The ethnographic stage was, from a researcher’s perspective, the most exciting part of the research programme. The lack of structure, and both the length and depth of the interactions, enabled us to accompany our participants on a journey (to borrow X Factor parlance).
It is a risky methodology to incorporate, since there is no guarantee of outputs. However, the upside is enormous. Serendipity forms a major part of this stage – for instance, participant behaviour can uncover something that had never previously been considered, or a seemingly innocuous comment can completely reverse previously held assumptions.
Mobile is a particularly good topic for ethnography to focus upon. It is highly personal, but also highly social. All of our experiences and opinions are unique, but they are keen to both talk about them and hear about the experiences of others. The mobile phone is a signal of someones identity – an identity that is continually evolving.
Given commercial considerations, a “true” anthropological approach lasting several years isn’t viable. Instead, we’ve enjoyed a great deal of success with the following approach, which enabled us to break through the artificial walls that most other techniques don’t.
1. Introductory visit – We spend a couple of hours with the participants in their home. This gives us the background to who they are and how they live their lives. Conversations can cover anything and everything – we spent 30 minutes talking to one participant about his experiences playing for the Manchester City youth team
2. Out-of-home visit – The first visit is in a person’s home because that is where they are most comfortable. Having a similar conversation outside of the home, ideally with their friends, can reveal new sides to their personalities. It also helps place their characters into the social context. For instance, one participant who we initially felt was quite competent in technology turned out to be heavily influenced by the alpha male in his social group – “Gadget Ed”. Done properly, this stage can produce the most natural responses. When accompanying a participant on a night out “with the girls”, we only found out towards the end of the night that the girls had assumed we were a colleague of our participant, and not a researcher
3. Handset Placement -The centrepiece of this research was placing brand new handsets with our participants, to see how they coped with the learning curve of their upgrades. To recreate natural upgrade behaviour, we encouraged our participants to research the phone as if they were considering purchasing it. Yet there were still more than a few issues with getting started, ranging from SIM conversion to registering for an iTunes account
4. Video diaries – Our participants recorded their experiences with their handsets through regular video diaries. Drawing upon their recent actions, we were able to see where their new handsets created value for them, but also where it caused problems. A notable example was with a participant that travelled abroad for a short holiday. She, and the cabin crew, had been unable to locate the “off” switch on the new handset, and she spent the entire flight paralysed with fear that her mobile signals would cause the plane to crash.
5. Follow up questions – Video diaries only portray the parts of an incident that the participant wishes to record. It can be clear from their language or mannerisms that they might not be giving a full account (intentional or otherwise). For instance, through a follow up email exchange, we were able to understand that the reason one participant didn’t like her new phone was the effect it had on her identity. She was concerned her friends would now think she was “a snob” for having a top-of-the-range handset.
6. Friendship involvement – We find that inviting the participants to record video diaries with their friends or families brings an extra dimension of unpredictability to proceedings – for good and bad. One such diary entry, recorded by a friend who worked in a mobile phone store, turned into a seven minute spiel on their latest model. He was very convincing.
7. Task Setting – To speed up the process of adoption, we instigated some task setting once participants had familiarised themselves with the handsets. The tasks were individually set based on their personalities. For instance, our music lover tried Shazam and our bargain hunter downloaded the Red Lazer application. Through this process, we were able to see which types of service had lasting interest, which were viewed as novelties and which were quickly dismissed.
8. Final interview – this is the most structured phase of the research. It should act as both a summary of proceedings but also act as an opportunity to formally and directly ask questions in areas where there may be gaps – from how they travel to work to whether they share their passwords with anyone
The Brandheld ethnography was highly rewarding. Rich audio, video and text outputs were collated, and used to form hypotheses with supporting case study evidence that could then be tested and amended through the later research stages.
Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gusset/368984718/