Stuart Henshall studies human behavior for a living. Until March, the “user research” analyst was based in a “UX [user experience] laboratory ”, or special conference room, in an Indian town where he was doing face-to-face research; he had mostly interviewed low-income people to help businesses understand what makes them tick.
Convo, the consulting firm he co-founded in Mumbai and San Francisco, has worked for groups such as Facebook and Bose. He sells his services with the idea that “real world conversations matter” and face-to-face interviews seemed the most obvious tool to use for Indians who did manual labor, such as Dhobi (washers or women) or rickshaw drivers.
But when the Covid-19 lockdowns began, Henshall, like everyone else, was forced to jump online. And after making thousands of hours of video calls in 2020, he made an unexpected discovery: While doing his research comes with virtually some challenges, there are also benefits.
When people walk into his UX lab, the encounters tend to be formal; Dhobi, for example, sometimes put on their clients’ clothes for interviews because they saw the lab (as they would an office) as a place for organized meetings.
One reason is that when Indians walk into his UX lab, encounters tend to be formal; Dhobi, for example, sometimes put on their clients’ clothes for interviews because they saw the lab (as they would in an office) as a staged meeting place.
On a video chat, however, Henshall can see his interviewees in their natural habitat, dressed in their usual clothing. “The participants are just more comfortable at home in their environment. [They] tend to feel more in control. . . They can feel freer and more secure to share their point of view, ”he explains in an article for Epic, a website that promotes the use of ethnography in business. “A driver decided to slow down [auto rickshaw] was the best place [to chat]. Even the bathroom is used for an interview occasionally for more privacy! All of this helped him enormously in his research.
Of course, researchers also face downsides in this online dashboard – for example, it’s harder to “read” body language on a video call than in person. But Henshall finds this new form of his work so useful that he will almost certainly continue to use it as a complement to analog research when face-to-face interviews become possible again.
It’s a thought-provoking observation for anyone whose job requires them to watch people for a living and figure out what makes them tick (think lawyers, journalists, and psychologists for starters). And Henshall’s experiment is picked up by other observers.
Social scientists who do UX research at Intel, the Silicon Valley giant, have made similar findings. Lama Nachman, director of Intel’s Early Computing Lab, which works on how humans interact with computers, tells me that Intel researchers – which include social scientists and UX experts – used virtual tools to study how parents, teachers and students use online education. While Intel has rarely conducted this type of virtual-only study before, it gives it a much broader geographic reach.
Chloe Evans does UX research on consumer behavior for the music and podcast platform Spotify. She, like Henshall, initially assumed that it would be difficult to study consumers online since she has always relied on “being there” to see how they respond to music in person. But, as she writes in another article on Epic website, she realized after doing similar video chats that there were “unexpected benefits as well as challenges” to being online: she has access to a wider geographic spread of consumers, for example, and her interviewees feel more autonomous when speaking to him.
Through trial and error, Evans is also finding a way to minimize the downsides of digital platforms, which is that it can be (even) more difficult to decide if people are telling the truth. Conducting video interviews with groups (or even just two other people) can make the conversation more rounded and lively, and provide the discussion with appropriate checks and balances.
Daniel Beunza Ibanez, a sociologist at Cass London Business School who studies financial traders in the City of London and New York, came to similar conclusions. After speaking to financiers during the lockdown, he saw that they – like Indian rickshaw drivers – used a more intimate style of video chat communication.
This model may not apply to all professions: there are jobs that are definitely suffering when they move online. But these lessons imply that it is time for us to shift the debate to the future of work. Instead of asking ourselves if digital is better than analog – or vice versa – we need to see how they can be combined in a way that enriches us all.
We need to start recognizing that when the world finally emerges from Covid-19 lockdowns, our ways of working will not simply return to where we were before the pandemic. Our attitude towards digital tools has constantly evolved, for good and bad reasons. Getting into lockdown has changed us all.
It’s scary, but it also produces some unexpected silver liners. And if we can find an effective way to embrace a new online and offline world, this is cause for celebration.
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