Word Concept Association

Word Concept Association is a way to identify relationships between two stimulus words based on the response words. If there is a similarity in the response words of two stimulus words, then it indicates a similarity between the stimulus words as well. Besides the relationship between words, the association also gives an indication of the participants’ mental models and language i.e. how participants associate one thing with another.

Quick details: Word Concept Association

Structure: Structured or Semi-structured

Preparation: Respondent recruitment, Keywords/ Flashcards

Deliverables: Transcripts, Field notes

More about Word concept association

In this method, disconnected concepts or ideas are shown to the participants either in the form of visuals or words, using flash cards or expressed through words spoken out loud. These words are called stimuli words. The participants respond with the first word that comes to their mind. Through Word Concept Association, the researcher is able to understand how the respondent’s mind works, what is their thought process, their recall, among other things. 

In design, Word Concept Association is used to determine user acceptance with a design concept. Here, concepts can be ideas, products or services – expose the participants to these, test their verbal memories and deduce the most memorable features, ideas, offering through clustering.

Word Concept Association is also used in psychology to reveal the personal world of individuals.


What are the various types of Word concept association?

Word Concept Association can be of four types – The respondents may be allowed to associate freely (free association) or responses may be limited to specific categories, to particular synonyms, to terms within a certain context, or to choose among alternatives (controlled association). The participants are shown the stimulus words just once (discrete) or a multiple number of times (continuous). This can be understood in the table below:

Free (Participants can categorize associations as they please).Free associations allow for participant-driven discoveries, limiting any preconceived barriers by the designer.
  • Lends the users more flexibility.
  • Chances of identifying criticalities are higher.
Different participants may cluster response words differently which can add complexity when consolidating findings.
Controlled (Participants can categorize associations based on pre-defined categories set by the researcher, pre-defined synonyms or to pre-defined terms).Controlled association assumes that the researcher knows the categories or contexts that matter to the participants and/or to the research project.It is an observational probing technique for the researcher as they have set the pre-defined criteria for categorizing different words into clusters. Participants are primed and choose within a laid out framework.The users have lesser flexibility in word association. The method assumes that the researcher is completely aware of the project which may not always be the case.
Discrete (participant is presented the stimulus word only once).To limit responses and keep associations focused.Focused, quick, and easy analysis.Not as in-depth.
Continuous (participant is presented the stimulus word a number of times).To keep building on user associations to concepts.Elaborate, detailed and validations associated with repetition of words.Complicated analysis and time-consuming activity.


Advantages of Word Concept Association

1. Online word concept association tools

Online word concept association tools allow for much larger samples than would be possible otherwise.

2. Rich insights with small samples

The method allows a sample size of 25 participants to arrive at insights that would be possible with a sample of 100 in other methods.


Disadvantages of Word Concept Association

1. Participant Vocabulary

In case of predefined categories, the success of the method depends upon the participant’s vocabulary and language.

2. Strict guidelines

The method requires that the participants stick to the guidelines and instructions of the researcher.

3. Record findings

The number of times the exercise is performed, the result must be recorded as any missed record of findings could sway the results elsewhere.

Think Design's recommendation

Word Concept Association is a very powerful method that gives an understanding of how people react to language, and this can be used to understand these nuances among culturally diverse participants as well. For instance, say you want to design a mobile app for an online loan application. Needless to say, this entails capturing personal data of the users and in order to make the users trust your app, you need to know what those keywords are that you would need to consider while designing the app. These keywords could later guide the communication language, the design language and the way entire UX is structured. Rather than go with the assumption that it should feel “safe”, “secure” etc., we could consider Word Concept Association as a research method.

In this case, when you want to know what are the concept words that users associate with loan, money, personal data, bank, financial institution etc., and once you arrive at users’ vocabulary around these, you could map them and design around them. At a later time, you could also validate your design using Card sorting method.

We would recommend using Word Concept Association method at very early stages of design in order to arrive at keywords or user mental models. Yes, it can be used for validating design concepts as well, but there are a host of other methods for validation.

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