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Field note—

Learning through the ears

Nik Jarvie-Waldrom

8 March 2018

There seems to be a hierarchy in the world of content creation. Written words are good, but they’re better with photos. Audio content is good, but it needs an online home — and, again, better with photos. Video is the content type to rule them all.

Or is it? The answer might be yes if your goal is to entice people to engage with web content or click on a link.

The popularity of video as content is making its way into design research. More agencies are using video as a tool, a deliverable, and a way to share field work with clients. And yet video is often not the best vehicle for capturing and sharing information if you want to help clients understand their customers and shape products, services, and experiences around what people need. Like any method of recording, using video has consequences. And these consequences can have a negative impact on the research process.

Recording footage of research participants influences:

  • the way people answer questions
  • the authenticity of how people present themselves
  • the power dynamic of a conversation.

Audio on its own is a powerful and relatively non-intrusive way to capture and share information. Exploring ways to use audio in design research is part of my job. It feels like a self-serving quest because I experience much of the world through sound. As a freelance radio producer and sometimes-musician, I’m always aware of how sound can complement and inform what my other senses are receiving. What I hear gives me an insight. It helps me understand.

Fortunately, insight and understanding are significant in research for human-centered design. So my quest to explore how we might use audio at Empathy is serving many more people than just me (phew!). Audio complements other interview and delivery methods to add value for clients and create a more comfortable experience for research participants.

Five reasons to use audio:

A subtle presence in the field

In conversations between one researcher and one participant, introducing a camera can be distracting. There will be times when video is absolutely the right choice, but having a lens pointed at you changes what you’re willing to share. It’s difficult to forget a camera when it’s looking right at you.

When you want to observe someone’s normal home environment, that’s not what you’ll see if a participant is wary of having their way of life visually recorded. Audio recording is more subtle. A recorder can be placed on a table — or even on the collar of someone’s shirt. Out of sight line, out of mind. Researcher and participant can converse more naturally.

Protects identities

It’s often important to keep a research participant’s identity confidential. With audio, voices can be disguised in a way that doesn’t change the listener’s experience. Even without disguise, many participants feel more comfortable having their voice shared with a client than their image. A person’s identity can be disguised in video, too, but representing a participant with a group of blurry pixels or a backlit silhouette can send the wrong message to a viewer.

Conveys the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of someone’s words

The way someone speaks can carry more meaning than the words they use. We can quote a participant verbatim in a written report, but we miss an opportunity to convey how they spoke — whether they were light-hearted, sarcastic, thoughtful, or flippant. Using audio to share people’s stories allows for a good sense of what someone is thinking and feeling.

Reduces bias

Presenting audio as an alternative to video means there is no visual information we might use to form judgement. Making assumptions based on what we see is part of being human. We infer things from visual information to survive and thrive. But this tendency makes it easy to judge or jump to conclusions. Using audio to share participant stories creates a more neutral space for the listener to receive and process information.

Supports findings with real customer voices

Most companies using human-centered design do so because they care about their customers. They commission ethnographically inspired research because they want to create and deliver value to people they engage with. Alongside a thorough written report, audio is a great way to advocate for the customer. It keeps end users front of mind in the design process. It breathes life into research, and gives clients an appetite for the deeper knowledge that comes from analysis and definition.

No method does well on its own. Sometimes video will be a key ingredient in the research recipe. And that’s cool. We use video at Empathy, too. I wrote this because I’ve been reflecting on choosing the right recording and presentation methods for each project.

If you think video is the answer, make sure you’re asking the right questions. As an advocate for audio, I don’t want video to win by default.