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Visual Explorer™: March 2008

March 04, 2008

Visual Explorer applications: Ethnography, innovation, and market research

Because we represent the outcome of thoughts verbally, it's easy to think that thought occurs in the form of words. That's just not the case. ...
Figure 1: “Comfort” can mean many things, even when used to describe something as simple as a sock.
A growing number of people are using Visual Explorer for various kinds of ethnography and cultural anthropology, including market research, generational studies, focus groups, innovation deep dives, interviews, and face-to-face and online surveys.

Why use Visual Explorer for ethnography?

People know a lot more than they can put into words. Cognitive scientists have learned that knowledge, including self-knowledge, is often unconscious, intuitive, emotional, imaginal, and visceral. Imagery and metaphor form the
deeper languages of the mind. This is a problem for survey research and focus groups. When people respond to a question in a group or survey they are often unable to articulate what they really know. Also, traditional focus groups tend to explore what is rather than what might be.
Visual Explorer is a tool for evoking and processing knowledge at deeper levels of knowing and desires, and bringing it into a conversation for sharper focus. The selected VE images can then be used to make collages or storyboards of the topic at hand, as a series of linked metaphors, scenes, sequences, stories, future desires, and so on.
Benefits of VE for ethnography
  • Tapping into personal experiences and passions
  • Surface and engage emotional undercurrents
  • Putting something tangible in the middle of an otherwise abstract conversation
  • People frame and illustrate their thoughts with each other
  • Make the invisible visible, and the unconscious conscious
  • Surfaces individual and shared assumptions
  • Images bridge differing context and cultures
  • Fun and playful, yet at the same time serious dialogue
  • Create new metaphors and images
  • Fresh, memorable metaphors and stories
  • Self-disclosure and vulnerability in a safe context.
  • Tangible images that can be reused in paper and digital forms

Much of our thinking occurs in images and metaphors. Visual imagery can improve the efficacy of surveys and assessments. Gerald Zaltman at the Harvard Business School has developed an image and metaphor technique for marketing research called the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET). The ZMET technique employs images to understand consumers underlying relationships with products.

Marketers using ZMET get people to describe their experiences with a product by having them cut pictures out of magazines that represent their intuitions, thoughts, and feelings about the product. Groups of subjects are brought to the lab to for interviews about the product, using the images to elicit metaphors. Collaging of the images with the help of a graphic artist, and exploring the collage in dialogue reveals deeper connections and emotions. The interviews and conversations are highly metaphoric and revealing, illuminating associations that would otherwise lie far beneath the surface.

Market research at Quixote Group

Chuck Mattina, president of Quixote Group, uses VE as a tool in focus groups to help consumers ar
ticulate the emotional connection they have with a product, service or company. Gaining insights into the emotional connection allows clients to understand how to create preference and loyalty to their brands, and can create meaningful differentiation among commodity oriented products or services.

There are many unique applications for Visual Explorer in the area of focus group research. Quixote Group has combined Visual Explorer with mind mapping techniques to help clients better understand the rational (mind mapping) and emotional (Visual Explorer) benefits of a concept. The result of these combined exercises is a visual depiction of a concept that helps everyone within the client company “see” what the concept means to the target audience.

Visual Explorer also allows researchers to better unde
rstand the meaning of words that may be multi-dimensional. For example, “comfort” can mean many things, even when used to describe something as simple as a sock (figure 1, above). Using Visual Explorer, one not only discovers that "comfort creates confidence," but one can also better understand the different dimensions and meanings of confidence (figure 2, below).
Figure 2: The dimensions and meanings of "comfort = confidence"
Visual Explorer can also help focus group respondents summarize their feelings toward a product or service in ways that allow them to verbalize their emotions in a safe and effective way. For example, in exploring the emotional benefits of a product that helps or minimize the appearance of scars, Quixote Group asked respondents to select a picture that described how they would feel if their scars were reduced or minimized. Several images were consistently selected throughout multiple focus group sessions.
The chick and egg represented a feeling of rebirth and renewal, and related to the idea that the only time women consider their skin to be perfect is when they were born. The exercise also allowed women to verbalize how they feel when their child gets their first scar, as they realize that their children’s skin is no longer perfect.

This dove being released expressed the sense of freedom that respondents would feel they were no longer controlled by their scars.
The exercise allowed women to talk about the steps they take when dressing to hide certain scars, and how free they would feel if they no longer had to worry about it any longer.

Visual Explorer can also help researchers go be
yond language and cultural barriers by using the common language of photos. In conducting research for a line of cookware designed for Hispanic families, Quixote Group used Visual Explorer to gain insights into what family means to first generation Hispanic Americans. The exercise allowed women to convey the role they play in the family, as well as the importance of nutrition, family values, traditions and education.

Quixote Group also uses Visual Explorer to help understand the emotional benefit of rational concepts and ideas. Focus group respondents can easily talk about the perceived benefits offered by the ability to customize their own furniture, but will have difficulty in articulating how a concept such as this would make them f
eel. Visual Explorer helps bridge the gap by providing respondents with a range of interesting visual stimuli that allows them to express their feelings about even the most rational of ideas. The keys to using Visual Explorer effectively in a focus group are knowing when to introduce the exercise and how to properly phrase the selection criteria.

Quixote Group also culls down the number of photos prior to a focus group to avoid overwhelming respondents, and will often eliminate photos that may be too literal or obvious based on the topic.

Understanding the worldviews of Ge
neration Y in Argentina
Visual Explorer is about sculpting knowledge.
Alvaro Rolon, Neelus
Neelus Business Innovation is a consulting company in Argentina who wanted to understand the worldviews and preferences of Generation Y (age 17 to 25). These young people face great social uncertainties and challenges, and are the first generation to fully experience a globalized economy. Companies had come to Neelus with their problems in understanding this generation and in dealing with differences from prior generations. They had several key questions:
1- How might we segment the new so-called Generation Y in Argentina?
2- How do those young people relate to the future? What there are their dreams for the future?
3- How does Generation Y understand relationships between themselves and significant others?
4- What are their expectations for jobs and careers? What should companies do to gain acceptance and raise motivation among those young people?
5- What are the implications for their behaviors and attitudes toward brands?
Neelus addressed these questions through three linked research methodologies:
A-Ethnographic observation: visiting universities, public places, jobs, etc. in order to observe how they move, what they do, what they use, etc.
B-Quantitative surveys: Responding to specific questions about preferences etc. on numerical scales.
C-Metaphoric exploration: Visual Explorer, collage, and dialogue.
Neelus understood that what people say, and even what they do, are not sufficient for the deeper kinds of understanding they sought: It is critical to understand what people mean, underneath their actions and words. According to Alvaro Rolon and Juan Ordoñez, Neelus co-founders, they used VE to understand “what they think and feel in a subtler way about what they expect, their dreams, and their fantasies.”

Neelus sampled a total of 63 young people, ages 17 to 25, some studying at university, and some working people. 14 small groups were formed, each focusing their deeper exploration on one of five broad areas: Life (the most general), Work, Relationships, and Leisure/Fun. Because the key questions are mainly future-oriented (expectations, dreams, careers), each group had a framing question of the form “What will Life [or Work, Relationships, Leisure] be like in the year 2020?”

Neelus used VE in a innovative way, such that the group dialogue was separated from the image selection and description. Each group was led by a psychologist trained in the process. First, each person chose an image in response to the group’s framing question (and it worked well to add the suggestion “… or let the image choose you.”) Each person then filled out a worksheet about their perceptions and interpretations of the image in light of the question. Each person then spoke to the group about their image.

After the VE step, the group together built a collage, as a representation of their collective answer to the framing questions, with images from magazines (using up VE images in that way proved to be too expensive). The final step in the two-hour process was a dialogue about metaphors. The group was asked: “Forget the images … what metaphor would you use in response to this statement: For me living [working, etc.] in the future is like … .”

According to Alvaro: "The conversation around the metaphors, that’s when the subtle content came out. People crying … that’s when the deep stuff came up, like therapy.”

Finally, Neelus convened an interdisciplinary group of experts to put all the results on the table and interpret themes. Eight main themes were discerned. The slides illustrating the first theme of depersonalization are shown below:

Insights and advice for using Visual Explorer for ethnography

Alvaro Rolon of Neelus offers some insights and advice about using Visual Explorer for this kind of ethnography:
  • VE is about sculpting knowledge. We use it in all our projects.
  • If I want to put myself in the universe—mind, spirit, body—of the other person, what tools do I have? Language itself does not do it all. VE helped us to find a third language, where the personal and social universes meets, but in a language that makes more sense, and it reveals and discovers new things. VE is close to the spirit or heart, to the language people have inside. The three languages are:
    1. What I SAY (survey. I speak in words and numbers.)
    2. What I DO (ethnographic; I speak by actions.)
    3. What I MEAN (symbolic, visual, imaginal. I speak in images.)
  • With any group, I see them be empowered by Visual Explorer, because they have to choose the image. In other circumstances, you put them in a powerless place, because you only ask them questions. Here, they feel empowered by seeing the images to choose, they become artists, they sculpt things. You become artists with these images.
What advice do you have for others using VE for a similar purpose?
  • Have fun! I mean it.
  • Don’t put your universe straight in their universe. First, before any sessions, you use the tool and get to know it. Try to understand the language behind the tool yourself.
  • For some of them, entering the symbolic level is quite difficult. When you say “Choose an image that represents …” they look at you funny. For them the process feels like a jumbo jet landing in 10 seconds—but when it lands they are good.
  • We needed to make them feel comfortable, and build trust. We spent 2 hours with each group.
  • Build good questions. We spent a week thinking of the questions. Einstein said: 59 min asking the question, one minute answering.
Further reading
Davenport, T.H., and Beck, J.C. The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2001.

Palus, C.J., & Horth, D.M. (2002). The leader’s edge: Six creative competencies for navigating complex challenges. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palus, C.J., & Drath, W.H. (2001). Putting something in the middle: An approach to dialogue. Reflections. 3(2), 28-39.
Pink, D.H. Metaphor Marketing. Fast Company, 14, 1998, p. 214.
Suri, Jane Fulton & Suzanne Gibbs Howard. Going Deeper, Seeing Further: Enhancing Ethnographic Interpretations to Reveal More Meaningful Opportunities for Design. Journal of Advertising Research, September 2006. more at IDEO>>

Zaltman, J. and Coulter, R.H. Seeing the Voice of the Customer: Metaphor-Based Advertising Research. Journal of Advertising Research, 35 (4), 1995.

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March 02, 2008

Artful coaching: Visual Explorer as a tool for one-on-one leadership coaching

.One-on-one coaching of leaders can benefit from artful coaching methods and tools (summarized below). Visual Explorer is one such artful coaching tool supporting a variety of coaching processes and objectives.

Leadership Coaching at the Center for Creative Leadership>>

Benefits of Visual Explorer in leadership coaching:
  • Supports the key leadership abilities of visioning, perspective taking, creative thinking and action, and presence in expression and communication
  • Supports positive development and whole person functioning
  • Engage the client as a creative, imaginative person
  • Help the client make sense of and navigate turbulence and complexity
  • Build client-coach rapport
  • Supports brief coaching
  • Supports online / virtual coaching contexts
Artful coaching is the application of abilities, media, and methods from or related to the arts within the practice of one-on-one coaching of managers, professionals, and leaders.

The media and methods of artful coaching fall into six basic categories:
  1. Creating, perceiving, and interpreting images such as drawings and photographs
  2. Making, telling, and listening to stories
  3. Becoming aware of and crafting metaphors;
  4. Dialogue around artifacts from people’s work and personal lives, including their creative endeavors
  5. Becoming aware of and crafting the environments in which coaching occurs
  6. Becoming aware of and reshaping body movement, posture, kinesthetics, and voice
In our research on how coaches used artful practices, we observed that coaches were using these artful practices for the reasons shown in Table 1. Visual Explorer is a useful tool within this range of artful coaching objectives.


Where are you?: A Presencing Exercise
By Tzipi Radonsky

Presence is the art of being in the moment: all distractions laid aside and the space cleared for the work of coaching to happen. Coaching sometimes is only seen as getting "there." Often forgotten is that coaching is a process of being alive in the moment to what arises in total support of assisting the client in getting what they want. So there is all this wandering from Here to There that must happen. Each place must be defined through presence, as a process of noticing what is. During the session there needs to be an awareness of distractions and then making the choice to listen to the words, the rhythm, the pauses, the sighs. Through inquiry the coachee can be brought into the present moment so they can do their work. So we start with here and the first question can be: Where are you?

The coaching encounter below illustrates some key insights regarding presence during coaching.
  • Help the coachee separate from where he or she is coming from. Clear the space, as the threshold is crossed into the coaching session.
  • Ask: Where are you? Use images to explore the present. The move to the image and establish presence, rather than starting with a goal statement.
Consider this disguised case. Jim is Jo’s coach. They had met once in person for a session, now they are doing a follow-up phone coaching session. Jo is a little late for the call. After greetings, Jim asks:
“Is there something that happened that made you late? Is there something going on for you that might want to get out of the way before we move into our time together?” “No” she said.
In this exchange Jim had sensed some unknownns and did not want to move forward without evoking presence. Jim then asks,
“Relax and take a few deep breaths … Close your eyes if that feels comfortable.”
Then Jim slowly led Jo through a brief guided reflection:
“Ok, Jo, I want you to ask yourself ‘Where am I?’ and respond, silently to yourself, in terms of the four worlds: Physically where are you ... emotionally where are you ... where are your thoughts ... and, where are you in connection with the mystery of life."
In less than a minute she responded in each realm. Then Jim invited Jo to look at the set of Visual Explorer images they could both see on their computer screens. Jim asked the framing question:
“What is going on for you right now? Where are you?”
Jo picked two images, the fencer, and the cathedral. She described each image, then what it meant to her. Looking closely at these same images, Jim listened and asked questions to keep Jo focused on each image.
“I am feeling strong and courageous. The fencer is both out of focus, and focused. I am feeling both strong and vulnerable. Both graceful, and decisive.”
Jo went on to talk about her sense of “do not fear.” She described how she had recently begun looking at people with love and appreciations, and she could see the positive changes that had caused.

Now that Jo was able to describe where she is, Jim felt comfortable in approaching Jo to talk about where she wants to be going.

Table 1: Typical Objectives of Artful Coaching Practices



Provide key leadership perspectives and abilities

Artful methods are a way to promote leader qualities such as vision, perspective taking, creative thinking and action, expression and communication, etc. “Business leaders have much more in common with artists ... and other creative thinkers ... . (Zaleznik, 1977).”

Engage the client as a creative, imaginative person

Many coaches encounter ambivalence towards creativity and imagination in the workplace, and choose to declare their support for these qualities in their clients, especially as tied to leadership and whole-life issues. Also many clients are “stuck” in some way, and VE can be used to get unstuck.

Help the client navigate turbulence and complexity

Metaphors, stories, and images provide ways of engaging the complex and often chaotic worlds the client is operating in. Data by itself is not enough for representing meaningful connections and patterns.

Build positive client-coach relationships

Artful methods potentially lead to a deeper rapport with the client. This is about being present, paying attention to, and resonating with a client’s language, environment, artifacts, and physical being. Mutual vulnerability and trust are served.

Supports positive development and whole person functioning

Coaching can shift from transactional to transformational, and one needs more resources to do this Artful methods work from inner recognition and integration, rather than a sense of “broken getting fixed.” Artful methods are seen as natural to whole people. “We as humans talk and think naturally in metaphors, stories, and images.”

Supports the coaches themselves

Many coaches claim to feel more engaged and authentic when using their artful approaches. Typically coaches have invented or adapted methods resonant with their own talents. Some organizations with coaching processes provide (in the words of one coach) “a specific template on the coaching relationship,” which some coaches find restrictive and narrow.

Brief or distance relationships with some coachees requires bolder methods

Artful coaching provides some ways to quickly connect and deepen reflection, presence, and shared meaning with clients. Distance coaching (i.e. telephone) can benefit from methods for creating shared imagery.

Table 2: Three Levels of Artful Coaching

Levels of Artful Coaching

A: Coach

B: Coachee

C: Coaching Encounter

Level 1: Attention

Initiation of relationship / Beginner as artful coach

Supporting active perception by coach and coachee

Coach “reads” (pays careful attention to) the coachee, situation, and environment by listening and looking for stories, metaphors, images, artifacts, etc.

The client is supported in paying attention to (“reading”) self, relationships, and environment, using an expanding repertoire of senses and devices.

The context is one of rapport building. The environment provides opportunities for each party to pay attention. The notion of artistry is implicit rather then explicit, and involves attending to artifacts rather than creating art.

Level 2: Tool Use (Instrumental)

Intermediate / Experimentation

Using tools and media for the creation of meaning

The coach helps the coachee deliberately construct and shape various kinds of meaningful artifacts such as self-narratives, personal metaphors, scenarios, etc.

The client is actively constructing various kinds of representations and perspectives using any of a variety of media.

The encounter involves more explicit use of artistry. Artful tools and methods are at hand, and offered depending on readiness and need. An environment of shared sensemaking and reflection is provided or created.

Level 3: World Making (Mastery)

Mastery / Integrated Artful Practice

Remaking the relationship of self and world

The coach has a refined sensibility and philosophy for using artistic means in service of human transformation, including experience and competence in a variety of media and tools.

The client explores and develops his/her own competency as a world-maker or artist with respect to the transformation of self, relationships, and environments.

There is a sense of risk associated with exploring the unknown, and commitment to transformation. All creative resources are fair game for application toward further development.


Palus, C.J. (2006). Artful coaching. In Ting, S., & Scisco, P. (Eds.), The CCL Handbook of Coaching: A Guide for the Leader Coach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 259-285.

Palus, C.J., & Horth, D.M. (2005). Leading creatively: The art of making sense. Ivey Business Journal. September / October. Reprint # 9B05TE05.

Palus, C. J. (2004). Artful coaching: An exploration of current one-on-one leader coaching practices. Proceedings of the Second International Coach Federation Coaching Research Symposium. 03 November, 2004, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

Note: The term Artful Coaching is used by the Adler School of Professional Coaching (, and predates my use of the term. The meanings are compatible but I use it as an umbrella for a family of perspectives and practices, and the Adler School’s is a proper name of a course offering as well as a specific set of principles.

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