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Field Reports

Teens In Context

Eclipse Experience combines home visits and mobile ethnography to get a complete picture of small town life.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

The town of Doncaster, a working-class community a few hours north of London, was home to one of the last coal mines in England. That mine finally closed for good in 2015, the same year that the British government compiled a report declaring Doncaster one of the “most deprived” communities in the country. Shortly afterward, Doncaster began what they termed an “improvement journey,” a plan to create more jobs, tackle socio-economic inequalities, and modernize the services the town was offering to the community—especially to better support local families with children. Their research, largely comprised from a series of surveys, had given them lots of data about young people in Doncaster but little understanding of their lives. The Council needed to understand what growing up in the community was really like—the things that were helping kids thrive, and the challenges that were getting in their way. Enter Eclipse Experience, a research and design company based in London, who engaged in a two-month long ethnographic study of five Doncaster families to more deeply understand their day-to-day experiences. Partnering with Renaisi, a firm with expertise in social research and experience working with at risk families, Eclipse utilized a combination of in-home visits and mobile ethnography via dscout to connect with eight teenagers, to get a better picture of what family life in the community really looked like.

dscout chatted with Eclipse Experience Design researchers Elli Panagopoulos and Oliver Kastner about their work with the Doncaster community.

Notes from Eclipse Experience...

The impetus for the project...

Doncaster's local government, (the Doncaster Council) wanted to more fully understand the people in their community. In particular, they wanted a better sense of the things that were the most meaningful and useful to residents, and how members of the community were using (or not using) the services the town provided. They especially wanted to focus on improving the services and benefits to young people and families, to try and help local families thrive. They had done a number of surveys and had a lot of quantitative data, but they didn’t understand the why behind the data. They knew there were a number of people who weren’t using the services available, and that there were unmet needs, but they didn't really understand how these needs fit within the everyday experiences of families and children. The Council wanted to get a really in-depth understanding of families across different income levels and with different support needs, so they realized they needed to commission an ethnographic study.

Ultimately, our work allowed the council to think in a more user centered way about their residents, and really bring to life the stories of the people that lived there. Having the photos and videos that we got from dscout was especially helpful for that. 

At the start of the project there were one or two council members who were a bit skeptical of the methodology, because they didn’t think they could really learn anything from such a small sample size. But by the end of it, they were really convinced. It really speaks to that power of layering rich, qualitative data on top of quantitative data.

Utilizing a two-prong approach with home visits and mobile ethnography...

With the in-home interviews, we started by asking everyone what a typical week was like, going through the Monday through Sunday routine. Part of that was understanding who else is involved in the family structure, like a grandparent who helps out by picking up a kid from class. Then we separated parents from the kids for the rest of the in-home interviews. We spoke with the parents about their family situation, the things they’re are satisfied with or not so satisfied with and what they think could help with that. It was interesting to hear the parents perspective, because there were a few parents thinking about their lives again and going back to school. Continuing education was a big deal for a lot of these parents. But they needed to figure out how to do something like that while raising kids.

With the young people, we talked about activities and their likes and dislikes, and then trained them on how to use dscout so they could continue to give us feedback in real-time throughout the week. The first set of questions was about things that mattered to them, and we asked them to upload entries any time they came across something or someone that was important to them. It could be a favorite place, people they spoke with, general activities in Doncaster. We asked them to describe why it was important to them, and to let us know what other people were involved. The second mission we asked was about things they wanted in their future. At the second home visit we were able to take some of the feedback that we got from the kids via dscout and discuss it with both the parents and the kids.

The kids shared a ton of information with us directly. A lot of kids posted about ballet class, or soccer, or other sports teams or after school activities. But then we would ask them, how would you improve this, and we found out that, with soccer, the fields were not in the best condition. For some of the older teenagers, they felt they didn't have much to do in the area and the youth clubs had a lot of anti-social behavior going on, other kids were smoking cigarettes there, for instance, and generally there were some environments where kids didn’t feel safe. So that’s why they were hanging out at the McDonalds.

How getting real-time feedback directly from teens provided unique insights...

Getting kids to speak freely about things on their own time and in their own language can be a bit of a challenge, and that’s why we paired dscout and a mobile ethnographic approach with the in-home interviews. It also allowed both parents and kids to feel more comfortable and be more open. There might be things that the parents don’t want to speak about in front of their kids, and vice-versa. 

There might be things that the parents don’t want to speak about in front of their kids, and vice-versa.

Children are also often influenced by the adults around them and we wanted them to be honest with us too. It was a great way to overcome that barrier that some kids are just shy and don't want to necessarily talk to strangers about more personal things too.

For instance, one girl in the first interview was incredibly quiet and it was very difficult to get answers from her. But she posted a ton to dscout during the missions, and had very detailed, thoughtful posts. So during that second home visit when we could ask her questions that were grounded in something she’d posted, she really opened up and started speaking more freely and we got some really great insights out of it.

There was another kid who had some behavior issues, which he wasn’t necessarily fully aware of himself. His mom had been trying to get help for him through the school and the council and she felt like it was taking too long. She knew that keeping him active helped, and most of her posts were about soccer or other outdoor physical activities. But in his posts he went even further and spoke about how it wasn’t just playing on the soccer team, but his coach specifically that made it a great experience. The coach was a mentor to him; he was the only adult at school that he really liked talking to, that was encouraging, supportive, that made him feel good about himself. He also spoke about when the coach gave him specific goals that it felt like the only time he could focus. It added a level of depth that the mother wasn’t necessarily aware of. In that instance we did follow up with his mom and let her know that he had a good mentor around him. It was the first time she had heard that.

What the discussions revealed about family structure...

We saw some important things with regard to how support networks worked; how families were relying on grandparents or aunts and uncles. dscout and the mobile format really helped with that, because in the missions we got to see pictures of people going out to the park with cousins or aunts and uncles. That's something you wouldn't have gotten in the home interview, which is more about a very specific time and place within this person's life. With dscout you can get more of those daily moments, those everyday routines and interactions.  

We saw a lot of naturally occurring care groups and support networks. Sometimes that kind of support, an uncle picking a kid up from soccer practice, isn’t the kind of thing people think to mention in an interview, but you see it in real-time.

We saw a lot of naturally occurring care groups and support networks. Sometimes that kind of support, an uncle picking a kid up from soccer practice, isn’t the kind of thing people think to mention in an interview, but you see it in real-time.

We did see some clear differences across social and economic class. The wealthier families that had more resources were able to do things like sign their kids up for dance classes, whereas the families with less don’t have the same resources and rely more on the support networks to teach kids informally. There are a lot of people with generations of families in Doncaster, which is a strength in one way because they can rely on the support networks they have there.

Making the teens feel comfortable sharing...

We had a language guide that we used to make sure we were having conversations with them in the most engaging way, in a way that they felt like they could share, but that was still formal and not too personal. And we made sure they knew it was a safe space because there were some things that they were sharing that were difficult. One girl actually spoke about her father passing away. At moments like that, we wanted to make sure they knew that their sharing with us was appreciated, but also really brave.

We took the kids’ privacy really seriously and didn't show parents any of the specific things they had posted. That was really important. Because there were minors we did have a safeguarding protocol in place, which we told everyone about up front. So if anything worrying came out of the interviews or the dscout missions, any evidence that someone might be in harm’s way, that we would report it to the council, who would follow up with a social worker or make sure the right person was put in place to help deal with the situation.  

Some of the overall takeaways...

One big takeaway was making sure that the services that were offered could work holistically together to really make an impact. That was building on the connection we saw between leisure activities and mental health—that was something that came across clearly in our interviews, that kids who had more activities on their agenda were really happy and excited about those things. So we encouraged the council to think more about bringing different services together. Perhaps installing a pop-up mental health services booth at a leisure event, or something similar that would make it easier for people to get those services. Another takeaway was that the Council needed to provide more appropriate age-based services, things like training and employment opportunities for older teens who were starting to become more independent, and social spaces where kids felt safe.

One other major takeaway was something we called “Small Changes can make a Big Difference.” Part of that was making sure people knew about the support structures that were available, because in a lot of cases, what we found was that the community had resources that people simply didn’t know about. There was one family that had recently moved to the area, and when we spoke with the caregivers, they said they just didn’t know what was available in the town for the kids. But when we spoke with the kids, they seemed to know much more about what was happening and the activities that were going on, so we asked them where they’d gotten their information and it turned out they got a pamphlet at school. The parents had no idea about the pamphlet’s existence or the information inside because the kids hadn’t shared it with them. From the council’s perspective, solving for those issues really just meant finding a more tailored way to promote the services to the audience that needed to know about them. And ultimately for the Council, the project really gave them a new lens for their work and a way to hone in on the actual needs for families, rather than simply replicating what they had done before.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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