Immersive Research: First-Hand Experience Inspires Change

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After an extended period of global disruption, immersive, in-person research has been slowly reemerging from hibernation. Not unlike the first sunny day after a long winter, it feels as if the true revival is just beginning. The time comes for us to get back to the field. As teams are looking for opportunities to get close to the action once again, we ask: what does it mean to be present in research, and what does it offer us that can’t be replicated?

In shopper insights and market research, we are often “blessed” with a bounty of “data.” This can be incredibly beneficial: data helps us identify emerging trends or market differences. It provides vital facts about the products or services we make or sell so we can better understand the customers we need to target. Unfortunately, amidst all this data, we can still become data rich and insights poor. Information sits in crosstabs, surveys, and PowerPoint documents — barely animated through bullet points. This data bounty can lead to a bit of “spectator syndrome.” 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 and find meaning. 

"Are we really fully present?" When we are spectators behind a glass or a screen we are prone to distraction. An email, meetings,  backroom discussions, or an emerging metaphorical fire that needs to be put out. Whether you are just an observer on Zoom, in a back room during a focus group or passively absorbing asynchronous research, we naturally become spectators rather than active participants in the research ourselves. 

All of this has been exacerbated by the pandemic, where many of us have not had the opportunity to actually be in the places we study, sell or operate. For many, it has now been over two year since they were able to step into retail settings or homes to get a closer look at what is happening in real life. Covid-19 pushed us to be creative and experimental in our research methods, to find ways of being there without physically being there. This is extraordinarily valuable for safely and unobtrusively capturing a range of data; however, there was also a lot lost in translation along the way. 

What have we missed out on in a remote-only world? 

  • A Wider Frame - When we ask participants to document themselves, we are capturing how they consciously see the world, what they think is important. But what about the details that they don't think are important and so don't show us? These can be anything from the 360 completeness of the spaces they create in their homes to small objects and habits that have become so much a part of their routines that they don't even come into the participants' minds.
  • Tangents and Treasure Troves - Good interviews are a collaboration. Interviewer and interviewee have a back and forth, explore down some rabbit holes while skirting others. These conversations are enhanced by the verbal and bodily feedback we give, how we move through space and interaction together, and the environment which provides catalysts and memory triggers that allow us to go further. In a 90-minute zoom interview, we often have to stick closer to the protocol, leaving us with less opportunities to explore  some of the tangents that may lead to an unexpected a-ha moment. 
  • Senses are Sticky - We simply engage with people, places, emotions and events differently in person vs. online. Though the metaverse aspires to achieve full immersion, right now being there is still the only way to, well, be fully there. In-person research unlocks the senses and engages memory in a way that cannot be replicated digitally.

Much teaching relies on the transmission of knowledge in context-free environments and depends little on actually "being there." is only through visceral involvement that we are truly able to learn and understand. - from The Power of Not Thinking by Simon Roberts

Without Immersion, Traps Emerge

In the absence of sticky, sensorial research experiences, teams begin to lean on what they can get access to and feel ownership of — hypotheses, assumptions, or personal opinions. Design teams end up looking for inspiration from competitors or well-broadcast trends, instead of finding them out in the world with users. Strategists use their personal instincts rather than rely on the muscle-memory of knowledge gained from research. Brand teams use their experience and history with the company rather than the reality and perspective of an everyday user. 

Call it whatever industry term you want: design research, design thinking, ethnographic methods, “ethnos”, in-homes, IDIs, immersions: the best way to provide teams with the inspiration they need is through immersive qualitative field research.

"DO. NOT. SEEK. THE. TREASURE. It's an ambush!"


Context Adds Essential Color

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 empower 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 that 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.

"Just watching everyone is so much fun."

What More Does Immersion Get You? 

During immersive field research, Conifer’s teams of anthropologists, social scientists, and design researchers are trained to take an ethnographic method approach in observing each piece of the story in intimate detail. The art hanging on the wall, a well-used coffee cup, the backup 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 during immersive research help 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 are 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: this allows us to find the paradoxes and areas of tension that 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 based on ethnographic methods, 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
  • Drive research outcomes that feel more actionable and memorable
  • 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 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.


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