As I get closer to proposing a data collection method for my research, I’ve been giving further thought to the emerging phenomena of using “canvases” as a way of summarising complex concepts. As noted previously, I’m considering using a canvas of my own devising in interviews with creative industries entrepreneurs, and this has led me to thinking about the pros and cons of canvassing (to boldly turn a noun into a verb) compared to straightforward qualitative interviews.
What is a canvas in this context? It’s a simple, conceptual map printed on a large piece of paper, which is then used as a focal point for a discussion around a particular topic.
It’s been popularised by Osterwalder & Pigneur’s Business Model Canvas, published in their 2010 book Business Model Generation. In that formative example, the Business Model Canvas is a conceptual map of a generic business model, onto which individuals or groups of people can add specific detail. The canvas itself sprang from Osterwalder’s PhD research into a standard business model ontology, but as he says in this video interview, the adaptation of his theoretical model into a simple, visual map enabled a practical way for business owners and entrepreneurs to describe and detail their own business models. Since then, the Business Model Canvas has been adapted for a range of other uses, as noted here.
What then, is the standard way to use a canvas like Osterwalder & Pigneur’s? Generally, a facilitator will lead a group of people through an exercise to help populate a canvas with information which adds descriptive detail to the framework presented. The end result is a fully fleshed out model; a previously theoretical idea made comprehensible by detailing its component elements and illustrating the links between them.
A common method for such exercises is to print the canvas on a large piece of paper and stick it to a wall (or draw the canvas framework on a whiteboard). The facilitator will then invite the participants to consider each of the framework’s elements in turn. For example, in order to complete the Business Model Canvas component “customer segments”, participants may be asked to name the key customer segments addressed by their business. Contributions are then written on post-it notes, which are stuck in the relevant location on the canvas. If a relevant customer segment is, for example, “teenagers”, then that gets written on a post-it and stuck under “customer segments”. And so on until the canvas has been filled with sufficient detail to fully describe the model under examination.
This is what I’m calling “canvassing”. As an activity, it differs considerably from pure interviewing. The facilitator is not merely a passive collector of information. Instead, they are an active contributor to the discussion, leading the conversation, adding their own contribution and acting as a guide to the canvas and its components. The positioning of the canvas as a large, visible presence in the room provides a focal point for the ensuing discussion. It becomes a graphical representation of the conversation, built up over the course of the exercise. At the end of a session, it becomes a record of discussions which have taken place.
The visual element provided here an important differentiator and offers some advantages over a traditional interview. As post-it notes are added to the canvas, they serve as memory aids for participants, who can see their past contributions listed and ordered in front of them. The positioning of the post-its provides a visual representation of the relationships between concepts. Hierarchical arrangements of post-its can be used to differentiate primary headings from related sub-headings. Because the notes themselves can be moved, edited or discarded, the model created is not fixed until the session’s end. Participants can amend or even correct previous contributions by moving or discarding ideas. This makes canvassing a dynamic activity, allowing participants to consider their contributions critically as they build the model.
What this generates is, I suggest, a different cognitive process for participants when compared to responding to a one-on-one interview. It allows for an awareness of what has already been said, eliminating repetition and giving space for new ideas to emerge. It allows participants to reorder ideas as the conversation develops (“move that post-it note from square a to square b,” for example).
Further, canvassing adds an element of task completion which an interview does not. In a canvas session, facilitator and participants have a shared task to complete, i.e. the detailing of the canvas itself. So, the structure of the activity is clear from the outset, unlike an interview where the interviewee is simply responding to the interviewer’s questions, without any sense of how the questions are ordered or why. The canvas becomes a third presence in the room, diffusing the direct interviewer/interviewee relationship and creating a more comfortable environment for ideas to emerge.
On the face of it, canvassing seems to have some advantages to interviewing as a data collection technique. The use of post-it notes to capture key concepts can be seen as a way of tagging data during the process itself, saving time and effort. Different coloured post-its can be used to link ideas of a similar nature, in addition to the relative position of ideas on the canvas itself. But the brevity of those post-it notes may be one of the disadvantages of canvassing. Complex ideas are by necessity over-simplified.
Another challenge is the difference in role between facilitator and interviewer. As noted above, the facilitator is an active presence in the room. An impartial, “silent listener” approach would be difficult to maintain when canvassing. This means that the influence of the facilitator on the data collection process would need to be monitored, assessed and possibly allowed for in any analysis. As the facilitator is generally the person writing and positioning the post-it notes on the canvas, their influence is palpable. They are in effect editing the output of the session as they go. And they perform multiple tasks during a canvas session – writing, posting and talking – meaning it is possible that some important data gets missed.
These difficulties have been explored by Burgess-Allen and Owen-Smith (2009) when talking about using mind mapping as a research tool, while examining the impact of an alcohol service within a health care environment. Canvassing can be seen as a form of mind mapping and so Burgess-Allen and Owen-Smith’s reservations are relevant here – particularly those about the multi-tasking of the facilitator and the lack of detail allowed in a mind map. The solution they propose is that the mind map should be supplemented with other data capture techniques, such as an audio recording and transcript of the session and a post-session review of the mind map created. (“Listening back to the audio-recording allows for missing elements to be added to the map afterwards,” they note. “In our experience, listening back to the recording invariably reveals some categories that were omitted from the original map.”)
In one way, this may be unnecessary double handling: if you’re going to need a transcript and a canvas, then why not stick to just straight interviewing? The logical answer must be that in order to justify canvassing as a data gathering technique, the combination of a canvas and an audio recording/transcript would have to provide a greater level of insight and better data than simply using interviews alone. I’ve yet to find any literature which makes that comparison, so I’m reliant on my instinct that a canvas methodology may appeal to creative industry entrepreneurs and may encourage more focussed and more valuable contributions to any discussion about their entrepreneurial journey. If nothing else, that instinct is fuelled by an awareness of the popularity of canvassing as a way of helping people grasp and improve their understanding of complex, multi-faceted concepts.
The reality is, I won’t know if it works until I try it. Which neatly brings us back to Osterwalder, who, in another video interview, nominates a level of comfort with uncertainty as being the key attribute of successful entrepreneurs. It would be fitting (not to mention academically nerve wracking!) if in a study of entrepreneurs, uncertainty about data collection needs to be embraced.
Burgess-Allen, J. and V. Owen-Smith (2010). “Using mind mapping techniques for rapid qualitative data analysis in public participation processes.” Health expectations : an international journal of public participation in health care and health policy 13(4): 406-415.
Osterwalder, Alexander, Yves Pigneur, Tim Clark, and Alan Smith. 2010. Business model generation: a handbook for visionaries, game changers, and challengers.
“The Business Model Canvas, an Interview with Alex Osterwalder” Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=XR6HwIwUEyM
“The origin of the business model canvas – A conversation between Alex Osterwalder & Bill Fischer” Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMoSzWp6u1c