Done with collecting…

Jan 28, 2021

Yesterday I officially finished the ethnographic research phase. I conducted interviews, I did participatory observation and I roamed the internet for data.

The interviews were meant to get basic insights into what kind of place these voice assistant devices have in their owners life. I wanted to oppose that by direct observation of how the participants interact with the devices. Organising the observations was no easy feat. None of the people I asked, who already have one or more devices at home, felt at ease with me being there and watching them. I found this disparation funny. Usually, the people cited privacy concerns, which I fully understand and respect.

The problem arises out of the paradox of having these devices in your most sacred spots. Voice assistants are known to have huge privacy issues. If a command is not recognized, often the recording is sent to a human to double check what exactly went wrong. And quite often the device also listens without our intent for it to do so. So on the one hand, the people have problems with me being there and observing them, but don’t mind (or simply ignore) that the device does that all the time.

Towards the end of the ethnographic phase I had to realise, that one of my assumptions didn’t turn out. I assumed, or hoped, to find animistic weak signals in the interaction between users and devices. But that hardly is the case. It’s not terrible, but I would have loved to find at least a bit of that. Depending on the framing of animism, especially after Betti Marenko’s Neo-Animism and Design, there are things to be found around the theme of uncertainity.

I didn’t quite get enough data from interviews and observation but I could add a few other data points to the mix. I added experience reports from the internet in which people describe their experiences with the devices. Furthermore I found it interesting, how the devices are visualized or narrated in advertisement images and videos. It is a good comparison, to how the devices are actually used in real life. Last but not least, I also researched how the devices are customized, through hacks and skins one can buy online.

I’m looking forward to the reflexive thematic analysis, to see what kind of codes and themes can be developed out of the collected data.