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Social Engagement: Designing for Participant Interaction in Digital Qualitative Studies

The rise of social networking sites heralded in the era of the social web, where people interact with one another, both known (generally through sites like Facebook) or unknown (often through sites like Twitter). Given this widespread activity, there is often high expectation that social interaction within digital communities will develop naturally and quickly. The promise is high but the reality often falls well below expectations. But upon reflection, this isn’t so surprising. Online research communities are not natural communities, but artificial settings where participants are strangers and have no immediate shared interests with others in the group. As a result, researchers need to work to build social interactions and connections.

The promise of social interactions

Often, it’s more like this…

What’s different? It’s artificial.

1 Build-In Time for Interaction

Social activity within the context of online research communities has two parts: the first is to “do”, i.e. the action, and the second is to interact. Participants are first required to complete their activities (“do”) before moving onto the interaction. As a rule of thumb, people will spend 30-40 minutes completing activities on any given day. If the “do” list becomes too long, exceeding this timeframe, then there will be little or no interaction.

2 Consider Which Interaction Type is Most Appropriate

Within FocusVision Revelation there are two methods for social engagement: Feed and Discussion. The Feed can be thought of as a “shared individual space”, where participants can see their own responses intermixed with others within the community. In most instances, this is where social interaction will take place, as participants engage in deeper activities that have a social component as a second step.

In contrast, a Discussion Space is a set area where interaction is not just expected, but essential. This is best used when conversation is the core objective of the activity. It’s also important to keep the questions relatively short to keep the topic focused and easy to respond to.

3 Narrow the Focus

Researchers need to resist the temptation to cast a wide net by urging participants to “please take some time to comment on other people’s responses”. This is akin to saying, “Go onto Twitter and comment on a Tweet’. The scope is so wide and the task so daunting that people naturally shy away from it. A better approach is to narrow the parameters and set expectations around the interaction. What particular activity should they be commenting on? Are there particular participants to engage with? What day? What type of interaction is desired (commenting, “liking”)? How many (or few) interactions are acceptable?

4 A Tale of Two Parts

Foster participant interaction into the activity by creating two parts to their mission. Part one is the “do” and part two is the “interact”. This helps participants clearly see what is expected of them and that their interaction is not an afterthought, but a core expectation.

5 Tune into Your Audience

How and when participants interact with each other depends on a number of elements, including general demographics, the subject matter, and importantly, why they are participating. For example, in a B2B situation, participants are more time-sensitive, but also more likely to value interactivity. There’s less room for them to be creative, but there’s a lot of scope for interaction with each other, As such, a Discussion Space is an ideal format for this group. Individuals, on the other hand, respond well to calls for creativity and individual tasks. Interactivity within the Feed works particularly well with this group.

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