Slow research in a culture of fast

Nick Agafonoff warns of the dangers of a world in which the researcher becomes an operator of technology rather than a master of it.

Slow research is dangerous.

It is slow because it is robust in its approach and exhaustive in its consideration of the data. It favours process over shortcuts – the journey is more important than the destination and it can often lead us to an unexpected place of discovery.

Slow research relies on the wisdom of experience and the skill of inquiry to unpack and explain often very complex relationships. Like a chef conducting a taste test the expert researcher scrutinises every nuance in the data and is prepared to tweak the approach if needed along the way.

Slow research is experimental. It can often deviate in another direction from the original research objective. It is not afraid to attempt a different methodology, to ask a question in an entirely different way, or even to disrupt people’s worlds in pursuit of a deeper understanding or truth.

Most of all, slow research requires courage because it is genuinely a journey into the unknown. It requires commitment from both the client and the researchers to the idea of a journey toward an insight, a dangerous idea in a research world that is rapidly becoming addicted to fast data and fast answers.

New information gathering and distilling technologies feed a desire for insight that is more efficient to set up, more immediate to obtain and faster to distribute. In this world, the researcher becomes an operator of technology rather than a master of it. In this utopia of insight, the future qualitative researcher is an automaton, but we are not far off this as a veritable reality.

Recording a Skype interview with a research participant instead of conducting it face-to-face makes so much sense when you can capture the interview as a video, splice it up and send it off in an instant. Coding and editing programs can even do the work for us.

We might start to think that conducting any face-to-face interviews in the future is increasingly redundant when we can Skype, record, code and edit.

We are easily impressed by rich qualitative descriptions posted by people in online forums and groups. Our immediate conclusion is that the information is probably better than that obtained from actual focus groups. It is certainly easier to use with a simple ‘cut and paste’ into a presentation slide.

We salivate at the thought of research participants uploading images and videos via their phones in real-time as part of visual surveys of everyday life, usage and behaviour. We might begin to presume this information is exemplary research data unaffected by the bias of a middle person or facilitator, such as a researcher.

We marvel at heat maps that track focal points to a millimetre using eye-tracking glasses. Surely, the science is undeniable and it takes the guesswork out of everything.

So, very quickly we arrive at this conclusion: Why do we need researchers at all when the technology appears to be giving us spectacular data and fast – incredibly detailed, 100 per cent recorded, beautifully visualised, totally quantified, immediately useful and easy to distribute?

Automatons at risk of self-extermination

In an age where the answer appears to be a simple click away we need to take a long deep breath as researchers and research buyers before we self-exterminate. Ask yourselves this: If everyone has these fast data tools at their disposal, then where is the competitive advantage in the marketplace of insight? The short answer is that fast data needs to be the starting point for inquiry, not the end-point as answers.

Take online forums for instance, an engagement tool that we now employ in practically every research project as a starting point for inquiry. What we have consistently discovered overtime is that what people say and share in an online forum is often quite different to what they do and experience in their everyday life. We would not know this if we did not also conduct immersive observational research.

Fast data gathering and distillation technologies tend to filter out all the grey dirty areas that create ambiguity in order to give us clear answers and conclusions. Yet, it is often in exploring the ambiguous data that we, as researchers, come to a deeper understanding and insight. The technologies might be useful because they help answer the known knowns in that moment in time – what people are readily conscious of when they are surveyed. Nevertheless, is it not the purpose of good research to also explore and understand the unknowns: the unconscious and the subconscious?

For a recent project we employed a range of fast contemporary data gathering technologies – online forums and groups, eye tracking with heat maps, in addition to real-time mobile visual surveys. All the different data points collectively painted a seemingly complete picture of current usage, behaviour and perceptions – at least on the surface. Yet, it was another non-contemporary approach that proved to be the key to deeper insight – immersive real world observation and inquiry, otherwise referred to as ethnography.

The ethnography focused on what people were not saying and not doing – the unconscious behaviour and lived experience. This required participant-observation and reflexive interviewing on the one hand and the use of social experimentation on the other. By social experimentation, I mean the use of different mechanisms to disrupt social orders, which in turn reveal the deeper relationship. For example, if we want to understand the deeper relationship someone has to fresh breath, we might ask the research participant not to clean his or her teeth for a day and observe their behaviour and interactions both before and after the experiment.

As it turned out, in this latest project, the invisible insight was right under everyone’s noses. However, it took real-world immersion, reflexive interviewing and social experimentation to bring the unconscious reality to a conscious level of inquiry and understanding. Hence, fast data we use to map out the known knowns (visible insight) and to start us on the journey. But to reach the unknowns (invisible insight) we still need to be prepared to roll up our sleeves and engage people in their everyday lived experiences, not just their reported ones.

In summary, employing new data gathering and distillation technologies wisely, in combination with more immersive research disciplines by skilled practitioners, is the optimal research design going forward. This optimal design, however, can only be made possible by a research client prepared to allow for slow research, which necessarily requires more time for fieldwork, analysis and experimentation. This is the brave new world of research – one that understands the competitive advantages, as well as the competitive limitations of fast data, but ultimately places faith in the researcher to take everyone on a journey of real discovery into the unknown.

Nick Agafonoff, director, The Practice and Real Ethnography