Digital Research Tools: Getting Closer to Users

It’s a familiar experience for a researcher: you’re sitting in a stranger’s kitchen, watching her prepare dinner for her kids. You’ve checked the camera and the voice recorder and they’re working properly, recording each gesture and word. But as she’s talking through her thinking, you can’t help but wonder, would she do things differently if I weren’t here? And suddenly you feel obtrusive, like your presence is getting in the way of the real story.

No matter how discreet we are as innovation researchers, how well we blend in and build rapport, we’re always in the way to some extent. And though it’s hard to imagine removing face-to-face research from our work, an increasing wealth of digital research tools can help us reach deeper into people’s minds and lives—not as a substitute for in-person research, but as a complement.

Let’s look at five ways innovators can use digital tools to strengthen their research and get closer to users.

1. Uncovering routines and motivations

When you want to uncover people’s habits and decision-making over time, being limited to the two or three hours you have in an in-depth interview is very challenging. You can’t really get a longitudinal view, just a point in time. Better, therefore, to invite users to keep a personal digital diary on a mobile app so they can contribute their thoughts and experiences as they live them.

Many digital remote ethnographic tools exist, offering features such as diary writing, image and video uploading, geo-localisation maps, special polls and live prompts that enable participants to capture what they’re doing as they’re doing it without thinking twice about it. These online tools are well suited to deepen our understanding of people’s lives as they integrate seamlessly into users’ lives, they’re available at the touch of a button and they enable spontaneous uploads of bite-size life moments and decisions. They can be used for a variety of research purposes, whether it is to understand the relationship between young customers and digital banking, uncover what snacking means for mums and their toddlers throughout the day, or explore how potential buyers go about purchasing a specific product.

Digital ethnographic research captures customers’ actual behaviours and helps us better understand their decision-making process, explore their routines and habits, detect unconscious biases and gather specific data about when, where and how people are interacting with services and experiences.

2. Going visual

When you want to get deeper into people’s emotions and instincts, asking participants to express themselves only through language can be clumsy. In the context of user research, a picture can really be worth a thousand words. At the same time, it can be awkward for people to share their emotions, address difficult topics or get into specifics in face-to-face sessions.

Whether it is through creating online scrapbooks, using drawing features of websites and apps, uploading videos and images captured with a mobile device or sharing a screen during an online chat, researchers can use digital tools to break down the barriers between self-expression and social norms. This makes it easier for people to express their true feelings or share thoughts about sensitive or intimate topics with someone who is on the other side of the screen and whom they will likely never meet.

3. Exploring status and trends

Effective user research shouldn’t treat people as individuals in isolation. In order to design solutions that fit into people’s lives, we need to understand the social dynamics that surround and influence how they behave. Social networks are a logical place to start. By exploring users’ behaviours on these websites, researchers can spot patterns and trends in group behaviour, seen within their social context.

When used for research purposes and coupled with other methodologies, even the most common social media networks can turn into powerful tools, embedded perfectly into users’ lives, reflecting their social behaviours and spontaneous reactions, but also acting as repositories for media rich content

4. Crowdsourcing ideas

We know that you can’t force creativity. Even so, researchers often have only a short amount of time with participants and their clients expect breakthrough ideas on a deadline, making it really hard to co-create when time is so short. This is when online tools come in particularly handy. The right online platform can allow users to see ideas, react to them, build on them, vote on them and create their own solutions in their own time.

Some of these are basic virtual pinboards for collaboration, while others are very comprehensive online research community platforms that can support various collective activities and offer tools to inspire or be inspired. You don’t have to spend a fortune to enable creativity!

As innovators, we simply can’t get this quantity and diversity of input for concept generation by sitting in a room with a limited number of participants over a few hours, making online platforms like communities and idea boards a co-creation tool of choice.

5. Testing concepts

Putting concepts into users’ hands and seeing how these new experiences work in their lives is a crucial step in the design process. Gathering feedback on prototypes, whether these are a new restaurant experience, a mobile app, a new product or an advert, is most easily done online. By observing the experience in remote ways, researchers can try to ensure that the feedback they gather is fully spontaneous and genuine.

Ways of doing this include capturing experiences on the go using wearable devices, observing in real time via video calls or recording screen behaviours on any device. And to top it all off, digital makes it possible to do this across the world, at any time of the day or night.

In summary, getting close to users has never been as easy as today, and it’s down to us as researchers to choose the right tools that will both feel intuitive to participants and be best suited to gathering the insights we need.

If you’d like to find out more about the methods and tools we use to gather insights from customers, get in touch. If you’re an experienced researcher and are interested in joining the team, please browse through our job openings.