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Immersive Research: How First-Hand Experience Inspires Change

Posted by Conifer Research on August 20, 2019

Topics: Ethnographic Research

In the Insights & Research world we’re often “blessed” with a bounty of “data.” Data helps us identify emerging trends or market differences, it can give us vital facts about the products or services we make or sell, and it can help us understand the customers we target. Unfortunately, sometimes amidst all this data we can still become data rich and insights poor. Information sits in crosstabs, surveys, and PowerPoint documents - barely animated through predictable bullet points.

The result of this type of data bounty can be a profound lack of inspiration and even worse, a sense of “spectator syndrome” occurs. When we are too far removed from the data, we can easily slip into the role of a bystander, waiting for someone who is closer to the data to take ownership or find meaning. Before you know it, decision-making and progress is stifled.

In the absence of usable data, teams begin to lean on what they can feel ownership of: hypotheses, assumptions, or personal opinion. When it’s all they have access to, design teams end up looking for inspiration from competitors or well-broadcast trends instead of from users. Even the most visionary thinkers and creatives need grounded inspiration to help them come up with, or push forward, their next great idea. Call it whatever industry term you want: design research, ethnography, “ethnos”, in-homes, IDIs, immersions: the best way to provide teams with the inspiration they need is through immersive qualitative field research.

Yes, you could survey 1,000 people (and get bullets and charts), but what if you can go deep with 8-12 participants and learn so much more? Yes, you could also bring those 8-12 users into a focus group facility for a one-day blitz, but might people inadvertently change the way they act in the austere, unnatural setting? And what about the way we act: as spectators behind a glass wall in a focus group facility, distracted by e-mail or meetings or backroom discussions. "Are we really fully present?" "Is that serving our end goal?" Consumers don’t use our products and services in a controlled environment, and we as team members, clients and consultants are also human. Immersive research methods help us to overcome those barriers and allow us to ask better questions, be engaged, and net richer outcomes.

At its core, immersion is about first-hand experience and being an active participant in field research in order to better understand how people see and react to the world. Instead of the flat, 2D view we get from bulleted reports, we get a full color 3D contextual image that engages our senses and sticks in our memories. These memorable experiences foster a sense of ownership in the data and empowers team members to personally advocate for the needs of the users within other facets of their work. Getting out into the real world for research immersion helps break cyclical thinking, dislodges creative blocks, and resets assumptions about user needs or business problems.

Even for brands which feel they have an adequate understanding of their consumer, work life, by nature, isolates us from the end-user. Dialogue becomes filled with jargon or shorthand and assumptions are made daily that can magnify in amplitude and lead teams astray. Beyond erroneous assumptions about users’ needs and wants, many brands experience radical shifts in their ideal target market. In this way, even assumptions about who our market is, or how it is segmenting out naturally, can be radically different from reality.

During immersive field research, Conifer’s teams of anthropologists, social scientists, and design researchers are trained in observing each piece of the story in intimate detail. The art hanging on the wall, a well-used coffee cup, the back-up car air freshener - each object is a part of the whole and plays a role. These objects or routines may be so ingrained in our lives that we don't even see them anymore, but with a trained eye you might find unmet needs hiding in plain sight. The things we look for and probe on during immersive research helps us understand the context in which products or services live, and uncover the latent needs that ultimately help us improve our own products and offerings.

  • Workarounds & Repurposed Objects: show us where users are hacking their own solutions when products fail to meet users needs or expectations.
  • Wear Patterns: reveal a history of repeated (or abandoned) use through visible patterns of daily use and organic behavior.
  • Moments of Confusion & Conflict: become pain points for teams to solve and present opportunities for improved communication or processes.
  • Instances of User Torture: show us where users are enduring or adapting (maybe unnecessarily) in ways that is inconvenient, but deemed acceptable.
  • Barriers and Obstacles: that users encounter give us an understanding of the other forces that influence mental models around awareness, adoption, compliance, momentum, or stagnation.
  • Listening and Observing for Say & Do Gaps: allows us to find the paradoxes and areas of tension which can explain key differences in actual behavior versus how someone might answer a survey question.

Do you aspire for a day when team meetings and design decisions are debated based on grounded insights, user behavior, and data rather than personal opinion, conjecture, or hypothesis? In sum, Immersive Research will help teams:

  • Uncover latent needs and hidden opportunities for growth and innovation
  • Increase team ownership of insights and user advocacy
  • Stay grounded in user-centered insights and stories
  • Overcome and challenge assumptions and bias
  • Gather visceral, tangible, and memorable inspiration to fuel ideas
  • Break cyclical thinking and overcome creative blocks
  • Expose team members to new skill sets and methods such as listening, observation, and empathy

Field immersion is at the crossroads of this win-win situation. For the consumer, there is something very empowering about being listened to. For clients, there is immense value in the inspiration and assumption-checking. Some of us still remember the names, homes and habits of participants 5-6 years back—you can’t say that of survey data. We get more richness and value from research when we embrace our discomfort and leave our expectations behind to enter the world of the people for whom we hope to design.


Need help making the case for immersive field research experiences?
Conifer supports teams with everything from short Immersion Sprints to full Foundational Studies.

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