As experience experts, ethnographic projects are some of our favorite opportunities to explore everything from the American mediascape to journey mapping patient experiences. For many of these projects, we have leveraged traditional in-home ethnography to gain an authentic look into the lives of our participants. We have worked to splice this established methodology with a dynamic field of research: digitalethnography. To establish this hybrid ethnography, we have paired conventional ethnographic methods with remote digital methods, including a newly minted tool: the GfK Participant Toolkit (PTK). As in any exploratory venture, we have had the opportunity to learn about which methods and tools work well, which work better, and develop best practices in this brand of research. Along the way, we have also learned about the challenges of conducting this type of long-term ethnographic research, and how to overcome them.
Challenge: Develop a data collection tool that integrates seamlessly into participants’ lives
For any long-term ethnographic project, we would have to employ innovative data collection methods to retain invested and motivated participants. Our response was to design the PTK, a mobile device loaded with a curated suite of apps, uniquely combined to facilitate engagement and foster stimulating data collection for both researcher and participant. The PTK has become a pivotal factor in our ability to foster enduring participant interest. It has offered valuable opportunity to allow ongoing learning; because of the myriad capabilities baked into today’s mobile devices, the PTK has inspired us to constantly challenge the methods and techniques we typically use in obtaining data.
Best practices for designing and employing digital ethnographic tools
Remote and in-person methods must work in tandem. We learned that the PTK’s remote, asynchronous ethnographic capabilities were also important to pair with more traditional, face-to-face ethnographic methods. While the PTK has been an invaluable tool in helping us rise to meet the roadblocks inherent to both longitudinal and remote ethnographic research, ultimately, there is still no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Engaged participants provide the most valuable data; in order to create and sustain these relationships, researchers need to invest in participants by being with them. Since longitudinal work is difficult to do entirely in-person, the PTK provides a useful surrogate for researchers by allowing continued contact with participants. Furthermore, the PTK, by allowing us to connect to our participants remotely, helps us save on costly travel expenses, while remaining a mere click away.
Video chat is a great way to foster trust between participants and researchers. Despite the need for in-person research, the PTK is an important development in facilitating face-to-face contact and bridging the gap between in-person and remote ethnography. The PTK’s video chat functionalities allow us to meet our participants on multiple occasions, crossing thousands of miles in an instant to be with them. By layering these live sessions into our toolbox, we have been able to become recognizable faces in our participants’ households, thereby gaining an even stronger foothold into the experiences of our participants. Investing in these remote face-to-face interactions works to engage participants on a deeper level, motivating them to provide richer and more thoughtful data. Inspiring participants in this way also reduces participant turnover, and therefore costs to clients.
Long-term projects require flexible technology. Apart from being a digital proxy, the PTK likewise allows us flexibility in innovating data-collection techniques. We have learned that some parts of our suite of research apps were stickier than others; certain apps simply sparked more energized responses from our participants. Because of the remote access allowed by this digital tool, we are able to take a real-time iterative approach to customizing this suite as we explored the new wave of app technology. This has allowed us to remain on the crest of both potential tools and participant interest over the two years we have spent together. Being able to stay on our toes in this way allows flexibility not only in how we engage participants, but how we approach our research goals; the PTK helps us “pivot” in crucial moments, and make strategic reassessments with ease.
These challenges and best practices invite us to not only think about resolutions to these specific hurdles, but also help us better imagine where the limits of digital ethnography might lie. As we continue to explore the possibilities and affordances of cutting-edge technology, we are eager to explore and meet the awesome potential of digital tools in the ethnographic sphere.
What digital tools have you used in long-term research projects? In ethnography projects?