester’s start, “What does it mean to be a learning group?” guided the scrutiny of our documentation. The fun of it is that the reverse happens too: documentation uncovers questions (and answers) that had gone unformulated until they showed up in the group “reading” of the documentation.

We are awash in the information that technology makes so freely available. Making Thinking Visible: The Improved Discovery Session provides traction for discerning what is relevant. It provides visual evidence of quantitative and qualitative research. It is engaging, collaborative and gets people to ask lots of questions. In following a line of inquiry that is relevant to our concerns, buy-in happens naturally. It is a powerful method to internalize knowing and inventing. It delivers a thousand productive and creative thoughts and conversations.

About the Author: Linda Yaven is a communication designer and public speaker providing coaching and training services in qualitative research. Her firm adapts design studio thinking for the workplace, highlighting visual/conversational literacy there. She is on the Graduate Design faculty at California College of the Arts and recently completed a project for The Department of Defense on creative thinking and assessment. You can find out more at her website:

Contact: — 510.594.3602

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