By Dan Weber
Researchers have long known that having participants capture their responses on mobile devices from their kitchen, in the store, or at an event would offer many benefits. Mobile devices could give researchers the ability of having participants capture moments as they happen in an unobtrusive manner. Mobile phone technology is advancing at a rapid pace. We can now shoot high quality 1080p full length videos. Our challenge as platform providers is getting ever-increasing file sizes to the research platform where they can be viewed and analyzed.
History of mobile ethnography
The earliest forms of in-the-moment ethnography studies required a researcher to actually be present and record responses and reactions of participants as they completed the required activity or event. While I will not argue the merits or drawbacks of having ethnographers present, Mobile technology at the very least opens the range of possibilities when considering capturing ethnographic-type information.
Researchers tested these waters first by sending participants cameras and instructed them to record their responses. Participants were then responsible for sending the camera back. This made for a very drawn out and expensive process often extending the time requirements for the project.
The next testing ground utilized desktop computers and webcams. This method too came with strings attached. Participants were not able to go out of the home and complete activities because they were tethered to their computers. It wasn’t until the progression of smart phones and wireless technology, that true in-the-moment ethnography studies were made possible.
App or Web
There have been a number of blog posts related to web or app development choices as they relate to functionality and user experience when capturing mobile video. When considering which development direction to take, we made what we would consider the easy choice. We chose app over web for one simple reason, so that we could confidently and consistently upload full length videos. It seemed unreasonable to us to tout the virtues of mobile ethnography while at the same time forcing participants to shoot 30 second to one minute videos because of the limitations associated with a web-based design. We couldn’t ask participants to show us how they bake cookies in their kitchen and expect them to do this in 15 one minute videos.
With the web-based option, the participant must stay on the upload page until the video is fully loaded. For example, a five minute video recorded at 1080p / 30 frames per second would have an approximate file size of 650mb. On an average home quality Wi-Fi, this could take 20 minutes or more to upload let alone if one is outdoors where data strength can be intermittent. Not only would most people not have the patience to wait that long before texting a friend or checking their email, but many devices are set to automatically lock after a certain amount of inactivity, which could disrupt the upload process. This also assumes that at no point during the upload process a connection is lost. This would eliminate capturing video in remote places and in stores where mobile data may not even be available.
Limited by the software’s capability, researchers encouraged participants to record videos between 30 seconds and a minute limiting the value of the response in many cases. As qualitative researchers, we are trying to probe for more details, not less! By limiting the length of the video, platform providers were minimizing the risk of the participant walking out of a building or going through a tunnel and losing their internet connection. Compounding this issue is that some apps limit the uploading of videos to occur only on Wi-Fi, ensuring participants are not using up their data plans and incurring costs to participate in the research.
If full length videos that actually upload regardless of the environment was the challenge, then building an app that can survive the inconsistency of internet connections was the goal. We found that as large videos were being uploaded, participants often moved in and out of Wi-Fi and various mobile wireless communications (3G, 4G, LTE, etc.) zones, disrupting the upload process. To make matters worse, the cameras on mobile devices were improving rapidly, thus increasing the file size.
Faced with this challenge, itracks set out to build a file compression and upload system that would allow participants to submit full length videos without the risk of the upload failing. Our video upload system is resilient to the nature of mobile phone users because it recognizes that mobile internet connectivity is fragile.
We set out to develop a system that chooses Wi-Fi when available, but could pause the upload if a connection was lost. Now, once an internet connection is re-established, the video resumes the upload where it left off. If a mobile device can capture a long data rich video, the app can consistently upload the videos regardless of the length. With this improvement, the length of the mobile video that can be posted in our qualitative platform is only limited by the functionality of the mobile device collecting the video. With higher quality cameras and larger and larger storage capabilities, mobile ethnography, in-home usage tests, and shop-along studies can be done with the participant free to express themselves in as much time as they need.
itracks is an independent market research technology and services company founded in 1998 by Dan Weber. itracks’ online focus groups, video focus groups, discussion boards, online communities, and markup tools are easy to use and come equipped with a wide range of engagement capabilities. itracks is known in the industry for mobile video data collection and video management capabilities. To learn more about online and mobile research, sign up for a webinar. www.itracks.com