Should we use video in user research?

From an interview safety net to a tool to restore confidence in clients, let's looks at the changing role of video in design.

There’s a little electronic eye sitting on the kitchen counter.  It quietly watches us all as we talk, remembering every movement and every word.  We were invited into this home, and we brought this thing with us.  Everyone knows that it’s there, but after initial discomfort, it’s forgotten.  

We’re here to interview the owner of the house and, as has become common, the interview is being recorded using video.  These days there will rarely be an interview conducted without a camera rolling somewhere in the room: it’s the norm.  But what is it actually there for?

Before becoming a designer, I worked as a filmmaker.  My job was to tell a story visually through the use of film and video that shaped the audiences reactions to what was needed from the project; to trick them, in a way…  The angle of a shot, the color balance of the image, the lighting, the type of lens: all these things could be used to bring the audience around to perceiving the image (and therefor the story) in the desired way. 

But when I came to the world of design, and particularly user research, I found that my attitude to using video changed.  Any form of aestheticism suddenly felt like a lie; like the research was somehow being weighted in favour of one outcome or another; that by having any creative thought about the way the camera is used would mean that I was no longer doing my job.  I began to consciously avoid making a ‘professional’ looking shot because it would distract from the ‘truth’ of the subject.

Of course, one of the primary uses of video is so that we can remember what was said, how it was said, and what that person was doing when they said it.  It is the safety net for those interviews when one might be distracted from one’s notes, or simply faze out for a few minutes.  But more and more, video is being used as a tool to convince clients or the clients’ clients of why a certain decision was made.  This is the point at which things become more complex.

A well shot, well edited video can be a convincing tool for designers, and is often used in the concept realisation phase of projects to do just that: convince those watching that this thing works!  We’ve all seen the slick, sun-drenched videos from Apple or Google, interspersing graphically augmented footage of the product with shots of young, good-looking people sitting in cafes or just hanging out in their unfeasible well-furnished apartments.  But at this stage of the project there is an innate understanding that what is being shown is part of a designed concept, and therefor; constructed.  When we start to apply these techniques to document research material, is there not a very real danger that we are no longer truthfully representing the scientific process of user centred research?  Is it not the aesthetic-free aesthetics of a video camera held by an untrained hand that makes research documentation truly impartial and objective?

This is not a new debate in the world of film.  From French ‘New Wave’ cinema, to the Danish ‘Dogme 95’ movement, filmmakers have experimented with the aesthetic of non-aestheticism, and especially in documentary filmmaking, where debate has raged over the perceived ‘truthfulness’ of the construction of narrative through images.  But this is perhaps the point.  All the decisions we make when making a video (including no-decisions) affect the form that that video takes.  Impartiality is so rarely impartial.  So does this mean that we shouldn’t use video at all when communicating user research?  That seems unlikely to happen, especially with such a powerful tool.

But all of this thinking fails to take into account one thing: the designer themselves.  Here at IXDS our researchers are also creatives.  It’s the same people who take the knowledge that is gained from the research and turn that knowledge into tangible outcomes.  Throughout this process, the designer’s job is to interpret the research findings within the realms of their own professional understanding, and translate those findings, if not objectively, at least fairly to how they perceive it to be.

Video is just a tool.  A tool that has a variety of uses, but still just a tool.  The appropriate use of which should always fall to the designer who must interpret the situation and needs accordingly.  A professional documentary may be a great deliverable for a client to show to their boss, but it means very little if the interview subject is constantly distracted by 30 kilos of camera equipment looming over them as they talk.

So no, I’m not going to give up on narrative video just yet.  But perhaps we should look more towards video being a way to not only document research, but also to represent research.  Represent our own impressions from the research and continue to represent the needs of the user throughout the remainder of the project.