Recently, I had the opportunity to work with Design Ethnography students at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The course begins with traditional ethnography and moves toward digital ethnography, exposing students to tools and techniques used during different types of design research endeavors. Their instructor, Lizbet Simmons, brought in dscout to give students experience with moments-based research and to show them how we work with data at dscout.
As a consultant for dscout, I use our proprietary tools to conduct research. Our platform includes a web-based interface for researchers to design studies and analyze results, plus a mobile app that participants use to give feedback in those studies. We have some lingo specific to our methodology: moments (text, image and video responses to a set of questions), missions (a series of moments submitted around a larger topic) and scouts (participants, typically recruited from our nationwide panel).
Aside from the dscout jargon, the crux of what I do is the same whether I use mobile tools or a more traditional research method: informing a client’s decisions by capturing people’s in-the-moment reactions, behaviors, and ideas. To give students a holistic view of dscout’s version of digital ethnography, we gave students a dual experience—as a researcher and as a scout.
To get the study rolling, my colleague, Kyli Herzberg, and I designed a simple project with a single mission centered on a well-known college activity: snacking. Because students took the role of scouts, no screener was needed.
Students downloaded and set-up their dscout app, then got snacking. For about a week, they photographed and reacted to their typical snacking moments, responding with text and video to my specific questions, and sharing details about what they ate, why they ate it, and how they felt about it. To ensure plenty of data for analysis, even the dscout team submitted moments of snacking.
After all the moments were submitted, students shifted to the role of researcher, and the real fun started: data analysis. We met with students in their Pasadena classroom to give them a peek into the hundreds of snacking moments they had all sent in. We showed how dscout researchers can use quantitative and qualitative data together to develop solid hypotheses and insightful stories for our clients.
Students broke into groups to develop tag lists—aka “coding” in traditional research—for a set of qualitative data selected from their snacking mission. We saw how different researchers develop different perspectives around the same chunk of data. One group found the social dynamic of snacking interesting, noting moments when people eat with and because of others. Another took a more literal approach, grouping data by snack type and degree of health. We discussed how each assessment may vary, but what matters is whether the approach yields valuable and actionable insights for the client.
As a designer turned design researcher, I enjoy promoting the field of design research to designers, whether it results in more converts like me, or just brings the user closer to the front of a designer’s process.