7 learnings from a year of staying human-centric at a distance

Creativity thrives within limitations, no doubt. And the year 2020 has provided plenty of limitations for IS IT A BIRD to be creative when designing and conducting human centred research at a distance.

Prior to Covid-19, digital research was part of our toolbox, allowing us to follow people in contexts where we had a hard time being physically present, either because it was too intimate, too hectic or too time consuming.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, nearly all our project engagements have been either fully or partially digital. From these experiences, we share 7 learnings from our experience with turning human understanding into new business opportunities – at a distance.

1) The flexibility of research design is maxed out

A strength within anthropological research is the pragmatic, flexible approach where questions and topics are dictated to reality rather than models and schemes. These skills come in handy when conducting research during times of fast and frequent change! The pandemic has taught us to max out our flexibility adjusting to new restrictions, cases of infections and “orange zones” throughout the world. One key learning we are taking forward is to ensure a flexible set up of our research design to ensure truly agile when the reality of the world we are looking at requires.

2) Social distance equals global reach

Running remote, digital research pose immediate challenges to the ideal of meeting people in their own context. But the last year has taught us to see the potential for engaging in peoples lives from a distance. The digital tools have allowed us to access people beyond the usual divides in the recruitment process; number of markets, rural and urban and even social divides. The digital human encounters have enabled us to have true global reach, and a new inclusivity in our research, allowing for people to interact with us regardless of where they live and despite disabilities.

3) People, not tech, should define the digital tools we use

When conducting qualitative fieldwork among humans, we strive to do it as much on the participants terms as possible – the people we engage with are experts in their own lived experience, and our interaction should be on their turf! During the pandemic, we have translated this ideal into the digital setup of our research to avoid alienation from interaction. We use the digital tools most natural to each respondent’s preferences and capabilities. In the end, tech should enable us to also digitally meet people “where they are” not discourage people from engaging with us.

4) Preparation is key to ensure high quality human data

Digital formats leave little space for improvisation and preparing for different unforseen scenarios is key to stay flexible in the online human encounters. Although the methods of the qualitative researcher might be semi-structured, the preparation cannot be. To ensure the harvest of high-quality human data, we make extra efforts to think our way through the interaction, provide clear guidelines and set clear expectations before engaging digitally with people.

5) Building trust in the purpose and the person requires a greater effort

Trust is key to the human centric approach and an absolute necessity when striving to uncover people’s true needs and aspirations in a digital setting. When we enter peoples homes, we build trust in the informal initial conversations and simply by being real humans in the encounter. Digital encounters limit our ability to establish immediate intimacy and trust therefore becomes even more of an awareness point. A learning from this years remote research has been to ensure to build up trust from the first encounter by being extra transparent about who we are, the purpose of the project and what the data will be used for.

6) Digital formats enable new human encounters

The less intimate digital setting is not only a barrier for interaction. It democratises the relationship between researcher and respondent. Whereas it can be intimidating to have a stranger enter your home with defined questions and full display of the interior of your home, the digital formats changes what is visible and invisible. This setup enables a more equal relation between researcher and respondent, where what to share is a matter of trust and choice. During our months with fullblown digital research, we have experienced that some feel even safer behind their screen. Sharing vulnerability can be easier at safe distance and in the end lead to even more honest and personal conversations.

7) Understanding the context is still key to explore the true innovation potential

Our explorative, human centred approach to innovation still very much depends on our ability to unfold the human experience in a certain setting as a whole. This is how we identify the human problems worth solving to ensure relevancy for businesses. When our senses are limited in the digital encounters, we have found creative ways to put our senses back into play. A way we have succeeded in doing this, is by increasing our usage of ‘digital ethnography’ where respondents co-document their lived experience along side us. Through predefined tasks, video-clips, moodboards, drawings, soundbites and text messages, we ensure contextual and tangible hooks to facilitate rich online conversations.

Looking back at a year of staying human centric at a distance, it has served as a healthy limitation to spark creativity in our company. The pandemic has confirmed that digital methods are more than necessary evils in a time of social distance. In a post-pandemic world (if we can ever talk of such), the lines between our physical and digital lives will be even more blurred. As human centric innovators, our response to this is to grasp the opportunities the reality offers, and in a flexible and intelligent way put digital and analogue methods and tools into play to ensure optimal conditions for meeting people where they are and make sense of life from their perspective – whether on or offscreen.

This article was written by Louise Vang Jensen and Emil Buch Jacobsen