Our world is flat, too: the paradigm shift of online research

When Thomas Friedman declared the world flat, in his seminal book by the same name, he summarized the dramatic shift in commerce and competition across the globe brought about by the Internet. This technology, he notes, puts nearly everything within reach of nearly everyone, and our global economy is now essentially free of geographic restraints—it's a level playing field. What's to become of us of all, he asks?

We should be asking this, too. As with most professions, the Internet is reshaping the landscape of user research. This is happening on two levels: the business model of user research, and the practice model of user research.

On the business side, large online research houses are capturing a growing portion of research work, leveraging economies of scale and exclusive contracts designed to appeal to the finance people inside organizations.

On the practice side, research design has become a vastly more complex and interesting proposition. The Internet and digital media combine to form a powerful set of new data collection tools, while also giving us access to participants across geographies and time zones.

The new playing field dramatically expands what's possible: Micro-blogging, asynchronous video, synchronous video, video diaries, remote activity monitoring—we can now do it all, all at once. As researchers, we can be everywhere at the same time. We can instantly review data collected remotely. We can have intimate contact with participants while miles apart.

All of this challenges our research processes and logic—“web work” now joins “field work” to reshape the paradigm for bringing producers closer to their consumers. How do we leverage this new paradigm to enrich research design and the resulting data? How might we use “web work” to deliver against objectives in an increasingly time-constrained development environment? How does our new reach inform user research for strategy development—one of the bigger frontiers of practice.

In this talk, Diane Fraley and Kim Erwin will share a new approach that hybridizes “field work” and “web work.” Working with graduate students at the Institute of Design, Kim and Diane designed and executed the first phase of a multi-phase, exploratory project—integrating multiple online technologies to deliver a picture of how shopping behavior is rapidly shifting as early majorities adopt the Internet and smart phones to manage their homes.


Kim Erwin is a visiting professor at the Institute of Design. For the past 15 years, she has been a practicing design planner specializing in the translation and communication of research insights into strategic direction. Working with clients like Allstate, Walmart, Purina and Church & Dwight most recently, she has watched the field of user research mature and expand from its early technology planning roots into the preferred consumer insight methodology across industries and organizations.

Kim's passion is for the most information-intensive aspects of design practice—in particular the conversion of user research and secondary research into stories and frameworks that designers and business leaders can use as a basis for action.

She focuses on developing new data experience and presentation methods to help clients come into emotional, as well as intellectual, contact with important data.

She pays particular attention to the shift in preferences toward on-demand, time-effective, random-access information seeking and delivery to which we as a culture are habituating. How can communication design accelerate research uptake in organizations? How might it deepen the connection between clients and consumers? How might thoughtfully-crafted data experiences generate lasting empathy for consumers and purposeful action inside organizations? These are all areas where design practices are manifestly more effective than conventional business practices. Formalizing this as a new area of practice, and therefore study and development, is Kim’s enduring interest.

Diane Fraley is the founder and principal of D.S. Fraley Associates, a thriving marketing research firm based in Chicago since 1985. Diane is a proven qualitative research design expert who has custom-designed hundreds of studies for Fortune 100 clients. Over the years, Diane has worked with more than 35,000 consumers.

Diane’s specialty is in upfront exploratory and ethnography, delving deep into human emotions, thoughts and motivations to reveal unmet or emerging needs of a specific audience. From this understanding, Diane leads teams to create new ways of positioning, communicating and designing a product that will create market opportunities for a well-defined target.

Over the past thirty years, Diane’s work focused on traditional qualitative methods. She is now specializing in emerging methodologies, specifically online exploratory and ethnographic immersions. Diane has pioneered online extended-time methods working with hard-to-reach audiences as well as topics that require in-depth learning within a specialized topic, specific life stage or life cycle.

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