The upside of talking to oneself
Siamack Salari, founder of EthOS, on how an app which enables 'self ethnography' offers a whole new take on 'participant observation', and a different type of conversation.
What is EthOS?
EthOS is a mobile research platform which consists of an app which users download for free on to their iPhone, Android or Blackberry and a web interface for researchers and project managers to collate and analyse uploaded material.
Once someone downloads the EthOS app they can be briefed on how to use it, as part of a project to participate in. Then they upload any video, photo, audio or text on to the EthOS website. It was originally designed for researchers to use, but we now have, much to our surprise, over 95% of the projects carried out by respondents who capture their own lives using video, audio, photo and text entries.
Mobile tools like EthOS are a new kind of ethnographic research, self ethnography' which provides very different data to participant observation', yet both can be equally as valuable depending on the project objectives. Some of the best explorations have been the result of both approaches used sequentially.
The Consumer Agenda
Take, for example, this research objective: how does snacking fit into respondent's lives? There are two ways to translate this objective into a task. Either:
1) Using video and photo, record any snacks, food and beverage, that you consume across the day.
2) Entries sent with minimal explanation.
3) Moderator has to probe more.
4) Respondent disengaged — more factual documenting — less editing.
5) A valuable record of every snack consumed.
1) Over the next few days, make a film to help us understand how snacks and beverages fit into your life. You send through the edits, we will cut the film.
2) Each entry sent is thought through and described in detail to help the editor.
3) Respondent aware of end game OR how their entries will be used.
4) Respondent more engaged — wants to tell a story and will edit accordingly.
5) Moderator needs to unravel the story that hasn't been told.
With any kind of self-ethnography, respondents are consciously and unconsciously editing what they capture and submit. This opens up a new layer of analysis and interpretation: why are they sending what they are sending? What haven't they sent us and why?
In short — the decision to send/not send becomes data itself. The platform does not unravel the consumer agenda, of course, the researcher does this. But self-ethnography provides the kind of data that other methods would struggle to obtain.
Benefits and challenges
With any technology, there are always challenges in terms of people getting used to a system and also dealing with any technical bugs in the system and we have experienced both of these issues, in common with any other similar system.
Another issue we have learned how to deal with is how to get beyond the obvious or the superficial. With tasks designed to explore feelings and attitudes, we found that audio entries were generally longer, more intimate and more relaxed. This made sense when considering people's inclination to want to show us things while they were filming. So when they ran out of things to show, they stopped talking. By removing the need to show us things, audio can provide more richness.
Another way of getting more depth is to ask people to go through their entries and tell us what surprises them or what they can now see about their life/snacking/pet feeding/etc. This further reflection made for excellent discussion stimulus to explore and understand their realities vs their perceptions about who they were and what they did.
A development of this was when we recently asked respondents to recruit a close friend or family member whose job was to review the respondent's entries and make comments, just whatever came to mind about a given entry. The project was a meal time study to capture everything a respondent ate across a day.
Within hours of the first entries coming in, their friends and family members began adding comments. This enabled us to pose questions we would not otherwise have known to ask.
Incorporating friends and family into projects has been so useful that we are considering designing it in as a feature.
We certainly haven't finished the platform. It will never be finished. Each project, new client, new technology (such as near field communications) opens opportunities that we must embrace. Here are some developments we are working on:
1) App with project embedded which can be downloaded from a poster, product pack. So no recruitment and the potential to build entire panels.
2) Socialising the platform so posts can be shared on Facebook and Twitter to inspire others to take post in an open/crowd sourcing project.
3) Live intercepts to enable a researcher to begin a live discussion with a respondent as they approach a fixture, product, promotion, display, etc.
Would I develop such a platform from scratch in hindsight? Possibly not: too much pain and too many failures along the way. But didn't someone once say, life is a daring adventure or nothing at all?
This article was first published in InDepth magazine, September 2012
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2012