Events Research

Conducting qualitative research during COVID-19

COVID-19 has changed everything in our lives. Dr Deborah Lupton asked how can fieldwork continue now that researchers cannot simply meet with participants? The responses from her Twitter and academic community resulted in a crowdsourced resource – Doing fieldwork in a pandemic which outlines alternative methods to qualitative research. She shared this in a fully subscribed webinar hosted by QRS international.

Digital and analogue methods featured heavily as alternatives to qualitative fieldwork. Expected alternatives included

  • Phone interviews
  • Online research platforms (that can be set up by a market research company)
    • see in real-time what people are typing online (and avoids transcription)
  • Apps and social media – public and private Facebook groups, Reddit, etc
  • Online surveys
  • Scanning social media

Dr Upton emphasised novel approaches – and made me reflect on whether my own research practice could do with reinjection of creative techniques. These included:

  • Photo and video voice elicitation
    • probes that can be shared via mobile phone
    • talking and messaging in real-time
  • Re-enactment videos followed up with discussion online
  • Story completion method where people are given the beginning of a story to complete
    • Can be done via pen and paper or online using survey platform
    • Helpful for researching sensitive or highly personal topics as participants can project their experience to a hypothetical third person.
  • Epistolary interviews asynchronous, one-to-one interviews mediated by technology.
    • e.g. using email, and/or Microsoft Word to go back and forth
    • Allows time to build a relationship with the participant

There was a big emphasis on diary studies and journaling, as an alternative to ethnographic field research and interviews with lots of questions. This included creative methods as prompts for future phone and online discussion

  • Paper diaries that can be mailed, online diary platforms, or simply emailing Word docs
  • Including creative exercises such as drawings, handwritten creative responses, mapping exercises, letters, cultural probes, zine-making and collages where images are taken from magazines and words added

Revisit ethics

Dr Lupton emphasised ethical considerations of remote research in the COVID-19 context

  • People may be experiencing additional anxiety
  • The privacy of conducting remote fieldwork in shared spaces – people are now stuck in their homes with family all around them
  • People may be experiencing disrupted family relationships, violence, may be unwell, have underlying chronic health issues
  • Digital data privacy management

In some contexts, including academic contexts, the response to these considerations will require new approvals by ethics committees. In all contexts, researchers need to build trust with participants and demonstrate an understanding of the difficulties that different people are experiencing.

Everything has changed

Dr Upton believes any research of any subject will now be in the context of COVID-19.  She argued we are all COVID researchers now. The social impact of this pandemic is unknown. Upton cautioned that now is not the right time to dive into research – there’s an adjustment period and people are feeling traumatised, worried and anxious, wondering what will be happening with their lives. As researchers, we need to pause, ‘read the room’ and understand the affective atmospheres of when to do applied research. We need to protect the wellbeing of participants and ourselves and consider the timeframes when we and participants will be ready.

Alongside the wonderfully nerdy method catalogue, Upton reminded us that “this will be a long moment.”

References and links:

Design Research Service design

Design research #2: 10 questions to debrief after an inquiry

Debriefing as soon as possible after your research encounter is vital. Push yourself beyond first impressions with these 10 questions.

10 questions to ask yourself or your research partner to debrief after a contextual inquiry.
10 questions to ask yourself or your research partner to debrief after a contextual inquiry.

Design research bible

Ethnography for Marketers: A Guide to Consumer Immersion was recommended to me in 2007, I finally got round to reading it in 2010 and the other day I revisited the copious notes I took. This is a book about ethnography, research, projects and design. But why write a blog post that is a book review? Particular when the subject is essentially a text book?

Ethnography for Marketers: A Guide to Consumer Immersion by Hy Marriampolski, Sage Publications, 2006

Don’t let targeting to marketers put you off. This is a text book for human centred design that anyone who describes themselves in anyway “UX” should read. This is also a text that anyone managing UX projects should read.

Not only does the book provide a framework to conducting observational qualitative research – it goes into the detail of how to conduct that research:

  • Recruiting for respondents
  • Designing the research
  • Project planning
  • Project management – costs, risks and contingencies specific to design research
  • Analysis
  • And various ways to present findings

The book provides juicy nuggets for how to answer the perennial curly question of sample size with qualitative research and describes how to triangulate research with available data. It also talks about when not to employ observational research, what to use instead and what to use to as a shortcut to get similar results.

Product innovation that has sprung from observation abound in this book. For instance, consumers spraying room deodorant after cleaning the bathroom seeking olfactory cues for task completion leading to products with and marketed for their more appealing scent. Being a product design book you will have to imagine your own examples if you work purely in the digital realm.

Frameworks are provided to help designers turned researchers interpret observed behaviour, e.g. looking for normative consumer behaviours such as:

  • Combining products
  • Work-arounds
  • Indifference – putting up with inadequate results
  • Errors – customers and users blaming themselves
  • Avoidance  of tasks
  • Imagining perfection

Templates are provided for the various tools you will need when planning and conducting research such as an observation guide, a respondent information sheet and site report template.

Most useful is the description of the site visit and guidelines for interactions with respondents – timing of the visit, how to conduct yourself to build trust and rapport, what to look for, and participant turn offs that can jeopardise results.  Having conducted design research myself I know how tricky it is to ask questions sometimes. Mpolski provides descriptions of types of probes as well as specific examples to help you grasp the technique:

  • “Describe how you…”
  • “Tell me about your attitude toward…”
  • Let’s talk about…”
  • “I’m curious about the ways you…”

Also discussed is what not to ask (avoid asking “why” specifically) with an explanation of the types of defensive response this provokes in participants.

Designing products and services based on user or customer behaviour starts with observing that behaviour. If you like me are a designer sans academic research or psychology background you might find this book a more than useful read. If you are thinking of beginning a design project with research but don’t know where to start, how to plan it, resource and budget it this is a must read – and don’t forget to encourage any project managers to read it too.