Linda Lee on Using Visual Methods to Give Voice in Evaluations

I’m Linda Lee, partner in a Canadian social research and program evaluation company. We work in the public and not-for-profit sectors often evaluating programs that concern children and youth. Both in our work in Canada and internationally, we are frequently working in communities that have been marginalized, such as First Nations communities in Canada or Roma communities in East Central and South-eastern Europe.

As we worked with children and in these diverse communities, we recognized that many of our standard methods for data collection seemed artificial or inappropriate. Conventional methods did not always seem to be giving voice to participants or eliciting the ‘real story.’ So, along with more traditional methods (e.g., surveys, interviews) we began incorporating visual methods into our evaluations. Some examples of visual methods are:

  • Drawings (created by the participant in response to a question or prompt)
  • Graphic representations (e.g., webs, mind-maps, graphic organizers)
  • Photo-interviews (people respond to photographs taken by others, or take their own photographs to answer a question or tell a story)

The list can easily be expanded to include other visual media. The methods listed above are simple and low cost. It is reasonably easy to incorporate them into interview situations.

Lessons Learned: We found there were many advantages to using visual methods. Such methods:

  • can be used at any stage of applied research or evaluation,
  • provide a connection between psychological and physical realities,
  • allow for the combination of visual and virtual language,
  • are useful with respondents who have emerging literacy levels in the mainstream language,
  • help to build trust and relationships,
  • produce unpredictable information which may help get to the root issues,
  • promote longer, more detailed interviews,
  • support triangulation (in combination with other methods),
  • support collaborative/participatory research,
  • are liked better than conventional interviews by many participants,
  • support engagement of groups whose voices are not usually well heard.

Hot Tips and Recommendations:

  • Try using one of these methods in an evaluation, but start by coupling it with a more standard method. Many of these methods do not work well in isolation. Plus, because they are less conventional, they are not immediately credible to some audiences.
  • You can use them pre-post!
  • Drawing often works better with children than with adults who can sometimes feel self-conscious.
  • Graphic representations are familiar to children and youth as they are used by in schools. Adults may need a little more direction if they are asked to create a web or mind-map.
  • Having respondents take photographs to tell their story can be very powerful, but needs to be part of a longer term process – not one shot data collection.
  • Be inventive and have some fun!

This contribution is from the aea365 Daily Tips blog, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to

2 thoughts on “Linda Lee on Using Visual Methods to Give Voice in Evaluations”

  1. Hello Linda,
    I’m so glad that I found your post. I’m currently enrolled in a program evaluation course and we were tasked with creating a program evaluation. I am currently designing a program evaluation model for an early literacy and numeracy program and have been struggling with how to include student voice when some of those students are in JK/SK. Your post has given me some great ideas on how to collect data past forms, interviews and observations which can be challenging when program participants are so young. I really like the suggestion of drawings with the youngest participants and some sort of graphic representations of the impacts students felt on programming. I did have a couple of questions as to how to create the prompts and how to code (if applicable) the soft data for analysis. I’m finding now that with all the qualitative data I have to create a code for data entry so that I can group similar answers into “buckets”, how would you enter the data for analysis that one would gather from a drawing or a graphic? In regards to prompts, would you typically give one or multiple and how would you determine what the best prompts would be?
    Thanks again for sparking some ideas and I appreciate your contributions to the blog.
    Rachael Swain

  2. I found this blog of social research and program evaluation to be creative and a new innovative way to attain evaluation data and information. Children naturally are exciting to work with and the idea to include observation, which embraced artistic measures was breath taking.

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