A New Breed of Design Research Tools

Gone are the days of lugging around clunky recorders, hefty cameras and brick-like hard drives to interviews and observation sites. The design researchers of today need only bring along a smartphone hooked up to a few complementary gadgets and software to capture and save quality audio, video and images.

Out with the old and in with the new

At STBY we have a few boxes hidden away in the dark corners of a deep cabinet. They are treasure troves of ageing gadgets: old school cameras, outdated  audio recorders, handheld camcorders and an array of impressive data storage devices. Are these gadgets all remnants of a bygone era of design research? With the powerful smartphones of today, the pervasiveness of cloud storage and some nifty new apps, I’d argue yes.

Is the smartphone becoming the multi-tool for design research?

Although I still pack an external audio recorder and my Sony a7 Mirrorless Camera for most fieldwork trips, I have recently started turning to an iPhone 7 for a lot more than I used to. Geared with the right apps and charged with enough battery, I have found that it is a setup that streamlines data capture and uploading without really sacrificing quality.

Quality photographs and video play such a huge role in sharing and reporting design research, especially in telling the stories from the field to people who were unable to be there. In that sense, I won’t even try to compare the professional quality of cameras and camcorders with that of smartphones. For projects that allow for this type of equipment and editing, it is silly not to use them. But for most of our projects, we need quick and nimble tools; with the latest gadgets and software on the market, we are increasingly able to pack light and deliver quality documentation.


Experimenting with new recording, transcription and video equipment

That’s why we are currently experimenting with some new recording, transcription and video software, like Otter, to help streamline the documentation process. As the image quality on the latest smartphones is getting better with each release I increasingly find myself using it as a camera in the field. With a solid wifi connection I can quickly, easily and wirelessly upload all of my documentation from my smartphone to the relevant project folder on Google Drive before I even return to the studio.

For videography, we’ve been playing around with a FeiyuiTech handheld Gimbal stabiliser for some professional smartphone video capture. It has the potential to deliver top quality footage without the need for an entirely separate device. We have also experimented with a few of the latest wearable micro-cameras for auto-ethnographic applications, a Ricoh Theta camera for 360 degree image and video capture, and have even built our own device, the Autocam, as part of an Innovate UK research funded project.

We can’t forget quality and ethics

There are of course some ethical and normative issues that must be considered when we talk about lean and connected kit. Using smartphones and wearable cameras in the field does not look or feel as professional; there is a sense of legitimacy that a serious camera and audio recorder bring. Design researchers of the future must develop new practices when in the field, making people fully aware that they are recording and capturing via their smartphones and clarifying what will happen to their data.

Geared for the future with a twinge of nostalgia

This new breed of design research tools has the power to change fieldwork documentation in terms of speed and efficiency. In the future, I envision interactive fieldwork ‘feeds’, perhaps something like an Instagram for researchers,  with semi-live video, drone footage and audio scattered throughout.  Airtable seems to be going in this direction, thankfully providing an alternative to archaic qualitative data analysis software.

In this future, it will be about capturing, sharing and tagging multiple research ‘nuggets’ quickly and easily- from interviews to observations, workshops and walkthroughs. Auto-tagging will help us find, filter and analyse what’s relevant and auto-blur will help us safeguard privacy and anonymity. The nimble, lean, connected kit might be best suited for this job, but I’ll still be carrying my black MUJI 0.5 pen and A5 lined notepad. For now at least, technology can’t replace the connection between mind, pen and paper.