You Get What You Pay For: Using Free Tools for Research Isn’t Just Inefficient but Potentially Costly

I have a confession: I love mobile gaming. The stupider and more pointless the game, the better. It started with the release of the beautifully addictive Angry Birds and those captivating sound effects. Over the years I’ve cycled through different updates of that game, along with Bejeweled, Fruit Ninja, Gems of War, Hay Day, My Singing Monsters, Peggle, Plants v Zombies, the Sims and of course an obligatory dabble with Pokémon Go. These are just a few that have captured my attention and untold hours of my time over the past decade.

The bigger confession, however, is that I recently estimated I’ve spent less than $50 for all this fun. And that’s a high-end estimate. In fact, of the 200+ apps currently on my phone, I’d be surprised if I’ve bought 10 of them. I know I’m not alone. Take a moment to consider how many apps you’ve paid for over the years.

This feels shameful when you consider the amount of time, effort and resources that went into developing the games. The storylines, visuals, special effects, user experience, and game mechanics are all detailed and high quality. No doubt, I’ve been paying for them through my data; not just when / how / what I do within the game, but all the other data that developers can access from my device. This is another story, but it is linked to my point – we are surrounded by high end, seemingly free technology. So, when we need to pay for it, we hesitate to do so.

I see this time and again around research technology. ‘We don’t have the budget,’ ‘it’s just a quick conversation,’ ‘we only need some pictures/videos’ so we’ll use Skype / Zoom / Dropbox / Google Forms / [insert your free tech of choice].

I get it, I’ve been there. Budgets are tight, and the value isn’t always apparent for shorter, quick turn studies. However, I feel very strongly that we need to use research-specific technology for all our studies. And no, this isn’t because I work for such a company!

As I see it, there are two key reasons why we need dedicated research technology. The first, and most critical, is around data protection and security. As social and market researchers, we’ve long been bound by ethical guidelines initially set out in the 1947 Nuremberg Code and expanded upon within the 1964 Helsinki Declaration. Beyond this, industry organizations, such as ESOMAR and the Insights Association, have codes of conducts that we adhere to and guidelines to keep us on the right path.

Initially, ethical considerations focused on the notion of consent; that is participants being properly informed and the ensuing permissions freely given. Today, the digital world has complicated matters, with new data such as geolocation and new technologies such as facial recognition. As such we aren’t just bound by ethical codes but also government legislation. For example, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was enforced in May 2018 and the California Consumer Privacy Act comes into being in January 2020.

These legal obligations require us to have structures in place around how we deal with our participant data. We need to ensure that it is securely stored and accessible only to people with relevant permissions. Beyond this, we need to be able to locate and delete the data for an individual participant at any given time.

Take video as an example. Under GDPR individuals can withdraw their consent even if they gave their initial approval. Therefore, you need to be able to locate and delete every instance where that person appears in a video (and any copies) and show that it has been done. This is where a permissions-based research technology solution is an essential mechanism in keeping the data secure and facilitating legal compliance while also helping you get the most out of the data through analytical, editing and sharing capabilities.

This brings me to the second reason: research technology solutions help us do our jobs better. Why – because they are built for purpose. Skype, for example, may allow you to have a conversation with your customer, quickly and without cost. However, dedicated research video conferencing solutions do that and much more.

The session can be recorded and stored in accordance with ethical and legal guidelines. Team members and stakeholders can unobtrusively view the live session and comment throughout. Built-in tools such as chat, mark-ups, poll, and other interactive exercises allow the use of different techniques to explore the topic at hand and dig deeper to uncover more. While analytical capabilities for text, image, and video gets you closer to the data quicker and uncover insights sooner. They are also a central point of collaboration that helps manage the data while also maintaining control over it. For example, when inserting video clips or images into presentations, it’s extremely easy to lose track of who has a copy. Sharing via an online platform mitigates this challenge. Finally, centrally storing and indexing the data enables secondary analysis reducing redundancy and facilitating the adoption of an iterative approach to research that builds upon everything that’s come before.

In sum, research technology provides us with the tools of our trade. Yes, using a marker to highlight transcripts and scissors to cut out quotes may be cheaper. Similarly, I could continue to carry around my pack of cards instead of playing solitaire on my mobile. Neither of these makes sense. Today we have dedicated technology to help us with collecting, analyzing and sharing the data while keeping it secure. And there’s the value.

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