So Video Ain’t Science

None of us would claim that sticking a camera in someone’s face doesn’t alter the dynamics or change the behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions we are trying to study.  But I do argue that the use of video in market research and data collection should lead the way in understanding and developing more complete pictures of user-centered design, customer-focused products and services, and customer behavioral patterns.  Unfortunately, the methodology has sometimes been disregarded as too expensive, too subjective, or not reflecting “real science.”

Even in an age where video capture is part of every living moment, it’s not uncommon for a researcher using video in data collection to run into people concerned with the validity of the method.  Sometimes the concerns revolve around whether film and video are art or science.  Because of its interpretive, creative, impressionistic, and emotional attributes, art is sometimes assumed to be in direct conflict with an objective, value-free science—apparently creating an unavoidable conflict between the goals of film as art and user research as science. Consequently, people, academics and professionals alike, assume limited possibilities for video.

Film and video are frequently seen as a humanistic sideline to significant scientific work designed to satisfy the creative urge or appeal to the emotional pliability of the audience.  Ultimately, the producer of the final visual document is seen as selectively building subjectively constituted data and constructing a piece that reflects his/her interpretation rather than “the facts.”  However, the same can be said for any written document, particularly when behavioral research methods are applied to data collection for a specific task or client need.  And it holds true for both the quantitative and qualitative sides. The impact is wide reaching; a logo-centric culture perpetuates a compartmentalizing and hierarchizing of sources of ethnographic knowledge, which prevents researchers from benefiting from the full breadth of insight and information available.  Slide decks and written reports often have pictures, and films often use verbal narratives, subtitles or intertitles, and have accompanying written material, in the shape of film-makers’ notes, contemporary ethnographies, study guides, or internally produced handouts and bibliographies.  The reality is that while the film-focused researcher does indeed run the risk of compromising the complex realities of a particular behavior or series of behaviors, the risk is no greater than that of the researcher relying primarily on the written word.

Typically, film is accepted most openly is when it is considered to fit the documentary archetype.  This stems from the widely held belief that film is a mirror for the world, that the camera never lies.  Within a positivist science, the camera is regarded as a device for scientifically recording data about human behavior that is more objective than other types of information because of the mechanical nature of the collection device.  It can be argued that unedited research footage is scientific data that researchers can study because of its assumed purity. However, given the context of the work (time limitations and constraints imposed by the nature of contractual research), the footage supplied by the camera may be as close as we can get to a check of objectivity.  The reality of research purchased by a company is such that it assumes, even demands, a final product that is easily used, applies to a wide range of internal needs, and can be readily disseminated.

For some, manipulation of the footage (editing it into a film, altering, etc.) destroys its “scientific value.”  Thus the science of film is found in the raw footage, while the art of film is located in constructing it into a film.  In a perfect enactment of this model, collaborative teams go into the field to film material that the scientist studies and the filmmaker transforms into art.  In actuality, this fantasy is never realized.  The footage is indeed dissected and analyzed by the researcher, typically transformed into a product the client will readily consume, but by its very nature qualitative research always has a degree of subjectivity.  In fact, any and all research, be it in the field and interpretive or in the laboratory and highly controlled, involves subjectivity and personal biasing to one degree or another.  This hardly invalidates the work or the means by which data are captured and displayed.  Validity and reliability are not necessarily one and the same.

In fact, the film or video editor who was not present at the interview can assume the role of journalistic gatekeeper. This is precisely the role of the editor in many documentary film productions.  There is no question that pieces of information may be lost, but the alternative of having a film be ignored or a report sit unused because the basic issues could not be made clear quickly and concisely may conceivably outweigh this fact.  It is a simple reality of conducting research for industry.  The editors job, then, is to ensure that the video is dynamic and concise enough to engage the audience(s) while conveying the most important information.


By Gavin


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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