Chapter II: Methodology

This work’s methodology was developed on the basis of the research questions. This chapter explains the framing as practice-based research, the role of the developed design artefact as well as the methods and their usage within the research.

II.1 Practice-based research

This writing is framed as practice-based research: in order to examine digital mobile media’s influences on public space and reveal spatial patterns in the usage of mobile applications caused by their design, I developed a case study object, called Urban Alphabets. The writing takes a “creative artefact [as] the basis of the contribution to knowledge”5 and aims to increase “knowledge by means of practice and the outcomes of that practice” (Candy 2006, 3).

The agenda for this thesis strongly involves the users of digital mobile media, and their subjective understandings and approaches. Thus the work employs mostly qualitative research methods, such as participant observation and interviews. However, the second area of research questions hypothesizes that a correlation of certain user interests and their interest in the case study object exists. To justify this assumption the work applies one quantitative research method, the survey ‣1‣1 Figure 2.

Figure 2: Methods and their covered research interests

This thesis utilizes an iterative approach: Some of the methods used are of iterative nature ‣2‣2 Figure 3, a characteristic aspect of practice-based research (Rolling 2010, 110). Rolling suggests that arts-based research can establish validity through the “similarity of variations on a concept over time.” (2010, 110) In this study, I varied the focus in the workshops and interviews rather than the artwork itself, in which only small usability adjustments have been made.

Figure 3: Interplay of employed methods

Additionally, the chosen methods for this work partly influence each other: Participant observation sensitized me for the interest areas to be discussed in the group interviews. An analysis and revision of the working hypothesis after each workshop enabled to refine the conduct of the next workshop. Reviewing the outcomes of each workshop has also facilitated the process of improving the smartphone apps for the following workshop, which relates to the iterative nature of the research process mentioned above.

II.2 Urban Alphabets as a research tool

Urban Alphabets is a multiplatform project aiming to raise awareness for our everyday physical surroundings, which was developed as an artefact to investigate the research interest of this work.

The main part of the project is a freely available smartphone application (iOS and Android) allowing users to capture their own alphabet. The individually photographed and cropped letters can be used to write short messages, called Urban Postcards. These Urban Postcards as well as the alphabets themselves can be sent via social networks or email or be saved as images on the smartphone.

When I created the first prototype (v1) of Urban Alphabets in December 2012 it was not with the intention to use it for research purposes. Instead, it was a coursework for the Multitouch Interaction course based on a nearly forgotten hobby I had developed during my first year in Finland: Capturing Helsinki’s visual identity during city walks using letters as identification cues.

However, when I captured the first few Urban Alphabets using the prototype, I realized that this changes my own perception of the city enormously. It was not any more only during the dedicated walks that I searched for interesting letters, but I started to pay attention to letters also in everyday life situations. Thus, I realized a great potential for my existing interests described in the introduction ‣3‣3 See chapter I.2. Urban Alphabets from now on was developed as a research tool, to explore the influences digital mobile media have on public spaces. This investigation was to be lead by the users’ perspective, since my main interest is in the users’ subjectively experienced shifts.

Thus, the second version (v2) of the Urban Alphabets application has been developed with specific research objectives in mind: Its main purpose is to re-connect users with their physical surroundings. Hence, the time spend actively in the application was to be diminished compared to “traditional” smartphone apps, so that the user has the possibility to take a look at her6 surroundings. Intuitive interfaces were one way to increase the ease of use of the application, potentially allowing users to focus on their surroundings and quickly extend their Urban Alphabet whenever they find an interesting letter to capture.

Urban Alphabets serves as a tool to conduct the practice-based research in this work. Thus this thesis can also be considered a case study.

II.3 Workshops as a research setup

As a research setup this work employs workshops, designed as relatively short, single sessions with the aim to introduce the participants to the Urban Alphabets project. The participants played an active role in shaping the workshops. These characteristics are the key features that characterize workshops as a research method (cf. Community Tool Box 2015).

The targets, length and sizes of the workshops were very different and depended on different factors ranging from the availability of target groups and kind of workshop organizer to my own suggestions. For an overview of the different workshops see ‣4. ‣4 Figure 4

Figure 4: Overview workshops

The workshops were split into three parts: introduction, walk and discussion.

The first part of the workshop was a very short introduction, in which I mainly introduced myself, explained the basics about the Urban Alphabets project and demonstrated the usage of the smartphone applications.

In the second part, which varied in length, the participants walked in the city and captured their own Urban Alphabet, either in groups or individually. During this time I typically followed one group of 2-4 people to conduct participant observation. The workshop in Madrid was a special case because the Android app was still in development and only few participants had iPhones, so that the group sizes became much bigger. In contrast, in the workshops in Riga and Berlin and during one workshop in Liverpool the participants used the application individually. Also the length of the outside walks varied. Whereas the graphic design students in Madrid walked for two hours, participants in Riga returned after 30min due to rain.

In the third part of the workshops, all participants joined together to discuss the experiences made during the walk and the results. The group also reflected ideas for personal use of the Urban Alphabets project.

Between May 2013 and November 2014 seventeen workshops have been conducted in eight cities and seven countries ‣5.‣5 Figure 5 The main goal in the workshops was to investigate participants’ relation to public space when using the application and how they reflect on it afterwards. Additionally, I wanted to explore different use scenarios of the application and identify different user types.

Figure 5: World map with travelled cities

II.3.1 Participant observation

During the second phase of the workshops this research utilized participant observation. This method can be employed to evaluate individual behaviour in interaction with physical conditions or events (Candy 2013, 17). The technique qualified the work to validate the hypotheses on the changes in user’s behaviour in public space. In some cases it additionally facilitated conclusions about the users’ perceived space. As an example, when observing a participant suddenly walking closely to a wall and capture a photo of a letter, it was followed that she was taking a close look and therefore increased her attention to details in her physical environment.

Rubin also highlights the benefit of combining participant observation and interviews. He emphasizes observation before the interview “sensitizes you to the key issues, familiarizes you with the environment and the language, and allows the future interviewees to get to know you a bit before you start asking them questions.” (2012, 26–27) In this case study, the interviewer acquired higher synergy than the users because I did not observe all participants during the walk. Thus, only some participants had the chance to familiarize themselves with me. However, typically the participants, who had been observed, were more active in the subsequent group interviews. One could follow that the familiarization process made them more open to the questions.

Nevertheless, the use of participant observation always has to be evaluated carefully. Different research discourses have highlighted one main challenge for the observer: She is constantly changing her role between closeness (participation) and distance (observation) (e.g., Linden 2007). Simultaneously the cultural differences between the observer and the observed need to be considered (Linden 2007). To resolve this deficiency, I have familiarized myself with the local culture before conducting workshops: In each location I spend at least three days prior to the workshops, which were used to observe street life and study local customs. This process was facilitated by the fact that most workshops took place in Western societies, with similar value systems as the ones I have grown up and lived in. I am especially accustomed to German and Finnish habits. By these means it was attempted to overcome the cultural barriers, an attempt which by no means should be regarded as complete.

Another valid critique to participant observation is that an observer has a limited perspective because she cannot conceive all aspects of a situation simultaneously (Linden 2007). An attempt to, at least partly, compensate for this deficiency was made by combining participant observation with group interviews after the walks.

Technically, I used a camera to capture video and photo material during the walking tours. An effort was made to hide the camera from the participants, so that they did not feel intimidated. In several workshops (Berlin, Helsinki, Liverpool) other video makers shot additional photo and video material.

In addition to the video or photo material from the participant observation, I also utilized notes made immediately after the workshops. Generally, these notes resemble behaviours and impressions, also concluded from the photo and video material. In some cases, they provide additional material, especially when no formal participant observation was conducted.

II.3.2 Interviews

The discussions during the last part of the workshops can be described as partly structured interviews (Candy 2006, 16): Several predetermined questions were used, but adapted to the previous responses ‣6‣6 Appendix 1. All workshops utilized the same stack of questions, but not all questions were posed to all workshop groups. Consequently, the discussions can also be described as responsive interviews. This technique “emphasizes flexibility of design and expects the interviewer to change questions in response to what he or she is learning.” (Rubin 2012, XV) Following this concept, the talk took the form of a conversational partnership, where the interview is regarded “a joint process of discovery” (Rubin 2012, 7) instead of a traditional one-sided conversation, in which the interviewer asks all questions and the interviewee provides the answers (Rubin 2012, 5).

During these conversations I learned from my workshop participants, especially when they went “off-topic”. Discussions ranged from the use of the application for educational purposes to the safety of biking in Helsinki and the connection to concrete poetry7. I deliberately engaged in these “off-topic” discussions during my workshops because it was of major importance to me to learn from the participants. I understood them to be the experts: they engaged with Urban Alphabets in their own ways, with their own knowledge and approach. This meant the workshops were my chance to do user-research in the field and explore options of future development of the Urban Alphabets project.

The interviews were usually recorded with an iPhone and transcribed using “Express Scribe”. The analysis of the material concentrated on the topics predefined by the research questions. Passages, addressing the research questions, were marked with a color code and summarized on the page margin.8 This technique enabled to gain an overview of the issues addressed. This review was employed to improve the interview technique in the next workshops and summarized the learning from the individual sessions.

Only eight out of seventeen discussions could be recorded and transcribed:

The workshop in St. Petersburg can be seen as a rehearsal for the succeeding workshops and therefore did not employ the full methodology of the other workshops.

The four workshops in Helsinki were conducted in primary schools. Due to the children’s age, the discussions focused on the results, not the space experience.

The workshops in Berlin were held in an informal way. Thus no interviews after the workshops took place. In these instances, the focus was on collecting letters in the urban environment but the participants had no interest to participate in the research. One of the reasons was that frequently only one participant took part in the workshop and most information was already exchanged during the walk.

The language in the interviews was often a determining factor: Whereas in the English and German speaking workshops I could communicate with the participants directly, during the workshops in St. Petersburg, Helsinki and Sao Paulo I needed translators. Interpreters where never professional translators but rather people who were easily available at the time: While the translator in St. Petersburg, Anna Kholina, is herself a researcher interested in artistic interventions in public spaces, the translator in Helsinki, Saija Salonen, comes from an media art and education background. In the three Sao Paulo workshops three different translators helped: Marilia Pasculli is a media art curator, Paula works in the artistic direction of the Federation of Industries in Sao Paulo (FIESP), and Claudia Faij was a local workshop participant, who took over translating the workshop for the convenience of the other participants. Besides these translators it is worth mentioning that the graphic design students in Spain were very uncomfortable speaking English in front of their classmates and teachers, which definitely affected the discussions.

II.3.3 Surveys

Two surveys were designed to answer the research questions that required the collection of quantitative data: The first, paper-based survey was distributed in the end of the workshops and collected immediately. The second survey was sent to the participants, who had consented, two to four weeks after the workshop. Both surveys consisted partly of dichotomous, multiple-choice, and open-ended questions. The first survey additionally utilized semantic differential scale questions. It used a semantic differential scale between 1 and 5, where one equalled either “no interest” or “scared something goes wrong” and 5 equalled “very interested” or “very comfortable”.

The first paper-based survey consisted of 13 questions ‣7‣7Example in Appendix 2 and all paper-based surveys in digital appendix 2. The paper medium was chosen to enable all workshop participants to answer the questions simultaneously. The survey gathered data on the participants’ background as well as their interest in the topics of graphic design, writing systems, shopping, cities, modes of transportation, advertising, and smartphone apps. It furthermore asked if they expected to look differently at letters during the next weeks. This question was known to be problematic, because it implies the answer partly. However, I do not think that this influenced the results as I handed the survey out in the end of the discussion. The issue of space perception had already been discussed earlier in all of the workshops. The two last questions concerned two of the other research questions: They asked how likely the participants expected to use the application in future and as what kind of tool they would use Urban Alphabets. This last question aimed to answer the research question about the use scenarios of the application . The responses to this open-ended question were grouped into different categories ‣8‣8 See chapter VI.1.3 .

Most of the workshop participants filled the paper-based surveys. Exceptions are the workshops in Helsinki and St. Petersburg, where I did not distribute the paper-based surveys. The workshop in St. Petersburg was a trial session and the survey was only developed afterwards. The workshop participants in Helsinki were school children, thus the design of a specific questionnaire would have been required. This was not considered worth the effort at the time.

The second, so-called follow-up surveys were sent two to four weeks after the workshops to the participants, who had given their consent ‣9‣9 Example in Appendix 3. Depending on the answers the questionnaire consisted of seven to ten questions. The survey had two main goals: Firstly, the questions intended to gather data whether the participants had used the application again. Secondly, the follow-up surveys asked the users if they noticed a change of perception towards letters and advertising since the Urban Alphabets workshop. These questions were concluded by statistical questions. The statistical data was meant to be compared to the statistical outcomes of the paper-based surveys, so that deviations could be detected.

The response rate for follow-up surveys was low, so that the responses from all workshops were evaluated together. Even though the participants were reminded to answer the survey one week after it had initially been sent to them, the response rate was only 23% (16 responses to the follow-up surveys vs. 71 responses to the paper-based surveys). However, not all participants of the paper-based questionnaire had given their consent to be contacted about the follow-up survey. Answering the follow-up survey only required 5-10 minutes. Nevertheless, the participants seemed to lack motivation because they could not see their own added value.

Since only 23% of all workshop participants answered the follow-up survey, I did not compare the outcomes of both surveys. The follow-up survey results are in any case of limited validity.

The follow-up surveys used Google-forms and were sent to the participants via their emails. The email-addresses were collected as part of the paper-based survey, so that all participants knew about the existence but not the content of the follow-up survey. Hence, I believe that this knowledge did not affect their use of the Urban Alphabets application between workshop and follow-up survey.

The replies from all workshops were transcribed into one common Excel file. The graphs shown later in this work ‣10‣10 e.g., figures 37 to 39‣11 Digital appendix 3, digital appendix4, and in the digital appendix ‣11 have been generated using Adobe Illustrator.

In order to analyze correlations between the seven topics (graphic design, writing systems, shopping, cities, modes of transportation, advertising, and smartphone apps) and the interest in using Urban Alphabets in future, I used IBM’s predictive analysis software SPSS9. The results of this statistical analysis are shown in digital appendix 8 and discussed in chapter VI.1.2.

All these methods, participant observation, interviews and surveys, were employed specifically to address the research questions. As the research questions mostly aim to reflect on the user’s experience and subjective representation of space, and future use scenarios of the Urban Alphabets project, participant interviews are a big part of the methodology of this work. They are supplemented by participant observation, in order to explore the changes in users’ behaviour in space, and surveys to investigate the more quantitative questions on general interest areas.

5 In the whole work, accentuations used within quotes correspond to the accentuations in the quoted sources.

6 When I use female phrases within this work I include all genders. These are only preferred over other phrases for purposes of readability.

7 Concrete poetry refers to a movement in literature in which the typographical appearance of the text is considered an important element to convey the writer’s intention (for more information see e.g., Hartung 1975).

8 An example of an analyzed interview transcript is included in Appendix 4. All analyzed interview transcripts are enclosed in digital appendix 5.

9 The software is available for free use for Aalto students. For more information on the software see ‣12 ‣12 Link 1

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