Four Essential Elements of Recording Participants

Whether we conduct field studies for clients as a consultant, or we are part of a larger an organization, we frequently report data.  We’ve each used different strategies — the executive summary, the dreaded PowerPoint slides — all in an effort to effectively communicate our findings, or to persuade developers, executives, and others, to take into account the needs of users in their decision-making about products or business directions.

Those of us who make our living as business anthropologists (of whatever stripe) often sense the frustration that we are becoming “experts” about users, while key stakeholders remain ensconced in their offices, never to change their perceptions or convictions.

While we recognize the inherent value of bringing people into the field with us whenever possible, we are obviously never going to manage to involve all of the stakeholders.  Sometimes the people we most need to persuade with user understanding are those who are the most skeptical of our methods and findings—and they’re not about to give up a lunch hour or an evening to come on a field visit with us. The question becomes:  How do we persuade them of the necessity of understanding the user?

We could start by taking our own advice. In our media-rich culture, the convention most people are used to for persuasion about contested issues and the reporting of human experience is not print.  Sorry, folks.  Our clients don’t read anthropology journals, they often don’t even read the editorial page—they watch TV. And the executive summary on your latest field study report is never going to give people the richness of detail or direct experience with users and consumers that you need them to have to change the direction of their project, or their business.  They just aren’t going to believe in your findings strongly enough.  Because those are your conclusions, your experiences, not theirs.  You did a field study.  They didn’t. And video can be the pivotal element.

Of course, video ethnography has some obvious advantages and disadvantages.  While we all realize that unethical editing can easily skew data and partially control the transferred “reality” of events, primary experience with research participants on video can be far more persuasive than summarized bullet points.

Done right, video summaries of field research, organized and divided by simple title text and fade-to-black, can allow our clients to have a “vicarious experience” with research participants, and give them detail and conviction about our conclusions.  They’ve been given the opportunity to come up with conclusions on their own.

SOME BASIC DOCUMENTARY HOW-TOs

  • First and foremost, be comfortable with the camera. The superior low light capabilities and easy handling of today’s consumer DV cameras make them ideal for field use. The more you fiddle with lights, focus, and focal length, the more you draw attention to the camera. Subjects are often familiar with consumer camcorders and thus more comfortable with them than their larger, professional counterparts.
  • Use a shotgun microphone mounted on the camera as opposed to a lavalier. Clipping a microphone onto the subject raises the subject’s awareness about being recorded.
  • Mount the camera on a tripod and sit far enough to the right or the left of the camera that the camera is not in the subject’s field of vision while he or she is making eye contact with you. This makes for much more natural conversation.
  • Do not make editing decisions based on the transcript of the interview. Watch the tape. Transcripts lack the nuance that often make the subject’s meaning clearer. Something seemingly as innocuous as a misplaced comma by the transcriber can completely alter the meaning of the transcript. Make certain that it is clear to the viewer what question is being answered. When possible use the interviewer’s question from the tape.
      By Gavin
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