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Lights, camera, action!

Lights, camera, action – Using video ethnography to understand your users

Throughout the Better by Design project we aim to provide organisations with tools they can use again and again throughout their development. Video ethnography is one such tool which has huge value, particularly in the Insight phase of design.

Ethnography is a term that often gets used incorrectly to refer to any sort of user-focused research -from surveys, to interviews, to people-watching. From a social science perspective, ethnography is a method that involves an immersive period of observation. Ethnography privileges discovery over verification, and is therefore best used when you don’t know the questions you need to ask.  It is about taking people on a journey, rather than presenting a rational conclusion. Discovery will lead to insight, and insight will lead to action.

Ethnography by definition takes time. It involves establishing a relationship of trust and dialogue with another person or people, and becoming an observer and participant in their lives. Quite simply, it takes time for people to get comfortable enough to be themselves. If you invest the time you will gain insight that people are simply unable to tell you about their behaviour.

So what does video have to offer ethnography? These days, mobile video technology is cheap and readily available (yes, I’m talking about your iPhone!).  Small mobile video cameras are unobtrusive, giving you the mobility and freedom to go almost anywhere. They are quick and easy to set up, so you can capture action right as it happens before you could even get out a pen and paper.

The real value of video in ethnography is two-fold in that it represents both a process and a product. The process of creating a film is social, creative and in itself a journey of discovery and insight.  Screening raw footage with your participants is an excellent way to spark discussion and elaborate on your understanding of an experience. Watching footage together enables you to decode what people see themselves doing and the meanings they attach to their behaviours.

Don’t worry if you’re not a seasoned filmmaker – you don’t even have to be the one behind the camera! This process can be made as collaborative as you want, going so far as to enlist your participants as filmmakers. Handing the camera over to your participants can open up whole worlds where it may not be appropriate or possible for you to visit as an ethnographer. This brings us to the practice of participatory filmmaking, which I will elaborate on in a later post. For now, suffice to say in video ethnography the journey is just as important as the destination.

As a product of ethnographic research a film is a living, breathing, multi-sensory representation of that journey. Life is not one-dimensional. Every human experience is a composition of interrelated senses.  The sights, sounds, smells, and feeling of an experience is often far too complex to convey in words. Furthermore, video brings stories and experiences to life in a way that text simply can’t. So much of communication is beyond the words we speak. We connect and empathise with other people through non-verbal cues – our facial expressions, our demeanor, our tone. For this reason, video is an incredibly powerful tool for sharing personal stories of people whose lives have been transformed by an organisation or an experience.

Below are some simple tips and suggestions for how to start using video ethnography using a simple pocket camera like an iPhone or Flip Cam. Of course more professional kit will yield a higher quality product, but pocket cameras are perfectly suitable to get started.

  1. Find the right people. Not everyone is comfortable being filmed. Small samples are encouraged – it’s quality and depth, not quantity and breadth, which count.
  2. Be forthcoming about how you intend to use the footage from the beginning. Who will it be shared with? Where will it be seen? Include as much information as you have, and always get a signed consent form.
  3. Start without the camera. Even when time is limited, it’s best to arrange at least an informal conversation with the participants ahead of time. Once they are comfortable speaking with you on your own, you can introduce the camera.
  4. Be aware of your own subjectivity, and listen without prejudice. The aim of video ethnography is not to push an agenda, it is to be open to discovery.
  5. Involve participants in the editing process. Give participants the opportunity to see the footage before it is shown more widely. Do your best to address any concerns they may have about particular footage, or how it has been represented.
  6. Acknowledge that any product of video ethnography is a construction rather than a replication of reality.  Every shot represents the filmmaker’s choice to include something and omit something else.

Tips for semi-structured interviews:

  1. Stabilise your camera. You don’t need a fancy tripod – even a stack of books will do the trick. Shaky video will only make your audience feel ill.
  2. Find your light! Make sure the main source of light is in front of the person being filmed. If it is behind them, they will appear in shadow.
  3. Silence is golden. If you are using a pocket camera remember that the microphone is IN the camera. Any noise in the area will be picked up, so find a quiet space and ask people to stay clear of where you are filming.
  4. Always start with throw-away questions. Even the most seasoned interviewees will inevitably get a bit nervous when the camera comes out. Give them a chance to settle into it with some informal questions.
  5. Always shoot B-Roll – extra shots of your interviewee that can be inserted to cover up edits or to illustrate things they are speaking about.

That’s a wrap!

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