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Neff | Studying the Future: Doing Ethnographic Research of Emerging Consumer Technologies for Health

May 12, 2016

Neff audience
Graduate students had many questions about Neff's ethnographic study of health technologies.

Why are mixed and qualitative methods well suited for studying sites and industries in flux?

When Gina Neff, Associate Professor of Communication and QUAL Steering Committee member, was working on her dissertation she set off to study the venture capital-funded high tech industry. But after the dot-com boom and bust, there were not enough companies left to study. She decided to shift her focus on studying what and who she still had access to – dot-com employees who suddenly found themselves unemployed and spent their time at coffee shops. Neff made the most of interviews with these “venture laborers” who were easily accessible in New York City’s “Silicon Alley” in the late 1990s. Her qualitative study resulted in an award-winning book.

Social science research in the corporate technology world

At one time, Microsoft was the largest employer of ethnographers in the world, Neff said. Innovation companies have historically employed social scientists to study uses of their technologies. A recent project that Neff worked on for Intel was about wearable bio-sensors. The research was led by anthropologists. [pullquote]We don’t stabilize the research question as much as we surf it.[/pullquote] Neff and her two co-researchers decided to use associations and analogies with existing more wide-spread technologies, such as fitness tracking apps, to try to predict the future of wearable bio-sensors. Given the fast-changing environment in the industry they set off to study, Neff and her colleagues chose not to attempt to predict what this particular technology would look like. Instead, they focused on the research question: How might emerging types of data change people’s relationship with doctors?

The stakeholders Neff and her team interviewed had wildly different notions of what all this new data could do for them. Doctors saw it as a diagnosis tool. Consumers saw it as conversation-starter and a way to make connections with others.

Neff audience

Professor Neff took many questions from the audience about her approach to researching an industry that was constantly changing. The slides from Professor Neff’s presentation are available here.

Using analogies, Neff argues that self-tracking and social sharing of that information has happened historically and continues to happen today pervasively but not necessarily via tools such as fitness tracking apps or devices. Another finding in the research was that tech companies talked about tracking in a way meant to skirt regulation. As a result, there are blurred lines between concepts like wellness and health, patient and consumer, citizen and healthcare system. Neff said there is a call to action she and her co-author make in a book on self-tracking scheduled to publish later this summer: be aware of challenges of self-tracking data because its use right now is influenced disproportionately by tech designers, not by doctors or consumers who have less and less control of the data.

Ethnographic data as proof

More than 30 graduate students, faculty and staff attended Neff’s talk, the last of the QUAL Speaker Series for this quarter. A Jackson School graduate student asked Neff how she proved her conclusions to tech companies using ethnographic data.

Neff audience

More than 30 graduate students, faculty and staff attended Gina Neff’s QUAL Speaker Series talk and had a chance to engage in a Q&A.

“Stories, believe it or not, go a long way in corporate America,” Neff said.

The tech companies need cases, stories, and scenarios. To find the best people to interview, Neff used LinkedIn and Twitter, spent time at companies, industry conferences, spoke with doctors, technology developers, etc.

“I knew I was on to something when people at startups wanted to interview me,” she said. “I stopped thinking of myself as separate to this industry [and started thinking of myself] as co-constructing the future.”

Neff found affinity with patient-data advocates who fight for access to data from their own bio-sensor devices. Some of their stories are included in the upcoming book.

Challenges of conducting ethnographic research in a constantly changing industry

Another questions from the QUAL audience was about stabilizing a research question when studying such a constantly changing environment as wearable technology.

“We don’t stabilize the research question as much as we surf it,” Neff explained. “We balance as it moves underneath us.”

Neff also recommended to graduate students conducting ethnographic research in a changing environment to make decisions about how far around the boundaries of their original research scope they will go in order to complete their dissertation study. Being flexible, having the spirit to improvise, and “much akin to journalists” being willing to follow new leads that emerge are other key traits for a successful researcher studying a constantly evolving phenomenon, Neff added.