India: Using Technology to Update Western Interview Methods

“Methods from the West can’t just be transplanted into Asia!” That was the point being made by Piyul Mukherjee from Quipper Research at the recent ESOMAR Conference in Bangalore, India. In her presentation Piyul showed how a research technique from the West could be adapted, with the use of digital technology, to make it more relevant to less developed parts of Asia, such as rural India.

Piyul started by highlighting the sorts of problems that can arise when marketers or market researchers simply and slavishly adopt a Western technique, and then showed how mobile digital filming could be used to make the method more relevant and useful.

The “in-depth” home interview is a common market research technique in Western markets such as the U.S. and U.K. The in-depth interview consists of the researcher, often accompanied by a camera person, visiting a consumer’s home for a few hours to interview her and to record her completing various everyday tasks. In order to maximize the benefits from the researcher’s visit to the home, the individual who is the subject of the interview is often asked to complete some preparation tasks, with one common task being keeping a diary.

Piyul highlighted that transplanting this in-depth individual interview technique, from the U.S. or U.K., into an Asian context, for example, into a rural Indian home, faces several problems.

The first issue is the assumption that the individual is the key social unit to be researched. This is often true in individualistic cultures, such as those in the West, but is less true of more collective cultures, which are common in Asia.

The second is the interviewer effect. In the U.K. and U.S., many people will see the person doing the interviewing as their approximate equal. In a place like rural India, the visitor, especially if accompanied by a camera person, is likely to be seen as a social higher – which in turn may encourage the consumer to try very hard to impress her visitor, and to present the best possible “face” for them and their community.

Another problem with simply transplanting this research method to rural Asia is that in some countries the level of literacy may not support the keeping of written diaries. For example, in India the literacy rate is about 70 percent, which means that research with rural village women may not be able to assume that written diaries can be produced.

What Piyul showed was that by using modern technology, for example, Flip cameras, the research process could be adapted to gain real insight into the lives of everyday consumers. In the first stage of the project a member of the research team visited the homes of the consumers being researched and recruited somebody, in each home, to use the digital camera, often one of the children. The camera users were briefed to make a recording every time the topic under investigation (for example, the washing of clothes or food preparation) was undertaken. Because no “outsiders” are present, the research subjects were not trying to impress anybody, and they were free to tackle the job individually, or collectively, as they saw fit.

After a few days the researcher then visited the family. The recordings were played on a laptop computer and the research family was present to discuss: what was being shown? Why things were done that way? What had happened before and afterwards?

Flip digital cameras were just one technology that Piyul talked about. With the growth of camera- and video-enabled phones, smartphones, and even tablets, the options to use technology to adapt Western methods to Asian contexts are set to grow and grow. In fields such as digital marketing, customer research, and product support, technology can be used to connect with consumers in new and more appropriate ways – for example, in culturally specific ways, or by avoiding text-based communication.