I’ve written recently about how Qualitative research is embracing technology and in this article I’ll be sharing my own personal experience on how mobile ethnography via an online community can overcome some of the challenges faced using ‘traditional’ methods.
My observations are based on a recent project (which I’ll refer to here as “Project Drive”) in which I partnered with online qualitative solutions provider Dub www.dubishere.com. The essence of Project Drive involved understanding peoples’ pain points and frustrations during car journeys. For anyone who has ever travelled on Thailand’s roads, notorious for horrendous traffic and a high number of road accidents you can probably start to imagine the rich amount of possible material for this subject!
The study involved 20 participants recording their car journeys for 10 days, using their mobile phone to capture their experiences using text, pictures and videos. 1 to 2 additional tasks were given each day, some of them individual and some of them social (i.e. involving interacting with other members of the online community).
Making Ethnography Feasible
Good qualitative research allows you to get really close to people, especially when using ethnographic approaches, which place subjects in their everyday contexts and allow observation of the different social roles they perform. Previously, ethnography has largely been out of reach for commercial market research purposes, mainly due to the high cost of spending one week or more with a person and their family (I am not including extended home or on-site interviews as part of what I define as ‘ethnography’).
Widespread adoption of smartphones has now given us a viable alternative – ‘mobile ethnography’ – where people can record their lives using their smartphones without the need for an observer to be physically present. Aside from the huge cost savings, it also means we can cast our net wider and include people from locations we don’t normally travel to as qualitative researchers.
Reducing Observation Bias
Not being present with the participant should not necessarily be considered a disadvantage though. Observer or interviewer bias is something that is perhaps discussed more in academic circles than among qualitative market researchers, however this study did lead me to re-think this topic.
In market research a ‘good’ project is one that usually has a clearly defined ‘problem’ and a structured design is then put in place to solve this ‘problem’. When this translates to qualitative interviewing or moderating, whilst there is some scope to explore ‘out of scope’ topics, the demands of covering the discussion guide in the available time still lead to a fairly structured process. This is normal and natural for commercial market research where efficiency is paramount.
During Project Drive, I initially became a little frustrated when participants were given tasks to do and they didn’t follow the instructions (completely). But when I began to dig deeper into their responses, it occurred to me that they consciously or sub-consciously wanted to redefine the task in their own terms – they wanted to communicate about what was important to them and not what I felt was important for me to learn. Yes, this does perhaps mean that you have to review a lot of material that ultimately may not lead to anything of interest, but occasionally for the persistent, there is a wonderful nugget of insight to be had.
Mobile ethnography via online communities does give you this great balance between researcher-led and participant-led agendas and you therefore learn some wonderful things based on questions you never even asked or even thought about!
Modalities of Communication
Each one of us has preferences about how we like to communicate and receive information. Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) tells us that some of us are more verbal, some more visual and some more kinaesthetic. It is no surprise then that many of us prefer taking pictures or videos of our experience and sharing via social media rather than typing a simple blog or tweet. Pictures of today’s dinner may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in an Asian context, the unsaid is usually quite clear – tales of family bonding and expressions of love. Online communities facilitate the communication preferences of different community members by allowing them to communicate in their preferred way. In Project Drive, in addition to thousands of words, we captured over 700 photos and 80 videos from only 20 participants.
This brings up another hot topic in market research – participant engagement. Some Asian markets (including Thailand) are perhaps slow to adopt online communities, but these markets potentially have the most to gain. Asian countries enjoy some of the highest smartphone usage (and picture/video taking) in the world – it naturally follows that a well designed online community can lead to really high level of engagements in Asia. The team at Dub were quick to feedback that the level of engagement on Project Drive was one of the highest they had seen anywhere in the World.
This same principle about the different ways we prefer to receive information is at play when presenting findings to clients – in this case the videos and pictures the participants had taken were used in the presentation to allow clients to see, hear and feel the learnings.
After I had finished presenting to my client, it dawned on me that I felt I knew the 20 people in my study at a level I had rarely experienced in market research - at a level where you experience the human beyond the participant, hence the fun (but true) title of this article. Ultimately online communities have the potential to deliver to one of the key promises of great qualitative research - to close the gap between the client and their target by creating empathy between producer and consumer.