Judith Mühlenhoff on creating a sleeper research network

Doing international research often can be difficult and expensive. The logistical and financial barriers to doing it well are off-putting to many. Global media organisations face these problems all the time. It’s just not practical or affordable to send a team around the world for every set of research questions you are interested in.

Fortunately there are smarter ways to approach these challenges. Judith Mühlenhoff is the brains behind the User Research Lab, a global network of ethnographers and research participants specialising in media research. The User Research Lab has carried out substantial audience research for clients like the BBC World Service. We caught up with Judith to find out how she put this network together and what benefits this unique approach to user research can deliver.

What gave you the idea to create an on-tap user research network?

The User Research Lab grew from a research project about how people experienced the World Cup in 2010. To conduct ethnographic fieldwork in several countries, we needed to find ethnographers over there.

Everyone who works ethnographically is familiar with needing to react immediately to research and business questions, while at the same time ensuring you have found the right set of people who can observe, identify and understand valuable practices and trends in user behaviour.

The idea for the ethnographic global network emerged from the concept of a “sleeper network”; a network of ethnographers or researchers we could activate as required. The live network is active in eight countries; the ethnographers are academic researchers and get activated by the User Research Lab for its specific purposes.

So, what are the purposes of the User Research Lab?

The User Research Lab focuses on providing qualitative data on international news consumption. Overall, the User Research Lab enhances the audience engagement of news organizations by fuelling editorial and product development with qualitative audience insights.

Our ethnographers work with a set of core participants–currently we have more than 30–all are technology savvy heavy news consumers who can be activated to do research instantly and simultaneously at any given moment.

How do you go about setting up a network like this? I can imagine it’s quite challenging to find people with the right skills.

The User Research Lab has been strongly connected to Goldsmiths University in London and Leuphana University in Lüneburg/Germany, so we made use of academic networks in anthropology and ethnography. We used specific newsletters to recruit ethnographers and, of course, our personal international contacts. Then, the ethnographers reached out to their network to find participants and, if necessary, we provided further contacts in that country.

It also helps to explain the purpose of the research, especially in countries where qualitative research is quite new. For example, during the ruling of Mursi and the Muslim brothers in Egypt, it was very challenging to find an ethnographer and participants because the government ran campaigns that made people very suspicious about foreigners being potential spies. Being open about what we wanted to achieve helped us overcome that.

Wow, there’s a whole new set of challenges when you start butting up against global politics. How easy was it to find participants?

Usually the ethnographer suggests participants accordingly to some quota like gender or age. Then we choose participants depending on their answers to a questionnaire or a little task related to the research.

For example, we were looking for avid news followers (“lead users”) for the BBC. We asked participants to provide details about their media consumption, news channels, and what they like about news. During the research, participants are asked to write about their news consumption in a digital media diary which our team and the audience researchers or editors from the BBC can access. So as a test task, we asked them to review their last news day. The answers reveal if the participants communicate their thoughts with ease, which is important for this research method to work. Sometimes, it might take three weeks to find a fitting participant.

Managing all this remotely must be an interesting challenge. How do you make sure the research is good quality?

The level of previous experience of the ethnographers differed, but with the help of templates, best practice examples, and Skype talks for feedback, every ethnographer has reached a great standard.

Ethnographers also visit each new participant to get to know him or her and familiarise them with conducting ethnographic research, like getting used to the researcher taking pictures and video, or typing out notes.

We also welcome every new participant over a Skype chat with the whole research team and the local ethnographer, especially important if language barriers play a role. It makes a big impact on a personal level and increases the participant’s motivation. We always explain the goal of the research and answer questions.

For sure, in some countries, video calls are technically challenging and you should know how to optimise your settings. Nevertheless, even if calls have interruptions or bad quality it makes a difference and people feel more connected. Once you’ve made that connection, you can easily follow up over email.

What I love about this approach is that it gives you a much deeper insight into people’s context than doing sporadic project-specific research. But once the network is up and running, how do you keep people engaged over the long-term?

Usually, we don’t connect with participants via video calls during the research as it’s just too time-consuming. But it is helpful to connect on social media and some participants like to stay in touch on a more or less personal level. In the beginning it’s especially important to give feedback and encourage people, e.g. let them know what was helpful in their media diary post or what else they might add.

Depending on cultural backgrounds and personalities, it’s easier for some people to open up and share their thoughts while others need to be reassured. For example, letting them know that there is no right or wrong or reminding them that it’s not about pleasing the researchers with their answers like when you accomplish a job task. Obviously, there’s a thin line between guiding people but not influencing them too much.

One of the most important tools to maintain relationships over time are newsletters. Although the participants of our network do not communicate with each other, we regard them as members of a network. As such, our newsletters introduce an ethnographer or participant with a photo and interview about their experiences with the project.

It’s crucial to let participants know about the results of your research. They want to know what you’ve learned from their input and you should provide as much information as you can. Of course participants are interested in news about the project. We let them know about any talks or conferences, as well as people from the network we met.

What’s been hard about running a project like this?

Definitely one of the biggest challenges is bureaucracy. The transfer of incentives and tax regulations can be quite tricky. Fortunately, new online financial services like TransferWise or Azimo make transactions much easier, faster, and cheaper. With a provider like Jotform, you can manage the digital signature of forms.

And what’s the benefit of taking this approach?

The international perspective of the User Research Lab’s panel gives many different angles to news stories and behaviours, e.g. on the events in Ukraine. You also have the chance to get a personal in-depth perspective which you wouldn’t get if you just started the research without the previous connection to a participant.

For example, one of our participants from Moscow was originally from Crimea and described how she started to avoid social media due to the “hate posts”. Social media fatigue is a new, interesting behaviour we’re able to follow naturally in detail with some participants and understand how it’s evolving in the long-term, like seeing how people adapt and return to social media once they avoided it for certain reasons.

That’s really interesting. With these deep insights, do you feel your approach can also spark ideas for innovation?

Being able to spot emerging patterns is definitely an advantage of doing this type of research. For qualitative research, it is quite uncommon to do such long-term research where you can follow individual development as well as collective trends. One insight that emerged from the research was a desire to hear positive news stories. Quite early on in the research there were examples of people who were very much interested in “serious” news like Palestine, but in between needed a break from such news, e.g. by cheering themselves up with pics of “breaded” cats. This developed into a pattern. And even very involved people, like the girl from Crimea, shut down her consumption of depressing news from her home when it felt like too much.

This has since been recognised as a trend — the desire for positive or constructive news stories, especially when all you hear about somewhere is crisis. Constructive news means more than just an uplifting, distracting “news snack”, it calls for balancing a story and showing solutions to a problem, like what we’ve experienced with the refugee crisis and e.g. reports on how everyone can help or on a refugee not pictured as victim.

And, apart from spotting new patterns, has anything surprised you about working in this way?

I have to say I didn’t expect to get to know so many people on a personal level and learn so much about the different countries. It’s great to see how many people appreciate taking part in such a project and are happy to share their thoughts. And it’s wonderful when this “online” network comes to “real” life, like when you meet people in person or receive an invitation to a Nigerian wedding.

Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Judith. We look forward to seeing what comes next from the User Research Lab.