What day is it?
The lockdowns and limitations of the COVID-19 era make it more challenging than ever to keep track of our daily affairs. Gone are many of the external constraints that lent structure to our time: commutes, gym visits, day care, happy hours.
The global pandemic has also compelled us to suspend in-person studies. But that doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned fieldwork entirely. Drawing on ethnographic methods in remote interviews, we’ve learned how people are using social media to break up the continuity of time and space at home.
Technology’s shifting role in domestic life offers valuable insights into users’ intentions, expectations, and needs. But observing behavior from afar isn’t easy. Videoconferencing tools crop participants, isolating their faces from the rich world of lived contexts — what anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski called “the imponderabilia of actual life.” Fortunately, we’ve developed remote interviewing techniques to recover some of the benefits of ethnographic fieldwork. These include spatial maps, observation strategies, and methods for generating design recommendations.
Conducting remote interviews
Just as my research team launched a study exploring peoples’ expectations from digital platforms — a project that would bring us into homes across five countries — global lockdowns required us to take a different tack. Scrambling to make our research remote, we revised our methods on the fly.
So our videoconference interviews began.
A participant sits on her couch with a mobile phone in hand. She sees my face pop up on LookBack, the research tool we chose for remote interviews. She listens to me recite the standard preliminaries. Yes, she acknowledges that we’ll be recorded but it won’t be distributed. Answering any of my questions is voluntary, and because I didn’t design anything we’ll discuss, her candor won’t hurt my feelings. I then launch into the interview.
“I’m at my dining table,” I ask. “Where are you?”
She’s obviously on a couch. The question was meant not only to build rapport, but also to make the participant’s choice of place explicit. In conventional fieldwork, my initial task would be to map the space. Where do people interact? With what objects do they engage? My eyes would seek out answers to these questions. Now, I depend on the participant to guide me through her space and help me sketch her world. Dialogue replaces observation.
“Why did you choose to sit at the couch?” I ask. After a shrug, the participant reflects and mentions that it’s comfortable, that the light’s not bad.
I follow up: “What else do you do here at the couch? Is this where you work? Where do you relax?” I learn that she chose the couch to escape her workspace, which is where she keeps her monitor. Here on the couch, she partakes in lighter activities on her phone. The small, fun screen replaces the large, serious screen. Our interview unfolds in the place of play.
Like many of us, this participant uses social media to organize time and space at home. Her work space allows for concentration and sometimes privacy, while the couch authorizes relaxation and, as it turns out, a decent view of her son doing his online schoolwork. Passing from the office to the living room — from a chair to a couch — enables our participant to unwind from her work headspace. Facebook, she tells me, is a couch platform. There, while lounging, she catches up with friends’ lives for short or long periods, and sometimes reads an article.
Peoples’ sense of time also affects their digital experience. In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus describes life under lockdown as an “exile in one’s own home.” When one stays in the same place, there’s often little to interrupt the days as they go by. We found that the participant uses social media to break up time — her interactions with Facebook and Instagram help to fragment the day’s continuity into manageable blocks. She often comes to social media in transition: from relaxing to energizing, from labor to leisure. These pivots are pillars of the day’s structure.
Spatial maps help to document participants’ material constraints and capacities. We knew mapping from afar wouldn’t be easy, but we also knew it was important to capture the settings in which people spend time on social media.
An amusing image of the lockdown era from artist Kera Till reminds us that spatial mapping is not a uniquely ethnographic task. Those of us living and working at home share a sense that our circuits of social mobility have contracted. Remote interviews open an opportunity for participants to articulate the patterns by which they navigate domestic space.
What we learned was curious: people often turn to their favorite apps in different areas of the home — that is, between stations of their “commute.” Digital platforms afford moments of transition.
As our participant exemplified, the arrangement of furniture, the sources of light, the choice of materials, cleanliness or order, negligence or care: all offer indications of moods and intentions. Both are indispensable to understanding the expectations brought to digital platforms, and in turn, to optimizing those platforms so that they accommodate people’s expectations.
The difficulty is that videoconference tools make settings only partly visible. Unable to observe people’s lived actuality in its entirety, researchers rely on the camera’s angles and participants’ words to open up the space. But much can be done with just a glimpse.
How to map space remotely
We map space in order to understand how people pursue their goals online. What people do often interacts with where it’s done. The insights are valuable to help build products attuned to people’s sense of place and purpose.
The best place to start with spatial mapping is the interview guide. Incorporate questions about the context and its myriad elements. Keep in mind that asking people about their homes is a delicate affair, especially in a time of heightened precarity and anxiety. Here are a few guidelines:
- Ask participants to position themselves where they would normally engage with the platform in question. If there’s no single setting, ask them to recount the different locations.
- Make the location explicit. Ask participants why they’re at home. Would they normally work there, or are they at home because of lockdown? Why did participants choose their place for the interview? Was the selection intentional? Are other spaces unavailable?
- Address the background. Pay attention to the videoconference’s periphery and take note of objects behind the participant. These details unveil a sense of the context in which people pass time on digital platforms.
- Make lists. Record the items that set the interview’s stage and use them to start forming your map.
The resulting spatial map will be imperfect, limited as it is to the dialogue and glances available onscreen. (It might look something like the “Commuting in Corona Times” graphic, though mine have been worse.) What matters is that you record the significance that participants attribute to their interviewing space. The selection of couch or table, bed or counter, entwines mood and context, attention or distraction. Although the place doesn’t make the purpose, its choice sheds light on the expectations that people bring to digital platforms.
Formulating design recommendations
Mapping space in remote fieldwork helps us build digital products with an eye to people’s organization of home life. When it comes to design recommendations, researchers can collect data that optimize features for platforms’ distribution of the temporal and spatial structures of lockdown.
Here are some tips:
- Leverage the spatial map. Where do people use digital platforms? Where are they never used? And in which transitional moments do people use their mobile phones?
- Gauge platform intention. Do people log on to seek a refreshing break? Inspiration for their work? Or a segue to personal time? The answers are vital for formulating design criteria that account for people’s expectations.
- How much time do people spend on an app? Is the time casual or focused? For instance, we found that conducting research and making purchases occupy distinct chunks of time in people’s interactions with e-commerce, so it’s crucial that platforms adapt to distinct modes of engagement.
- What’s the platform’s cognitive load? How do people carve out their time for technology? It’s not all the same. Apps make demands on attention in relation to people’s place and mood.
The jobs to be done by social media hinge on patterns of time and space. People might go to Reddit for sustained reading, Twitter for quick laughs, or TikTok for self-expression. One thing we learned from our participant was that she prefers to focus on personal development YouTube videos at her dining room table, which made ads more annoying there than on her couch, where her viewing tended toward light entertainment.
Fieldwork reveals that people’s mindsets are imbricated with their context. We can design for what users want in part by understanding where they want it.
Our return to in-person research might not happen anytime soon. And even when travel opportunities reopen, people’s willingness to welcome strangers into intimate spaces might not. Remote fieldwork can help narrow that gap.