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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.