Research and Co-Design via WhatsApp.
For months now, a team from Interactive Media Foundation and NEEEU in Berlin have been planning a 6-week design sprint. Our project objective? To co-design an entertaining story-driven digital experience that informs German teens about the dangers of data misuse and online propaganda (and further empowers them to take action. Without lecturing!) At the beginning of March, we were all really excited to finally get started.
And then COVID-19 changed life across Europe.
We were in the middle of the research phase when Coronavirus hit Germany. Like many professional teams across the country, we faced critical decisions. Ultimately, we knew we couldn’t work side-by-side anymore and that this would have a big impact on our ability to research and co-design with our users.
Should we pause the project? Cancel the project? Was it possible to continue? If so, how? There were no right answers to these questions.
After long discussions with the team, we decided to go for it and continue the project remotely (from our kitchens, living rooms and WGs). We figured that a group of technologically savvy teenagers would be comfortable communicating remotely, but only if we did it right (or tried to at least!) In typical design fashion, we had a hypothesis and we were eager to test it.
So, how did we go about remote research and co-design?
After conducting an interview (via WhatsApp video), we asked the participant if he/she would be willing to join a group chat on social media in order to share political messages and stories that interest them (research) and give feedback on ideas and concepts that the project team developed (co-design). After the participants agreed to be part of the group, we contacted each of them individually on WhatsApp and sent them the guidelines and the request to confirm again their willingness to be added to the group.
We recruited additional participants by asking them to ask around in their circle of friends (snowball-principle).
2. Selection of channel
There are several aspects that need to be taken into account when choosing the right chat app/channel:
· Privacy: Telegram doesn’t display the numbers of the participants of a group whereas in WhatsApp numbers can be easily found in the list of participants.
· Information: Telegram allows you to pin messages in a channel so they can be easily found. This can be useful to highlight information that is relevant for all participants, for example the guidelines of the group for participants who join later. Telegram also offers the function to create a poll which can be helpful to collect feedback.
For both privacy and functionality, Telegram was technically the best choice for our project, but, would our user group actually use it?
· Usage: Perhaps, THE most important point to remember is which social media application is your target group already using — in our case, this was WhatsApp. So even though Telegram has several advantages over WhatsApp in regards to privacy and information management, the hurdle of downloading and installing the app was too high for most of our participants. Also, the likelihood for them to engage and interact is a lot higher if this is happening on a platform that they are already using a lot to chat with friends and family.
Before launching the group, we worked on a set of clear guidelines. The guidelines explained the purpose of the project and the WhatsApp group as well as guidelines and rules about what should be posted, how interaction should take place and a code of conduct. We adapted the language to the target group and the medium (for example with the use of emojis). We clearly stated that there was a zero tolerance policy for abuse or rude behaviour. It’s important to establish a warm tone, but also to establish what is acceptable. Emojis — YES! Abuse — NO!
It is important that the role of the moderator is clear and that everybody knows the role of the participants in the group in order to create trust. Not everybody from the project team needs to be in the channel! We put a special emphasis on engaging with the participants in a way they would normally engage with groups in WhatsApp, for example by reacting on their comments and building a true conversation. We wanted to build a safe and playful environment where everyone felt comfortable to express their experiences and opinions.
One goal of the research was to understand what kind of information our target group consumes and shares on social media. Therefore we asked them to simply forward articles, memes, gifs and images they share amongst their friends and family to the group, including a little explanation, and why this is interesting to them. The idea behind this is that it would be quite simple and organic for them to forward information to the channel.
As a second step, we posted one question a day and asked for their opinion. The purpose of the question was to trigger a discussion on a specific topic. Therefore it was especially important for the moderator to engage and interact to keep the discussion going by asking them to elaborate on their opinions or propose new arguments and encourage different perspectives.
After coming up with three different concepts, we designed triggers and prototypes for each of them. The purpose was to see if we are moving in the right direction and get feedback and new ideas for iteration. All the prototypes needed to be easily shareable in the WhatsApp group, such as Instagram posts, screenshots, articles and videos.
Before sharing a prototype, we gave the group some information on the purpose of it. We wanted the group to understand our logic and learn from the process as well.
With each prototype we asked them a question and then asked follow-up questions to trigger a discussion.
In general, this works well for A/B testing and allows a quick feedback-loop on visual concepts.
To further test the prototypes, we scheduled one-hour testing sessions via Zoom with three participants (max). This would allow us to explore their reactions and opinions on more detailed concepts. To capture their feedback, we used a shared board on mural.
In order to share the insights with the project team, we created a separate slack channel where we copied all the interaction within the WhatsApp group. The team then directly commented on interesting insights and posted suggestions for further research questions or prototypes.
8. Expectations and time frames
It was important for us not to expect the same results from a remote research process that we might have expected from face to face research and co-design. We decided not to set our user group deadlines or expected response times. We wanted to keep it fluid and comfortable during what is already a stressful and challenging time for everyone.
We’re mid-way through our project now and, considering the circumstances, it’s going really well. We hope these insights have been helpful.
Thanks for reading!
Katharina is a Design researcher, facilitator and travelling anthropologist, whose work lies at the intersection of innovation, arts and culture with a focus on creating spaces of exchange to foster social change.