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Developing ideas for the design through a thematic analysis

Keywords: understanding user; cultural probe; interview; ethnography; intangible cultural heritage; thematic analysis.

Aims and Rationale

Thematic analysis is a commonly used qualitative research technique used to extract thematic patterns from raw data. The aim of this activity, is for the students to go through a series of research-based activities that will eventually generate solutions for design from the data collected during the ICH-HCI workshop.

This stage represents the main analytical steps of the Hilali Toolkit. Together with the related Creating personas and Questions for design, this activity represents the main logical link between the Discover and the Define stage.

Learning Outcomes and Associated Areas of Knowledge

Analyse raw data and identify thematic patterns

Formulate insights that inform ICH digitally mediated technology design

21st Century skills

  • Critical Thinking
  • Scientific Literacy
  • Research Skills and Practices


Post-it notes and markers.

How to

Set this as a team-based activity. The first step is to consolidate the data collected around the users and their contexts gathered during ICH-HCI workshop.

Ask every team to gathered in circles and distribute post-it notes and markers. Encourage each student in turn to share her/his stories from the workshop and, if needed, they can draw from the notes taken during their workshop. The other teammates should capture notes, observations, and thoughts on the post-its. Once each student from each team will have shared her/his story, each team will put all the post-it notes on a large surface.

The second phase is about extracting key insights for the design from each collated set of ideas noted by the other teammates. Every team will choose the key post-its representing stories, quotes, or observations that are considered the most surprising, interesting, or provocative. These are the key insights extracted from the raw data.

The insights could already prove a useful qualitative data subset or instead require a further level of abstraction. Each team should now sort the selected insights into themes on a new surface. It is crucial that all the themes are at the same level of abstraction. This means that if a theme is too broad or has too many different ideas under it, break it down into several categories. When the students have completed the sorting, they should give each theme a title on a new post-it.

With the newly formed themes, start the Creating personas activity to refine the idea of the users and the Questions for design activity to extrapolate solutions to design for these users consistently with the themes obtained through the thematic analysis.


Because the nature of thematic analysis, the processes described above require several passages of grouping and abstraction. It is therefore crucial that the starting set of notes, observations, and thoughts is very numerous (about 100 initial produced post-its per group).

To encourage a sufficient amount of post-its, we found that it was important to explain to students that that redundancies were acceptable in the early stages and that they can approach freely and creatively the production of post-its. In our experience, the more post-its are produced in the first stage, the better the quality of the themes extracted. Starting with a limited number of notes, observations, and thoughts can lead to poor themes that could have been “guessed” in the first place. They would also not do justice to the efforts put in by the students in a laborious process such as the thematic analysis.

Inexperienced students may also go through some difficulties in dealing with level of abstractions. In our experience, this was one the aspects that required more guidance. We found that some students had put concepts such as “the Internet” and “poetry is fading away” on the same conceptual level. It may be useful to show them examples of excellent thematic analyses thanks to which coded data enabled to make sense of complex phenomena. Some examples can be found in the work of Victoria & Braun (2013) which is listed in the Suggested Literature section. These examples can also help mitigating potential scepticism that students with a technical background can have towards research method based on the abstraction of concepts.

Assessment for Learning

Although a “learn by doing” approach is an efficient way through which the students can familiarise with the method, a more compelling outcome of this activity might be the fact the students end up “learning by believing” in thematic analysis. A successful experience will enable them to overcome potential scepticism given by the apparent lack of hard rules and the lack of immediate evidence of results.

Assessment for learning is therefore very important in this activity to help scaffold the students’ personal identification with their learning experiences.  This assessment for learning activity is embedded in the phased nature of the activity whereby collectively the students analyse raw data and identify thematic patterns. As they go through the phases, asking the students to reflect on the impact of each phase from where they started in the first phase will assist their identification with the value of the process. The move to formulating insights that inform their future ICH technology designs can be reviewed at the end of the session.

Assessment 'How to'

To aid their reflections, introduce the students some of the successful examples of thematic analysis proposed by Victoria & Braun (2013) and, subsequently, involve them in a class discussion that focuses on the similarities and differences of other researchers’ investigative goals with their objective to developing ideas for the design of mobile apps for the self-documentation of ICH. This could be done pre or post activity.

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Student Assignment Editable Word File


  • Encourage the students to produce as many post-its as possible in the first stage.
  • A more attentive mentorship may be needed to guide students through understanding level of abstractions.
  • Show good and successful examples of thematic analysis.

Suggester Literature