Interview with Steve August, KDA Research

I asked Steve August of KDA Research to do an IM interview because he found an interesting and innovative way to use blogs to conduct ethnographic research online.

Lee: You mentioned how your new site would tell the KDA story better. What is the KDA story?
Steve: KDA Research focuses on helping companies understand their customers' world - meaning we focus on understanding how a particular product or service fits into the wider context of peoples' lives. We use a variety of research methods to do this, all based in a sociology/anthropology framework. So offline, we'll do ethnographies or on-site studies where we go out into the customer’s environment and observe people to discover opportunities for developing new products or improving current ones.
We've now started to take that ethnography framework and apply to research we conduct online.

Lee: How does it work? If it's all about context, how does that translate into an online situation?
Steve: That's an excellent question. How do you be there without actually being there? The short answer is for pure observational research, yes you do have to be there. However, this can be an extremely expensive and intrusive exercise when trying to follow people over the course of their day to day lives. The way the business world works, there is never time and budget to send researchers into the field for that long. However, over the past 3-4 years, 4 things have come together that can give researchers the ability to get close to that observation experience via online methods.

Lee: Four things have come together?
Steve: Those 4 phenomena are: Internet adoption reaching 70% of the American public, the pervasiveness of digital media, specifically digital cameras, the proliferation of online communication technologies - blogs, boards, chats, etc, and wireless devices - such as camera phones - that can utilize the first three. This may seem like old hat to the blogging world, but the market research industry is just starting to wake up to the possibilities of these things working in concert.

Lee: So take me through how it works together...
Steve: OK , let's look at these 4 things conceptually. The underlying concept of the Internet is connection - we're all hooked up together and can connect easily whenever we want to. The underlying concept of digital media is richness - we can do more than just send text back and forth, we can show a picture or video or sounds to give a rich sense of any experience. The underlying concept of online communication technology is engagement - we can engage with other people in many different ways - individual, as groups, synchronous, asynchronous, etc. And finally, and this is the most exciting from our point of view, the underlying concept of wireless devices is immediacy - the time from once something happens to when we know about it is now down to minutes or even seconds if we are fast with our thumbs. While we can get all of these things doing traditional, offline research, the online environment makes it sustainable over days, weeks, months and even years. Using these tools, we can integrate research into the activities of the people we study in a way that up until now has not been feasible.

Lee: You just did some work with the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) that involved online research with teens and mobile phones. How did the 4 phenomenon work to enable this research?
Steve: This was a great project. CEA wanted to follow kids over the course of a week and see how they used their cell phones - how much did they talk, text, take pictures (for those who had camera phones), what kind of personalizations they made to their phones, and how they carried their phones. We used our KDA Revelation system to set up blogs for each of the 36 kids that were recruited to participate. The kids were from urban, suburban and rural areas all over the country. That's were the Internet/connection fits in.

Lee: KDA Revelation?
Steve: KDA Revelation is an online system we developed to facilitate these kinds of studies - and yes it leverages multiple collaborative tools - blogs, boards, chats, web forms - to engage participants in our study.

Lee: From what I understand, the blogs were a big part of it. How did the kids use the blogs?
Steve: For this study, we chose blogs as we wanted to have each kid privately detail his or her usage without being influenced by their peers. The only people who could see a participant's blog were the researchers and the participants themselves. The kids kept essentially an online journal of their experiences during the week. The blogs offered the richness and immediacy that paper simply cannot do. I have an example of this.

My favorite picture from the study was a picture of a classroom with the teacher up at the blackboard, back turned to the students. We had asked that the kids take a picture of the location of a given phone usage if possible. The picture was obviously taken from a camera phone and the person who posted it said that she had been playing a game to fend off boredom during her math class. The picture really made us feel like we were there in the classroom with her, and it would have been really difficult and intrusive to have a researcher attempt be there to capture that moment. In fact, I don't think we would have caught that moment any other way.

Lee: So the kids blog their experiences for a week. How did you analyze that data?
Steve: In terms of analysis, it was quite a lot to data to analyze, especially for a qualitative study. Over the course of the week, the kids recorded over 700 specific phone uses which we culled into a database and analyzed, by type, duration, other party, purpose, etc. We also had several hundred individual records regarding personalizations, transportation and accessories. Then beyond that, we had 30+ long form responses to No Phone Day.

Lee: Any lessons learned about using private blogs for research purposes?
Steve: The big lesson is that the same qualities that have placed blogs at the center of the public blogging phenomenon can be harnessed for other purposes. Blogs - public or private - really are such a great conduit for people to reveal things about themselves. The amount of data we get in every project we do is sometimes overwhelming. We've learned quickly that we needed to develop effective ways of managing the information as it comes in so that we can stay on top of it.

Lee: What’s next for KDA/Revelation?
Steve: I think KDA/Revelation will continue to evolve as we focus on being able to stream the data as it comes so we can get our analysis going as early as possible in the process. I think we've only tapped a part of the potential with blogs - and we'll utilizing more and more as we increase our facility with the system.

Lee: Thanks a bunch Steve!
Steve: No, thank you, Lee.

Steve August is a Principal of KDA Research based in San Francisco, California. He directs KDA's efforts in assessing and utilizing technology to innovate new research techniques and methodologies, and has spearheaded the development of KDA's new online in-depth research system - KDA Revelationâ„¢.