Context and the Changing Mobile Landscape

Marketers increasingly think about consumers in complex ways. It is understood that in a changing digital landscape, the context in which they learn and shop influences what messages we deliver and how we deliver them.  But we rarely define “context”. It is one thing to design a usable app that conforms to human factors and cognitive requirements, but it is quite another to design a stage in an environment when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating in a swirl of information.

Physical Context

Physical context refers to the notion of infusing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” and react to them. But this is difficult. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond the boundaries of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with “place”.

Think of a mall.  There are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices. The device now has to decode what information is relevant and how it will deliver information. What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers? The digital landscape is continuous at all points throughout the day and getting design right means understanding the systems in which people operate.

Device Context

Just as various kinds of sensory apparatus (GPS-receivers, proximity sensors, etc.) are the means by which mobile devices will become geographically aware, another class of sensors makes it possible for devices to become aware of each other. This presents a series of problems that are different than those of physical context.

Technology is on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. Devices will exist in a constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall, imagine that you are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In the mall are a couple of thousand devices, all of which are discovering each other.  What happens now?  Assuming we’ve dealt with the problem of one friend’s device communicating with the other friend’s device while blocking out the other 2000 devices, you still have several thousand potential “identities” that may have useful information.  How is it decided what to manage without devoting significant time to setting up the hundreds of variables?

Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture. Data no longer resides “in” our computers.  Devices are extensions of the cloud and exist as something akin to perceptual prostheses.  They exist to manipulate data in the same way a joy stick allows us to handle the arms of robot in a factory.  This reflects a shift in how we use information because all information is transitory.

Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. Content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. Devices will find themselves in the fourth kind of context of social interaction, with all its contingencies. Just as behavior is shaped by the moment, so too will the apps and information needed to adapt.

Socio-Cultural Context

Each person is unique to contrasting cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a county, a continent, a hemisphere. Cultural context provides a framework for what “works” for each consumer in the world.

It is at this point where a better perspective is gained on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe. Take a beer pouring app that mimics the pouring of a beer when the device is tilted.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks, male-to-male bonding, etc. But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts. Success lies in understanding the reasons behind the consumers beliefs and actions in the symbolic exchanges, and the ability to code and decode those exchanges.  Marketing mishaps come from a lack of comprehension.

So What?

Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, leading to a greater need to make sense of insights. Without a means to categorize context, marketers will miss identifying trends that matter most. What to do?

  • Rethink the problem. Frequently, “the problem” is a facet of something else. For example, when researching an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it is understanding why people read different material in different contexts. It may be about displaying books as a means of gaining status. The point is the problem seen may not be the problem at all.
  • Define the contexts. Defining the contexts helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if the consumer behavior is drinking beer, all contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed need to be articulated.
  • Think through the sample. Who is the marketing targeting? What are the social circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural systems.
  • Make a plan that involves experiential information gathering, not just statistics. Develop a guide to navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (everything is data). Don’t  just think about the questions to ask, but also include opportunities for observation and participation.
  • Head into the field. This is the heart of the process. Meaningful insights and moments of “truth” are slow to get at. Low-hanging fruit will be easy to spot, but the goal should be to find those deeper meanings. Because everything is data, from attitudes to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible.
  • Do the analysis. Analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. The goal is to bring a deep understanding of cultural behavior to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and gets to the underlying structures of why people do what they do.

The process is more time consuming than traditional approaches, but it ultimately yields greater insight and reduces time and costs on the back end. The end result is that you create greater value for the client and for the company.

Getting Past the Hawthorn Effect

In 1924, the National Research Council sent two engineers to supervise a series of industrial experiments at a large telephone-parts factory called the Hawthorne Plant near Chicago. The idea was that they would learn how shop-floor lighting affected workers’ productivity. Instead, the studies ended up giving their name to the “Hawthorne effect”, the notion that that the act of being observed or experimented upon changes a subject’s behavior.

The theory arose because of the unexpected behavior of the women who assembled relays and wound coils of wire in the plant. The data collected during the study demonstrated that their hourly output rose when lighting was increased, but also when it was dimmed. Simply, as long as something was changed, productivity rose. Out of this arose the notion that as long as the women knew they were being observed, there would be a behavioral change.

But Steven Levitt and John List, two economists at the University of Chicago, decided to analyze the data, which was still available, and see what they found. Contrary to the descriptions in the literature, they found no systematic evidence that levels of productivity in the factory rose whenever changes in lighting were implemented. Now that was unexpected.

It turns out that idiosyncrasies in the way the experiments were conducted may have led to misleading interpretations of what happened. For example, lighting was always changed on a Sunday, when the plant was closed. When it reopened on Monday, output duly rose compared with Saturday, the last working day before the change, and continued to rise for the next couple of days. But a comparison with data for weeks when there was no experimentation showed that output always went up on Mondays. Another of the original observations was that output fell when the trials ceased, suggesting that the act of experimentation caused increased productivity. But the experiment stopped in the summer, and when examining records after the experiment stopped it turns out that output tended to fall in the summer anyway.

It’s all very interesting, yes, but why does it matter?  It matters particularly to ethnographers because one of the central criticisms of the methodology is that our presence negates any of the findings on the basis that we alter the behavior of our participants.  As it turns out, the problem may not be as notable as the critics claim.

I will be the first to admit that our presence does shape the interactions and behavior of the participants, but only in a limited way, and those ethnographers worth their weight in salt are able to establish rapport in such a way that changes are minimal. Time is, of course, the driving factor in this. Participant observation, the foundation of ethnography, refers to a methodology in which the researcher takes on a role in the social situation under observation. The social researcher immerses herself in the social setting under study, getting to know key actors in that location in a role which is either covert or overt, although in practice, the researcher will often move between these two roles. The aim is to experience events in the manner in which the subjects under study also experience these events. Success is defined, in many respects, by the nature of the relationship that develops. As such, a good ethnographer becomes another actor rather than simply an observer, thus largely negating or minimizing the changes subjects display.

What this means for the researcher is that conducting ethnographic work means doing more than interviewing. It means learning to conduct research that involves a range of anthropologically-informed tools. For the buyer of researcher, it means questioning your vendor, thinking through what they propose and be willing to do research in a way that may make you initially uncomfortable – digging through the dirt with an HVAC installer or bar hopping with a twenty-something through NY may seem a little daunting at first, but these are the things that make for good research and, more importantly, good insights.

 

Taking to the Field: Client Collaboration

Perhaps naively, many ethnographers assumed that we would work in a vacuum when they learned their trade. We’d go into the field – people’s homes, workplaces, and leisure areas – and then report to clients what we learned. However, we soon realize that some clients take us literally when we state ethnography will bring them into their customers’ homes. They aren’t always satisfied with just overseeing the project or telling us what they want to learn and why. This is a great opportunity for clients to see customers using their products in real situations and a chance to get to know the customers personally. But it presents ethnographers with certain challenges. 

Involvement Risks

Ethnographers tread delicately. Every time we perform fieldwork we need to become instant friends with participants. We need them comfortable enough to behave “normally” while we point a camera at them, and to feel that they can tell us anything – even if they’re just talking about peanut butter. The field is spontaneous and sensitive, and anything can happen. That means making sure we and our clients do all we can to ensure that the field remains as natural as possible.

Clients have varying levels of fieldwork experience. Some are qualitative market researchers with a little in-context interviewing under their belts, and others don’t have much first-hand knowledge of qualitative research or the human sciences. Consequently, clients might interfere with the interview process, misinterpret the data, or overlook important but subtle information. However, ethnographers can take steps to mitigate these concerns.

1. Explore Motives

Understand why clients need to go into the field and what their expectations are of the project. Do they want direct exposure to generate ideas, ease issues of trust/competency/legality, train their in-house ethnographer, or simply be more engaged in the process? For the sake of both the research and the client-ethnographer relationship, articulating these issues is essential.

It’s paramount that clients communicate goals for a smooth operation. On one occasion, a busy client of ours wanted to see his products used in context, so he attended two field visits early in the project. Knowing his reason and planned number of outings, we ensured they’d include use of his products. Everything went well, and his observations were eye-opening. Because he didn’t have time to invest in more fieldwork, we sent him a video document every time someone used his products during the project.

2. Establish Boundaries

Before fieldwork, ethnographers must communicate the research boundaries and client role. Clients should recognize that ethnographers’ expertise consists of more than an ability to build rapport with strangers; their skills are rooted in a keen understanding of social theory and methodological rigor, and entail years of training.

Ethnographers have a process and particular mindset that directs the interview, interaction, and interpretation, so guiding client input before starting a project will help prevent everyone from asking leading questions or biasing conversations. Limits ensure quality work and allow clients to make the most of a field visit.

It also permits them to function within a frame of hierarchical authority, lessening their need to be project leader. In other words, clients understand that the context reduces or removes a layer of authority. It lets them focus on learning and executing predetermined tasks, instead of feeling compelled to handle everything. They can filter information through a training perspective while taking a holistic approach.

3. Define Responsibilities

Providing clients an indispensable role in the projects, such as videotaping an interview, helps them feel more like team members and less like visitors. It also raises comfort levels of everyone involved. Assigning tasks s also a practical necessity: Clients can replace research assistants in the field. Two researchers plus a client can threaten and crowd a participant, who just wants to demonstrate the best way to clean a bathroom countertop.

4. Encourage Reciprocation

It’s important to know clients well and be thoughtful about their flexibility, political realities, and character traits. Unfortunately, there often isn’t enough time to do so in-depth. Clients might arrive a half-hour earl for an afternoon interview and leave that evening, never to go into the field again. In this case, an ethnographer can only outline some expectations and techniques – through phone and e-mail conversations beforehand, and on the spot (frequently while sitting on cushy hotel-lobby chairs).

When clients have more time to invest in the ethnography, there are two parts to building a solid team and guaranteeing productive fieldwork (despite their lack of experience.) Clients must be willing to adapt to new or unfamiliar methodologies – techniques for data gathering and interpretation – regardless of their backgrounds (e.g. design, business strategy, engineering). And ethnographers must appreciate and incorporate clients’ theoretical and practical contributions. Success requires devoting time and energy to discovering the capabilities of all the team members – ethnographer and client alike.

Each team member can learn to apply findings across a range of activities. After all, a key to business achievement is using seemingly disconnected information to build new products, brands, and business models. Learning how best to conduct research and understanding individual roles in the field ultimately helps the client use the gathered information most effectively.

 

Protection and Collaboration

As ethnography becomes a staple of market research, we just might see marketers and product designers make an exodus to the field – with or without us. Ethnographers need to prepare for the possible outcomes. They should do so by not only preventing research from being disturbed, but also by harnessing clients’ intelligence and know-how – using their involvement as a springboard for more effective and actionable ethnography. In the future, most marketing decisions and product innovations will be based on real-world experiences with ordinary people.

Keep Your Tools Clean

As ethnographers, we are the instruments of data collection.  While recording equipment and software packages like ATLASti are part of the collection process, we are ultimately the primary instruments of collection, analysis and dissemination.  With that in mind, it is wise to think about the tools we use before we start our work.

Interviewing Tools

It is extremely important to record all of any interviews you may conduct as memory is not a sufficient source for citation.  Before a project is begun, decide for yourself whether you will perform full or partial transcriptions.  The more you transcribe, the more protection provided for your research and analysis, not to mention better, more in-depth insights.  However, the facts remain that full transcriptions are very time consuming and expensive, and the majority of your field session may not be useful for your research, at least not in a direct way.  Therefore, partial transcriptions are good for transcribing only the necessary or most valuable parts of your interview.  You may not know what is the most valuable information you receive when you hear it, which is why it is beneficial to take light notes during the interview and extensive notes of what you remember after the interview.   Do not focus heavily on your note-taking so that you miss what your interviewee is saying.

Participant Observation Tools

A research journal for field notes is a very practical way to keep track of your observations.  After an extended period, flipping through your journal, you might notice patterns that you had not realized were prevalent as you witnessed them in person (that’s right, you don’t see everything the first time). As memory fails it is very important to have detailed notes of what you observed; otherwise your observations are meaningless.

Journals are also valuable for realizing your own biases or prejudices.  When it comes to examining specific design or business issues, it’s easy to focus too early on solving problems.  That means an inerrant bias when sifting through data.  The journal helps you identify personal assumptions and what’s actually going on. It is here that you might begin to question some of your interpretations, and here where you might realize possibilities that had not yet occurred to you.  When conducting fieldwork, you should always question yourself to make sure you are not getting in the way of your own research.  It can also be valuable if you are having trouble connecting to your interviewees to see what it is you are doing that distances them.

Technical Tools

Always test your equipment before you go into the field. Fieldwork is a learning experience, however, it would certainly be more valuable if the learning experience was about your research topic rather than temperature at which tapes melt, hard drives fail or batteries are dead.

 

Reminders When Recording Fieldwork

Capturing everything in the field can be a daunting task. But there are some basic tips that will help make the process smoother:

  • Write notes as soon as possible to avoid information being lost.
  • Capture major themes and broad ideas within 24 hours and share  them with your team.
  • Write down all personal details about the setting (number of people, location, use of space, gender dynamics, product use, etc.).
  • Note direct quotes as well as your impressions.
  • Note moments that produced changes in the context of discussion.
  • A change in story setting, topic or temporal shift.
  • Note moments that produced emotional responses.
  • Note or draw expressions, body language, and non-verbal communication.

Remember, the camcorder is only one of the tools you bring to the field.  Field guides, notebooks, sketchpads and cameras are all part of the toolkit, but more importantly, so are you.

Taking Your Clients With You.

Perhaps naively, many ethnographers assumed that we would work in a vacuum when they learned their trade. We’d go into the field – people’s homes, workplaces, and leisure areas – and then report to clients what we learned. However, we soon realize that some clients take us literally when we state ethnography will bring them into their customers’ homes. They aren’t always satisfied with just overseeing the project or telling us what they want to learn and why. This is a great opportunity for clients to see customers using their products in real situations and a chance to get to know the customers personally. But it presents ethnographers with certain challenges.

Ethnographers tread delicately. Every time we perform fieldwork we need to become instant friends with participants. We need them comfortable enough to behave “normally” while we point a camera at them, and to feel that they can tell us anything – even if they’re just talking about peanut butter. The field is spontaneous and sensitive, and anything can happen. That means making sure we and our clients do all we can to ensure that the field remains as natural as possible.

Clients have varying levels of fieldwork experience. Some are qualitative market researchers with a little in-context interviewing under their belts, and others don’t have much first-hand knowledge of qualitative research or the human sciences. Consequently, clients might interfere with the interview process, misinterpret the data, or overlook important but subtle information. However, ethnographers can take steps to mitigate these concerns.

1. Explore Motives

Understand why clients need to go into the field and what their expectations are of the project. Do they want direct exposure to generate ideas, ease issues of trust/competency/legality, train their in-house ethnographer, or simply be more engaged in the process? For the sake of both the research and the client-ethnographer relationship, articulating these issues is essential.

2. Establish Boundaries

Before fieldwork, ethnographers must communicate the research boundaries and client role. Ethnographers have a process and particular mindset that directs the interview, interaction, and interpretation, so guiding client input before starting a project will help prevent everyone from asking leading questions or biasing conversations. Limits ensure quality work and allow clients to make the most of a field visit.

3. Allocate Responsibilities

Providing clients an indispensable role in the projects, such as videotaping an interview, helps them feel more like team members and less like visitors. It also raises comfort levels of everyone involved.

 

By Gavin Johnston