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.

Laying Out Fieldwork in Under 10 Steps

DEFINE THE PROBLEM
What are the pain points a client has defined? What issues are we trying to better understand. Depending on the project, questions may be very tactical and specific or very strategic and broad. In either case, the first step is to clearly articulate what the overarching goal is.

RETHINK THE PROBLEM
Once you’ve defined the problem, it’s time to rethink it. Frequently, what we see as the problem is in fact a facet of something else. For example, when researching something like an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it may be understanding why people read different material in different contexts. It may be about displaying books for colleagues and friends as a means of gaining status. The point is that the problem we see may not be the problem at all and we need to think about possibilities before we enter the field.

DEFINE THE CONTEXTS
Where does an activity or practice take place? Defining the contexts we want to examine helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if we’re studying beer drinking, we need to articulate all the possible contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed.

DEFINE THE SAMPLE
Who are the people we want to talk with? What are the social and cultural circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural, social, professional and environmental systems, determining not only who will be the primary participants, but also the actors that shape the context.

MAKE A GAME PLAN
Put together a guide to help navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (remember, everything is data and it is easy to become overwhelmed without a plan). Having a series of key questions and observational points to explore is the first component. But don’t just think about the questions you will ask, but also include opportunities for observation, mapping, and participation.

ENTER 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 practices and meanings. Because everything is data, from attitudes to mannerisms to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible. Take notes, draw maps and sketches, take photographs, shoot video, and collect audio – the smallest piece of information may have the greatest impact

ANALYZE AND INTERPRET
Hands down, analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding part of research. A trained ethnographer will do more than report anecdotes. A trained ethnographer will bring a deep understanding of cultural understanding and social theory to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and starts to pull together the web of significances and practices that get to the underlying structures of why people do what they do. Analysis should always work within a framework grounded in the social sciences. Analysis takes time, but the results will include modes of behavior, models of practice, experience frameworks, design principles, and cultural patterns. Once the data has been analyzed and crafted into something meaningful, the research team should be able to provide a rich story with a clear set of “aha” findings.

SHARE THE INSIGHTS
The findings and insights generated through ethnography should be shared not only with direct stakeholders, but across an organization because of their depth. Ethnography usually produces insights that can influence a wide range of people throughout an organization. Because of the complexity and the richness of ethnography, these stories can influence, inspire, engage, and change the way people think about a problem.

DEFINE OPPORTUNITIES
Finally, it isn’t enough to simply hand off results. As compelling as we may find our insights, that doesn’t always translate into someone seeing immediately how to apply them. Once insights and findings are shared, an ethnographer needs to work with others to craft those findings into action plans, product ideas, etc.

Why Recruit In The Field?

We often turn to recruiters go find our participants.  A screener is built, a company hired and two weeks later we show up on someone’s doorstep with camera in hand. Of course this is a practical reality of timeframes and budgets, but it means losing opportunities to expand and improve the research we do.  Recruiting in the field is and should always be an element of how we execute our work.  Be willing and able to recognize potential participants while you are actually doing the work. Take advantage of the setting and use it to recruit. We often overlook the situations we find ourselves in, missing opportunities to gather a wider range of experiences and perspectives. The plane, the party, the person in the shoe store, they are all opportunities to strike up a conversation and find participants. But why do it? There are a several reasons.

First, context shapes behavior and conversation. The nature of the interaction we initiate in one setting will produce a different kind of interaction than we may experience in another venue. That means that once the participant is recruited and the setting changes, we may uncover potential differences between what they say or do in one context to another. Contradictions are where some of the most powerful insights usually occur. Which leads to the second point.

Recruiting in the field it begins the data collection process and helps to develop and theory behind what you’re seeing earlier in the research. It is an opportunity to start formulating questions and ideas based on first-hand interaction rather than waiting until you meet a participant for the first time. Who are the people we want to talk with? What are the social and cultural circles that will shape the event.  It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural, social, professional and environmental systems.  We tend to reduce people to their parts rather than thinking about them in a broader context.

Third, recruiting in the field often leads to a greater rapport. Rather than being a stranger who shows up at your doorstep one afternoon, the participant already has a sense of relationship, provided you’ve taken the time to strike up a solid conversation. Participants recruited in this way have a different set of expectations and take on a role that breaks free of the researcher/participant paradigm because this sort of recruitment changes the power dynamic, moving the nature of the interaction from a transaction to one of genuine sharing.

Recruiting IS Research: 3 Key Tips When Beginning a Project

For the most part, most people who do design and market research do not see recruiting  as part of the research process, but as something that happens outside  of and apart from the field-research. Once in a long while, we have a  client with such a short time-frame or such a specific participant 
need that recruiters are necessary. But we try to convince clients to 
give us the time to use our own staff recruit on the ground or at the very least, through conversations over the phone.  Even when using an outside recruiter, simply taking what you get is sloppy work. Research begins during recruitment, not after you are in the field.

We have found that most 
recruiting agencies draw from a pool of people who have signed up to participate in focus groups and who have already  been “trained” to be participants in that way. Increasingly, this is becoming the case for ethnographic participants, as well. While a good interviewer/participant observer can no doubt get around some of the problems of telling them what they want to hear, not having access to the  data generated during the process of finding people to talk to (or  letting them find you) is a severe limitation. It is important to remember that recruiters do not see data collection as their role. For a skilled ethnographer, for whom everything is data, this means that they lose potentially important information.

To be fair, using a recruiter is not always a bad idea. Indeed, there are some very good recruiters out there who we trust implicitly.  They can add to the insights that come from recruiting, but they are few and far between. These recruiters see themselves as partners with the ethnographer rather than simply playing a transactional role.

Experience tells us that when we’ve used recruiters and our own on-the-ground recruits, the people we pick out are usually the more helpful respondents. Methodologically, the process tells us that we are able to establish trust and rapport during recruitment rather than relying on an awkward first encounter that was scheduled months in advance.

So, from the standpoint of doing what is best for the client, it begs a simple question: shouldn’t recruiting be a part of the process of the project and understanding the local context? The process of meeting and talking to people provides insight into cultural norms. Finding out whether or when they might talk with a researcher, let alone allowing the researcher into their lives on a more expansive basis, is an incredibly important sources of information.  This isn’t always an easy task, so it is important to remember the following tips:

  • Define the contexts: Where does an activity or practice take place? Defining the contexts we want to examine helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation.
  • Define the sample: Who are the people we want to talk with? What are the social and cultural circles that will shape the event.  It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural, social, professional and environmental systems.
  • Get dirty: Be willing and able to recognize potential participants while you are actually doing the work.  Take advantage of the setting and use it to recruit.

Recruiting teaches us about daily life, worldview, and what matters most to our participants. It can tell us volumes about how people conceptualize private and public spaces in which 
strangers are welcome to visit.  Recruiting helps establish a sense of shared experience that leads to a richer understanding, which in turn leads to greater innovation.  Ethnography is grounded in the idea of becoming more than a stranger. Without being engaged first hand in the recruitment process, the researcher is losing an profoundly important opportunity.

 

By Gavin