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Deprivation: Absence Makes the Insights Grow Stronger

Can a Deprivation Study be the thing to kick-start your next big innovation? This not-often-talked about method in design research consists of behavioral prototype tests to explore behavior change.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Sasha McCune will be speaking at IIeX North America 2019 in Austin, TX. If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX North America. Click here to learn more. 


Looking for a way to work towards your teams’ next product innovation? If I offered up rapid prototyping of a new product or service as a method, you wouldn’t blink. But what about behavioral prototype testing?

That a blank stare I see? Allow me to introduce you to Deprivation-based research: an unsung hero when it comes to helping innovation teams expedite learnings.

So, What is a Deprivation Study?

This not-often-talked about method in design research can leave some confused. If you Google this, your results will include a bunch of scholarly articles about sleep deprivation. Hmm… not quite what we had in mind!

Deprivation Research is essentially a behavioral prototyping test. We use this approach for thoughtful contextual experiments – tasking research participants to, quite literally, deprive themselves of something we are studying in order to learn alongside their experiences of going without. This might mean asking participants to forgo their usual favorite, go-to products altogether, or alternatively that we swap and replace their usuals with alternative solutions.

The Goal?

The goal of a Deprivation Study is to better understand what users do without, or in place of, the deprived item. This provides us with the ability to explore the impact of change or to explore a future state.

I can hear the skeptics: What? People actually agree to this? Yes! And they have a pretty good time doing it. We find that participants are often just as curious about what the researchers will ask of them and what they will learn about themselves! A well-executed study provides participants with rules, while also encouraging them to push the boundaries of them and stay honest to their experiences living by (or breaking) those rules, resulting in a cathartic or playful experience.

Examine the Void

Deprivation presents you with the opportunity to turn your own methods and approaches on their heads in order to get insights in a new way. Instead of studying something, you are doing the reverse – examining its absence – exploring alternatives and discovering within the negative space. By breaking participants’ normal routines, and exploring modified behavior, you can get to the core needs and motivations that might be difficult for users to fully articulate otherwise. Invert everything, and innovation will follow.

Explore Behavior Change for Future, Hypothesized States

Users might SAY they want something different, but what happens if we take away their usual, and give them what they have asked for in its place? How does their version of the ideal actually match up with their experienced reality? Deprivation allows you to do so much more than ask “what if” – you actually get to test it. It is an easy form of projecting ahead through proxy products, alternatives, or scenarios to explore the resistance, compliance or workarounds. You also get to test in context, activating replacements within users’ real lives and outside of controlled, idealized, and, at times, aspirational lab environment

Sticky Data and Innovation Rocket Fuel

Deprivation studies are creative goldmines for user stories and videos. We have seen users’ unfiltered responses and adaptations become viral in organizations time and time again. The honesty and authenticity of unboxing reactions when participants open their “gifts” is undeniable, and the levity of the participant-generated confessions when they cheat, break the rules, or celebrate the success of their own workarounds is pure innovation fuel!

If you’re doing the same things over and over again on your research, testing and innovation initiatives, consider giving Deprivation a try. Its unique qualities can accelerate and redirect innovation initiatives by pressure testing and alternative futures before making major capital investments.

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Sasha McCune

Sasha McCune

Director of Design, Conifer Research