The Goldfish Bowl: Design Research meets Clinical Psychology


Our Head of Research, Kate Dowler tells us about the 'Goldfish Bowl', a new co-creation technique inspired by clinical psychology practice. A new think tank helping our clients get from insight, to ideas, to evaluation of those ideas, in just a single session...

What’s great about long journeys with good friends is that you get talking about all kinds of things. My friend Anna and I travel a lot together and often have long and interesting discussions about our work, which inspire me to try something new.

Anna is clinical psychologist – psychology is at the root of qualitative consumer research and I find it a rich hunting ground for new ways of thinking about how best to involve consumers in the creative process.

On a recent car journey we discussed the power of reflective thinking, in particular a tool called the ‘Goldfish Bowl’ which is used in clinical psychology and other medical professions to look at problems and case studies from different perspectives, using the power of observation and reflection to come up with fresh thinking.

In the traditional Goldfish Bowl a small group of people discuss a scenario or case study whilst being observed by an outer ring of people, who reflect on the discussion individually from their own perspectives. The groups then swap over, with the outer group coming into the middle and sharing their thoughts on what they saw, heard and felt during the discussion. Finally, the whole group discusses the issue, capturing key learnings and conclusions.

The Goldfish Bowl Technique

What I like about this technique is:

  • It encourages reflection: In traditional market research, consumers are often expected to answer on the spot when asked a question or shown a new idea, rather than being given time to think.  
  • It promotes understanding of individual perspectives: The people in the outer ring have the opportunity to think and reflect individually before sharing their thoughts.  
  • Different roles: The inner / outer ring structure allows you to bring together diverse groups of people to help solve a challenge, who might not work as effectively together in a single mixed group.

Over the last few months we’ve been experimenting with the Goldfish Bowl principle and adapting it to form a powerful consumer co-creation technique. In our Bowl, we also use three steps:

Round 1: We start with an open discussion with a small group of consumers about the topic or category of interest, to understand the current experience, needs and pain points. During the discussion, a group of designers and other creatives form the outer “ring”, individually capturing and sketching ideas in real time that are sparked by the consumer conversation.

Round 2: The rings swap over, with the designers in the middle and the consumers on the outside. The designers share their thoughts and sketches, discussing and building on their early ideas as a group, whilst the consumers listen and reflect on each idea as it emerges.

Round 3: We form one big group and the consumers share their initial opinions and feedback on the different ideas. Finally, we capture the key recommendations as a group.

What’s great about this approach, is that it’s really quick and iterative. You can get from initial insights to ideas, to the evaluation of ideas in the space of an hour.  That’s a process that can typically take weeks or months using traditional research methods. It’s also highly collaborative and co-creative, but by giving consumers and designers different roles you get the benefits of different perspectives without relying on consumers to come up with ideas themselves.

We’ve used this approach on a number of FMCG packaging innovation projects for different clients. It’s allowed us to involve consumers early on in the creative process in a meaningful way and quickly explore a number of opportunity spaces to help establish which have the most potential.

We are always looking for new and interesting ways to engage with consumers and look forward to sharing some more fresh thinking soon.

Until the next car journey then…

Kate Dowler: Head of Research