Ralph Steadman’s immortal illustration of Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

4 Secrets For Doing Gonzo User Research

Fast, cheap, and out-of-control insights can help you to outsmart the competition. Here’s how to gather them.

A few years ago, I got to partner up with one of the world’s best ad creatives, Steve Henry. We spent the morning working on a brief for premium frozen foods. We blasted out a load of ideas and then hit a lull, as creative teams do. Rather than start to talk about last night’s TV, Steve said, "Let’s go shopping."

The two of us hung out in the frozen food section of a local supermarket. We surreptitiously dropped some premium goods from elsewhere in the shop into the freezer. We could instantly see how subtle designs like Kettle Chips disappeared in the mist. Tossing a pack of premium potato chips into a freezer may have saved us weeks of mocking up classy line-drawn brown paper packs. It was a kind of instant prototyping, made up on the spot.

Often, when companies or designers embark on research, they think in terms of huge attitude and usage studies, costly rounds of focus groups, or months of ethnography. Worse than being expensive, they can slow the process of innovation down. The best kind of research provides revelations that nobody ever noticed before. And you don’t have to spend a fortune to get that.

Instead, you have to channel your inner Hunter S. Thompson, head out into the world with a little devilment on your mind, and go gonzo. It’s cheap, it’s fun, and it gets results, even if you occasionally get moved on by supermarket security for messing up their freezers. Here’s some gonzo methodologies to get designers and communicators thinking in radical new directions:

Get physical

You probably aren’t designing for somebody who sits around in a fancy studio or corner office. So why are you sitting in one? In the 1970s, a young creative named Patricia Moore dressed as an elderly lady, wearing prosthetics that restricted her movement and eyesight. Her experiences transformed the way Raymond Loewe’s team designed for less able users. Moore is a unique person who spent three years in character. You don’t have to go to those lengths, though. Half an hour may be all you need.

Patricia Moore, undercover as an old lady.

Brian Collins was named as one of Fast Company’s Masters of Design. When he designed the Hershey store in Times Square, he got his team to pound the sidewalks of New York—on their knees. It gave them a new perspective on the challenge—literally. How do you design something that looks amazing to a three-foot-tall kid who’s getting jostled by giants?

Do some deep hanging out

AMV/BBDO is one of London’s best ad agencies. It needed some breakthrough thinking to warn young women away from smoking. For years, anti-tobacco advertising in the U.K. had concentrated on health messages. But teenagers think they’re immortal, so preachy ads fell on deaf ears.

An AMV staffer hung out in coffee shops, clothing stores, and bars, earwigging on the conversations of young women. She worked out how much time they were talking about different subjects and reported back after a couple of days. It turned out that their target market spent far more of their time talking about their looks. From there, it was a short hop and a skip to a brief that hitched the concerns of girls to a big bummer about smoking: It gives you bad skin, makes you smell, and you end up with a mouth more puckered than a cat’s butt. The result? The campaign had a real effect on smoking in the U.K. Well worth the price of a dozen lattes.

Enlist barefoot ethnographers

There are now more than a billion smartphones in the world. That means a billion people walking around with cameras in their pockets. Need to know what it’s like to buy a product in India? Need to know what a game of soccer looks like in a favela outside Sao Paulo? It’s always best to go on a plane to find out. If you can’t, just ask people to film the experience for you. At Sense Worldwide, we’ve built up a network of freelance researchers, planners, and designers who can quickly paint us a picture of what it’s like to kill a roach in Tokyo or go running in Seoul. You can do the same. Reach out through your connections on LinkedIn. Set your Facebook ad phasers to Interests: design, photography; Location: Shinjuku. Find your barefoot ethnographers, hire their smart phones and smarter brains, then see the world through their eyes.

Start a research amnesty

It’s an embarrassing truth about most big corporations. They have vast amounts of existing research that nobody has time to read. Sometimes it can seem so much easier to commission some new stuff than to dig around in the old work, and of course, research companies are happy to oblige.

That’s a shame, because you can actually hack research documents pretty fast. Get some big pieces of board and a ton of Post-It notes. Write each insight or question contained in those documents onto Post-Its, and stick them up. Once you’re through the documents, start to cluster the Post-Its by theme. Patterns will start to emerge. Questions will start to form. If the questions seem useful (Why do nations who say they love fresh food buy the least of our fresh products?"), maybe you’re onto something.

At Sense Worldwide, we call this process a "research amnesty." It’s a name that helps people own up to the research they’ve never read, the intranets that nobody logs into, and the giant decks that got printed out and filed somewhere. If your mountain of research is anything like our clients’, you’ll have enough opportunities, insights, and revelations to keep your marketing, sales, and R&D people fuelled with insights for at least 18 months.


If you’re not being inspired by your research, your audience won’t be inspired by your work. As the father of gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." You were weird enough to become a creative pro. Don’t let research drag you down to being average. Time to go gonzo.

[Image: cellphone via Shutterstock]

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  • loususi

    absolutely brilliant article 

    i love it

    i've been practicing what you're calling 'gonzo' design research now for decades — and, as you advise, i don't necessarily stay in character for years like Patricia Moore, but i wholeheartedly believe changing your mindset and exploring the everyday in a new way enlightens, delights and opens up new opportunities for design like nobody's business

    my academic background as an undergrad focused on painting and experimental  performance art always benefits the user-centered experience design side that makes up my day job proclivities — its astounding what you discover with a touch of purposeful persona-driven schizophrenic hat swapping and a short midday jaunt down through the mall 

    thank you for writing this article — and thanks for advocating the kind of madness i practice on a near-daily basis as a ux innovation architect

  • Iain H

    a great article, and it reminds me of the time Angry Budd and I took a
    similar approach for Accolade computer games. We hung outside Burger
    King in Leicester Sq and invited young teenage boys to sit in a basement
    with the promise of new computer games!What we picked up from them helped us create a new brand and our most awarded piece of work. And it was a hoot, to boot. Chiat
    Day also had a policy of kicking you out of the agency during downtime.
    'Get out and eavesdrop; interact with consumers'. Very David Ogilvy,
    and very valuable, too.

  • Will KC

    Ahh..yes.  On a scouting mission yesterday (to show an MD that his stores looked like they had been designed using a lidless blender) I was busted for taking photos. Falling back on the old ad grad excuse I blurted "I'm a student!". "No you're not" came the instant reply - I'm in my mid-30's and was wearing cords. 
    New excuses needed for middle aged Freezer Safaris.

  • Simon Kwan

    The first two points seemed obvious to me, but then again, I was lucky enough to have Pat Moore as an instructor at ASU during my graduate studies in Qualitative Industrial Design Research.

    The idea of Enlisting Barefoot Ethnographers is a good one. If you need to design for a culture you can't easily access, enlisting locals to document their environments and lifestyles is a useful hack.

    Regarding Research Amnesty, however, I'd caution that you have to put that research into context. Some of that mountain of research may have been commissioned years ago, and the relevance of much of that insight might no longer be, well, relevant. Our world is changing at such an increasingly rapid pace that the half life of relevance for research may be conversely just as rapidly decreasing.

  • JanJaap Rypkema

    Brian, it's a nice enough summary of exisiting tactics and approaches, and of course nice and short, but come on... gonzo?
    You got the User part right, I'm sure Hunter Thompson would  give you credit for that; after kicking your ass and running after you with a .45 for prostituting his motto.

  • James Graemer

    Really interesting read. The default option of commisioning a big study is perhaps less relevant than ever, and often comes down to people approaching problems in the wrong way. I like the distinction between puzzles and mysteries (by Gregory Treverton, initially). To solve a puzzle you need to find out more information, whereas a solving a mystery relies on better analysis of the information you already have to hand. Too much time (and money) is spent looking at problems as puzzles, and not enough on solving the mystery. The gonzo approach certainly starts to redress the balance, so thanks for the tips!

  • iOwn Advisors

    Great Article. The concept of channeling your inner Hunter Thompson is brilliant.

  • Jodi Cary

    I'm thinking that 10 years as a stay-at-home mom qualifies as "deep hanging out," or perhaps I'm a "Barefoot Ethnographer" (at least while I was pregnant). I'm surprised, however, that many marketers don't understand the value of my experience. Seriously, it's a whole different world down here in the suburban trenches.  http://jodicary.com/2011/05/19...   

  • John Eaton

     Just read your SAHM ethnography post...brilliant! I did market research for many years to help design interior features for cars/truck/minivans...and I wish blogs like yours were available then. The insights would have turned the industry around.

    I'd encourage anyone with a need to really know a "target" consumer to avoid assumptions, celebrate uniqueness, and get "real" with the people you're trying to reach.

  • mhensgen

    I think for the most part the days of the humongous "A&U" surveys are over. Like your "deep" and "physical" dynamics in getting a handle on the innermost workings that are driving customers. Nobody said it has to be perfect, but then again, if we're smart, insightful guys, that's what we're getting paid for.
    Mike Hensgen www.SMEbrandleverage.com   @MrSMEbranding