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Technology, sustainability and the perils of sat-nav thinking

Technology, sustainability and the perils of sat-nav thinking

Why are we continuing to field half hour or even longer interviews, when we know 15 minutes is the natural limit for participants?

I gave a presentation at last week’s Confirmit Community Conference in which I looked at some of the survey results from our recent software survey through an ethics and best practice lens. Confirmit are not only one of the major players in the research technology space, but they also sponsored our research, and were keen I share some of the findings at their client gathering in London today.

More than one observer has pointed out that over the years our survey has strayed somewhat beyond the narrow remit of technology into wider research issues, such as methodology, best practice and commercial considerations. I’m not sure we can make that separation any more. Technology no longer sits in the hands of the specialists – it is ubiquitous. And in defence, I point out that everything in our survey does very much relate to technology, and the effects of technology on the industry. But that does indeed give us quite a broad remit.

Technology is an enabler, but it also often imposes a certain way of doing things on people, and takes away some elements of choice. There is always a risk that it also takes away discretion in the user, resulting in ill-considered and ultimately self-defeating behaviour. Think, for example, of the hilarious cases of people putting so much faith in their satellite navigation systems that they end up driving the wrong way along one-way streets, or even into a river.

Technology has shoved research into a particular direction of travel  – towards online research using panels, and incentivising those panels. That is a technological-induced shift, which brings about a very real set of concerns around ethics and best practice which has been rumbling round the industry since 2006 at least.

Researchers cannot afford to take a sat-nav approach to their research, and let the technology blindly steer them through their work. They must be fully in charge of the decisions and aware of the consequences. They must not lose sight of the two fundamental principles on which all research codes and standards rest – being honest to clients and being fair to participants.

Delivering surveys without checking that 30% of your responses were invented by fraudulent respondents or survey-taking bots is no more acceptable than having a member of staff fabricate responses to ensure you hit the target. Ignorance is no defence in the law. Yet this is what is certainly happening in the many cases our survey uncovered where the quality regimes reported are too often of the superficial, light-touch and easily-achieved variety.

Pushing ahead with surveys that will take half an hour or an hour to complete, when there is good shared understanding that 15 minutes is the natural limit for an online survey sounds like an act of desperation reserved for extreme cases. Yet it is the 15 minute online interview that appears to be the exception rather than the norm. This is crassly inconsiderate of survey participants. It’s sat-nav thinking.

The real issue, beyond all this, is of sustainability. Cost savings achieved from web surveys are now being squandered on incentives and on related admin. Long boring surveys lead to attrition. Respondents lost who have to be replaced, very expensively, from an ever dwindling pool.

So yes, I make no apology for being a technologist talking about research ethics. Sat-navs and survey tools aren’t intrinsically wicked – they just need to be used responsibly.

Just be considerate… it’s good business

girl_PC_outsideEver since the earliest days of laptops, computer manufacturers have produced idyllic images of business people working in beautiful outdoor locations, thanks to the freedom of battery power.  Even their marketing people, and I know because I used to be one of them, did not believe their own hype; we were all confined to our airless office from nine to five (or usually longer), where we slaved like androids over hot laptops.

Ridiculous, isn’t it!  However, disciplined we all are as individuals, nobody produces their best work in this kind of environment. It is like being in a straight jacket.  Some corporates do provide their workforce with womb-like dens to relax in, or gym membership, and they treat their clients to glamorous days out.  All this helps, but it costs thousands, and in the end it us, their customers, who foot the bill.

This is where meaning really scores highly in my book. It is one of the most hard-working, creative, yet relaxed companies I have ever known. Meaning does not spend thousands creating the right environment or the right impression, it just does it by treating people nicely. Simple!

This means that, in my case as a meaning associate, I am nearly always around to take my children to school and pick them up, plus I often fit in a run or a bike ride during normal working hours.   As I am busy doing other things during part of the daytime, it does mean that I often work at very non-traditional hours, like in the evenings or weekends. This is my choice. Sometimes this way of working is inconvenient to meaning, however it is often a huge benefit  –  I have on many occasions worked late into the evening to meet a deadline, or simply to communicate with customers in their own time zone.

In my corporate days I can remember occasionally sneaking out of the office to walk around the local park to try to free my mind enough to solve a problem.  I still do this kind of thing now, I just don’t have to do it secretly any more.  A few weeks ago, I wrote an article for this website on the train home. Later, the weather was so perfect that I went on a bike ride, and while I was pedalling, and breathing in the beautiful summer air, a new and better way to write the piece just entered my mind, as if by magic (although, of course it’s not magic, as any sports scientist would tell you, the better oxygenated brain works better!). As soon as I got home, I scribbled down all my ideas and, even though I say it myself, I did a rather good job, and I did it promptly.

Just because you are a bit different, it doesn’t mean that you don’t get to the end goal. In fact, it might even be the case that you get there more quickly or produce a better result. Meaning, long may you be open to and accepting of different ways of doing things. And please always remain so kind and considerate.