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The Do's and Don'ts of Illustrating Concepts for Consumer Research

To gauge and validate consumers' interest in their new product ideas, innovation teams often send all of their product concepts through a round of consumer research. Each product concept is communicated to the research participants via a concept board containing both a description and an illustration of the concept, to which the consumer gives a reaction and feedback on the idea.

We've bolstered many innovation teams with concept sketches for their consumer research activities and have picked up on a handful of attributes that mean the difference between an effective and ineffective concept illustration.

These are 5 key do's and don'ts of consumer research concept illustrations:

1. Do Focus on The Big idea

Since the entire point of running these research sessions is to gauge your consumer's interest in your product idea, every piece of your concept illustration MUST be focused on communicating your main idea in a way that is quick and clear for your participant to understand.

Don't get in the weeds of detailing out every feature of your product. Those will simply pull your participant's attention away from what matters most, the big idea.

Instead, make sure your sketch views very directly illustrate the main idea, and ideally the user benefit behind your concept. In other words, your concept illustration should be able to answer the question, "What is it and why should they (your consumer) care"?

Key takeaways:

  • Illustrate your concept so that your big idea is quick and clear for your user to understand.

  • Don't detail out every feature of your product.

2. Don't Include Distractions

When flipping from one concept board to the next, we want your participant to very quickly focus on the big idea behind your concept and nothing else. In order to keep your participants focused on the big idea, you need to avoid giving them something else in your illustration to get hung up on.

We do not need to develop out every aspect of our product design (it is just a vision after all). But we do need to be thoughtful enough that we eliminate distractions.

A distraction might include but is not limited to: a polarizing color, something that could never work (like a motorcycle design that's unable to steer), an out of perspective sketch, or a peculiar shape (such as a phallic-shaped product).

Once you've illustrated your concept, look back over it and ask yourself "What about this might trip people up"? Better yet, show the illustration to someone with fresh eyes to see what they latch onto.

Key takeaways:

  • Don't give your participant something to get hung up on.

  • Find the balance between enough and not enough sketch development.

3. Do Use a Neutral Design Language

By the very nature of innovation, your ideas will be for products that don't yet exist. Because of that, when you illustrate your concepts, you'll have to create their look from scratch.

In an effort to keep the participants focused on the concept's big idea and not on the aesthetic of your product, it is important that you illustrate your concept products using a neutral design language, not a stylized one.

By neutral we mean non-polarizing. In other words, avoid a dated look and feel, but also avoid aggressive or futuristic styling. Instead, aim for a clean, slightly modern aesthetic.

Key takeaways:

  • Don't let styling distract your participant.

  • Keep them focused on your idea instead of the design.

4. Don't Include Branding

In the same vein as neutral design language, we also want the concept products to be brand agnostic. If we were to include brand-specific form language and badging, the consumer's judgment of your idea will potentially be distracted and biased; swayed by their perception of that brand.

Instead, by illustrating the concepts to be brandless, we keep the participant's focus on the big idea, while keeping your company anonymous.

Key takeaways:

  • Don't let brand sway your participant's judgment.

  • Keep your company anonymous.

5. Do Use a Consistent Style & Composition

During the consumer research session, participants will view a series of concepts. It is important that all of the concepts in that series are illustrated in a consistent style, with a common page composition. If the layout or fidelity jumps around, the participant will have a harder time digesting your big idea.

Varied styles and compositions also introduce multiple variables into your test, which may push participants to show preference to one concept over another, not because of that concept's benefit but because of something unimportant such as color or sketch fidelity. Keep the illustrations' style and composition consistent so that your participants will stay focused on judging the only thing changing from page to page- your ideas.

Key takeaways:

  • Consistency makes your concepts easy and quick to digest.

  • Create continuity across all concepts to avoid biases.

So, keep your concept illustration focused on your innovation's big idea. Exclude anything that doesn't help communicate that big idea.

Eliminate extraneous distractions that pull your participants' attention away from that big idea.

When sketching up your visionary products, keep their forms and lines neutral so as to make their aesthetic disappear behind the idea.

Keep your visionary products void of branding to keep your company's research efforts anonymous and avoid swaying your participants.

Lastly, stick to a consistent style and composition throughout all of your sketch pages so that the only thing that changes from page to page is your big idea.

By applying these do's and don'ts, you'll ensure that your concept illustrations function as highly effective stimuli during your consumer research session. And when your stimuli do their job, your consumer research sessions will yield better results (and give you higher confidence) about which of your product innovations resonate with your consumers.


Concept illustration is our specialty. If your innovation team could use some extra bandwidth, come have a look at the services we offer. They're all aimed at helping you innovate more and stress less.


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