Three reasons to limit the use of participant videos

With the advent of online and mobile qualitative research it is now possible for moderators to ask participants to upload images or videos within their posts. This appears to be a good way to enrich the research process and enthuse participants, and to generate more interesting multimedia results for clients.

However, it does have significant downsides, and we would therefore suggest using it sparingly, and only after careful consideration of the true contribution it will make. Here’s why.

1. Practical issues for participants
Some researchers may believe that asking participants to take and upload videos will be an interesting activity for those participants, rather like asking them to do an activity during a face to face group. To this we would say that in online qualitative research there is generally no need to include activities for the benefit of participants, to break up or bring variety to the research process, because participants will often be at home. In the case of bulletin board groups or communities they will be taking part over short periods of time (when it suits them), and even with live groups they may be doing other things at the same time.

More importantly, far from appealing to participants, the idea of being asked to take and upload videos may well evoke either anxiety (among those who don’t know how to do it) or displeasure (among those who know what is involved). It can be difficult and time-consuming because of the large size of video files and the variety of formats. So, far from being an activity that adds interest to the research process, it can just add difficulty, and perhaps thereby detract from the level of enthusiasm (and therefore engagement) of participants.

2. What to do with them
Another issue of course is that if you ask your participants to take and upload videos you open yourself up to more work, not just during the process (in terms of support), but afterwards. They will all need to be watched and analysed, the results then prepared and communicated, perhaps in writing.

3. Words are easier than video
We recently ran a test study in which we asked consumers of an instant hot chocolate drink how they prepare it. We could have done this by asking them to take a video of themselves preparing the drink, but instead we asked them to describe it in words. One person said that they put 3 heaped teaspoons of powder into their mug, and then added some milk, and mixed it up with a teaspoon. They then poured in boiling water.

This description took less than 30 seconds to write… if they had had to take and upload a video this would have taken very much longer. And no more insight would have been gathered. In fact, arguably less would have been gathered, because by keeping things easy for the participant they were left with energy and enthusiasm to answer further probing about the reasons why they prepared it in the way they did.

If the idea of mixing milk with the powder was of particular interest then the researcher could have tried it themselves, or told the client so that they could try it. If the agency wanted to include video (in their de-brief presentation) of this way of preparing the drink they could have videoed themselves doing it. If they wanted visuals, though not necessarily video, they could have taken pictures.

We fully understand the appeal of video as a possible method of communicating research results, but it does have practical issues if used for data collection, which we suggest it is worth bearing in mind.