Researchers cannot afford to ignore Web 2.0 approaches to research, as Forrester’s analyst Tamara Barber makes clear in a persuasive article on Research Live, in which she settles on market research online communities (MROCs) as being the most effective way to achieve this. How to do Web 2.0 research, from a methodological point of view, is engaging a great deal of discussion at MR events this year.
In her piece, Ms Barber has focused on social or participatory characteristics of Web 2.0, where there is obvious value to research. But the other characteristics of Web 2.0 lie in the technological changes that have emerged from its 1.0 antecedents – that the Internet becomes a platform for software, rather than a delivery channel for information. Indeed it is technology – using Ajax, Web services, content integration and powerful server-side applications – that are as much the hallmarks of Web 2.0 as the outward manifestations of the social web. It’s on the technology side that there is a lot of catching up to do, in the world of market research, and until this gets sorted out, Web 2.0 research will remain an activity for the few – for patient clients with deep pockets.
The specialist tools we use in research are starting to incorporate some Web 2.0 features, but nowhere does this yet approach a fully integrated platform for Research 2.0 – far from it. Panel management software is morphing into community management software, but the Web survey tools they link to don’t make it easy yet to create the kind of fluid and interactive surveys the Web 2.0 researcher dreams of. Neither are the tools to analyse all of the rich textual data that come out of these new kinds of research truly optimised for all forms of Web 2.0 research data. There are pockets of innovation, but multi-channel content integration – a key feature of Web 2.0 sites – is still difficult, so researchers are still drowning in data and left running to catch up on the analytical side.
Another problem arises too as more ambitious interactive activities and research methods emerge: the demands on both the respondent and the respondent’s technology increase, and some are getting left behind. Participants find themselves excluded because their PC at home or at work won’t let them run the Java or other components needed to complete the activity – whether it’s a survey, a trip into virtual reality or a co-creation exercise, and their PC won’t let them upload what you are asking them to upload. Even relatively modest innovations such as presenting an interactive sort board in the context of an online survey or focus group will exclude some participants because their browser or their bandwidth won’t handle it. Others simply get lost because they don’t understand the exercise – there is a growing body of studies emerging into the extent to which respondents fail to understand the research activities they are being asked to engage in.
New Scientist recently reported on innovations taking place in gaming technology where the game learns from the level of competence demonstrated by the player and uses this to adjust the game’s behaviour. It’s the kind of approach that could help considerably in research. Unlike online gamers, we can’t ask participants to spend more than a few seconds in learning a new task and we can’t afford to lose respondents because of the obvious bias that introduces into our samples.
For Web 2.0 research to move beyond its current early-adopter phase, not only do researchers need to take on these new methods, but research software developers also need to be encouraged to take a Web 2.0-centric approach to their developments too.