Free Form

What is digital people research and why should I care?


On Tuesday Jun 2, 2020, I eagerly opened my laptop to go through some pretty special WhatsApp pictures. My research partner, Tarushi, and I were on the last day of a research study we were doing on changing food habits of Millennials during the lockdown. I went through the excel file that was bulging from the 387 images it now held. "Strange," I thought. There was not a single picture of a non-vegetarian dish across a week of data. Was it some grand coincidence that all 13 research participants were vegetarian?! That couldn't be. 20 minutes after combing through the data I sat back in my chair, amazed at what I was seeing. Our meat-loving participants had all given up meat during the lockdown. If you run a business in the food industry, the million dollar question obviously is "Why?" If you're a founder of any other company, the million dollar question should be, "How can I too witness the daily experiences of my target audience?"

Long before Covid-19 and our (even faster) propulsion towards digitalization, there was a shift in qualitative research or "people research" to include digital methods for data collection. Now, I agree that nothing beats sitting in the same room with someone - it builds rapport, gives researchers a chance to observe surroundings and build a more personal connection in the process (we can all agree that Zoom ice-breakers don't always work!). But I want to tell you about a middle path between hiring a research team to venture into the wild and doing no research at all. It's called "digital people research" and you can do it yourself from the comforts of your home/home office.

Wait a second. Why do I need to talk to people in the first place?

Research shows (pun intended) that asking the right questions to the right people before you build or create something can save you thousands of dollars in development costs. Each hour you spend talking to a customer can save you between 5 - 20 hours of unnecessary development work because you'll focus on creating something people actually want instead of building (and then redoing) what you thought they wanted.

This applies to core business operations across the board - Planning to roll out a new marketing campaign? Figuring out your brand voice? Building a product prototype? Start by talking to your target audience and solve for the problem they have.

By eliminating the guesswork, really you're reducing your business risk.

Ok, I'm sold. So what is digital people research?

Let's start with the term, "people research." People research (or qualitative research or user research) is driven by the principle of researching with people. It is a collaborative process of research that involves communicating, interacting and building rapport with a research participant to understand her better. It is qualitative in nature but it can be combined with quantitative methods (like surveys) to build deeper context. Some classic methods in people research include interviews, diaries, participatory photography and focus groups. People researchers might include anthropologists, sociologists, journalists, photojournalists, and design researchers, to name a few.

Digital people research is a methodology that involves using online tools and resources to connect with research participants on their own turf.

Digital people research, or DPR for short, simply inserts people research into the digital realm! It offers a digital means to the desired end result of getting to know people better. So for example, if a people researcher might spend days or months observing a person's morning routines by visiting her home everyday, a DPR researcher (DPRer?!) might request the participant to send WhatsApp videos of her daily routine instead. The goal in both cases is the same - to observe daily morning rituals.

Like with almost everything else in our lives today, Covid-19 has fundamentally changed the research game. Today, researchers and participants alike are wary of interacting with people face-to-face by entering homes and compromising another's health. So what do you do instead? You move your methods and approaches online. Welcome, DPR! Not only does it eliminate the need to physically be in the same space with a participant but, in fact, it expands the playing field by allowing researchers to go where no researcher has gone before - like a baby's bedroom to see how a sleeping baby is swaddled or a steamy bathroom with bath products strewn about (all with permissions, of course). DPR also dramatically increases the number of people you can interact with at a given moment. At Poocho, a single researcher can manage 15 participants across multiple locations making their way through surveys, interviews and digital diaries at their own pace across a 2-week period. This is incredible not to mention much cheaper than hiring a cadre of researchers and a pocketful of plane tickets.

DPR is cost-effective, convenient, scalable and offers real-time insights that can cut down the amount of time it takes for an idea to be vetted and market-ready.

When's a good time to use DPR?

If you are a founder with the next big idea or an investor with a portfolio of next big ideas, you might consider DPR immediately to quickly vet and iterate on your idea based on primary (audience-driven) research. Consider it an extension of agile methodologies, another feather in the cap of the lean paradigm where you do just enough research quickly and efficiently to know more about your people today than you did yesterday. And what better way to accomplish that than to use the technologies we are already familiar with to connect and learn from our target audience?

Can I do it myself?

Yes, you can! You can recruit/enlist participants representing your ideal audience from your own network and start with the easiest method of all - interviews. Build yourself a list of questions and do your interview over Zoom, Meet or Skype and begin the process of truly listening to your people. As you get better at this, you might start supplementing interviews with other methods like surveys, digital diaries and user testing (through screen shares) to create, what we anthropologists call, "thick description." Critical in any engagement you undertake is the questions you will ask. Let me put it this way - The power of research lies not in finding the solution but in uncovering the problem. If required, enlist the help of a researcher friend/colleague to help you frame your questions better. Once that's done, take a deep breath and jump right into the thick of digitally connecting with your people.

What's in the DPR toolkit?

There are a multitude of tools you can leverage for DPR. Here are a few that we use at Poocho:

  • For surveys: Google Forms, Typeform, Jotform, Survey Monkey
  • For interviews: Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp Video
  • For digital diaries: WhatsApp, FB Messenger, Signal, Email
  • For user testing: Zoom, Microsoft Teams (screenshare)

What's the catch?

The biggest limitation of DPR is its restricted use to those with access to technology and the internet to share information. If your target audience does not have access to email, mms or smartphones or lives in an area with limited internet connectivity or is a population that is not technologically savvy to use digital platforms like Zoom or WhatsApp then DPR is not for you. The other limitation of DPR is that some its methods (like digital diaries and participatory photography) rely on self-reported behavior. You are requesting people to record, upload and share information that they want to share with you. Participants might self-censor or inadvertently "sanitize" their videos or pictures such that you might not get the full context of what you are trying to document. One work around this is by using a combination of DPR methods so that each "touchpoint" builds on the other to offer a more contextually holistic picture.

It's simple. Focus on progress, not perfection.

The distinction between our online and offline selves is rapidly becoming more porous. Take my example. I use the Down Dog yoga app to improve my quality of life in the offline world. I haunt YouTube alleyways to learn a new recipe, LinkedIn Learning to figure out my sales pitch and Insta Stories for new homeschooling activities when I need to call on toddler reinforcements! There is a lot that my online activities and digital communication preferences can tell you about me, if you just asked me. Throw in the ease of chatting on WhatsApp, leaving a quick voice memo or even jumping on a Zoom call, and now you have a different way of getting to know me.

In an ideal world, DPR should coexist with fieldwork wherein a researcher can be physically present in the research space. But we don't live in an ideal world. We live in the messy reality of tight budgets and limited time. So I say we shift our gaze towards the massive playground that exists between doing expensive research and doing nothing at all. This is where digital people research lives. So tie those shoelaces and let's play!

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