Enhancing a discovery phase with sacrificial design concepts

  • Natalie Vanns

Sacrificial concepts on a wall

We recently worked with a startup in the health and wellness sector, from discovery into iterative design sprints. Behaviours and attitudes towards health are complex and very personal. This meant we needed various ways for people to share their attitudes and thoughts in our research.

One of the tools we used during discovery were sacrificial concepts. They enhanced discussion with participants, and provided a foundation for the upcoming design sprints.

Here, we’ll explore what sacrificial concepts are, and why they are useful.

What are they?

Sacrificial concepts are a tool originally developed by the design firm IDEO. They are used in early research as a stimulus for discussion, and are different from presenting prototypes later in the design process for the purposes of testing or validation.

Sacrificial concepts are:

  • Deliberately rough. It is important that the concepts are low fidelity, so that participants can be honest about their raw reaction to them. We used quick hand sketches for this particular project. Using a rough medium also invites the participant to build on the concepts.
  • Broad and provocative. By putting a range of sacrificial concepts on the table, including more provocative concepts, you can understand the space future solutions might operate in: where its edges are, and the reactions to various ways of approaching the problem. Explore the space and the possibilities within that, instead of only showing very similar concepts which feel ‘right’. It’s also really useful to know what doesn’t sit well, and why.
  • Disposable. The combination of rough, broad and provocative concepts means that ultimately, some, if not all will be disposed of. It’s the insights you’re looking for at this stage, not the solution.

Why are they useful?

  • They create discussion. The primary goal of sacrificial concepts is to generate conversation to understand participants’ attitudes and reactions within the area you’re researching.
  • They give the participant permission to be critical. Broad and provocative sacrificial concepts give permission to participants to be critical in their responses. Inevitably, they won’t all sit well with the participant. Sometimes it’s easier for a participant to start with what isn’t working, and discuss from there.
  • They communicate concepts quicker than verbal discussion can. The visual nature of sacrificial concepts gets to a different layer of understanding than using words alone. This enhances discovery depth interviews, which are oriented around conversations. They help communicate concepts clearly in the session. It’s also interesting to see how the participant visually interprets the concept which might vary from person to person.
  • To gain early insight for design. People’s reactions to sacrificial concepts gives a useful foundation for design. For the health project, they informed a set of design principles to guide design concepting.
  • They are low investment. By nature, sacrificial concepts are quick and cheap to produce. The insight they bring at this point in the project by contrast is highly valuable.

In summary

Sacrificial concepts can be a powerful tool to enhance discovery. For the health and wellness project, they gave us a deeper understanding of people’s attitudes and needs, which enhanced the research insight, design principles, and set of personas from discovery.

We entered the design sprints with a better idea of how much information different people wanted and why, what type and depth of information they wanted, and how they might want to engage with the service.


We are specialists in service design, user research, discovery and prototyping for public services, health and the third sector.

To find out more, contact us on 020 7193 8952 or email hello@macementer.com.

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