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Rethinking, Rethinking Ethical Consumerism

How we pivoted our research methodology during COVID-19

Danielle Tucker, 12th October 2020

In February 2020, our research team received funding from Eastern ARC to continue our work on rethinking ethical consumerism. Like so many other research projects this year, in March COVID-19 caused us to rethink our research methodology. Here we explain our thought process for doing this and share with you some of the unexpected insights and compromises which resulted from this shift.

Research objectives:

1. To understand the household decision making journey of single-use plastics

2. To understand the approaches which institutions have used to drive behaviour change

3. To understand possible intervention points in the household decision making journey for achieving SDG12

Our research was designed to address our research questions from two angles: institutional approaches and also the household decisions.

To study the institutional approaches we would conduct desk research to collate and evaluate institutional interventions aimed at reducing the use of single use plastics. This was a piece of desk research that was going to be conducted remotely anyway, so it could go ahead as we envisaged it.

However, in the second part of the research we wanted to understand household decision making. Our original plan was to explore this using a design thinking workshop, to understand household decision making about products entering and leaving the household sphere. The design of the workshop would have guided participants to plot and explore the journey of single use plastics into and out of their home with the intention of identifying blockages and challenges within that journey. We were also going to follow up with focus groups exploring the design thinking solutions. The workshop was scheduled for May 2020 but when COVID-19 began to take hold and it became clear that holding a workshop for 50 people was not going to be possible.

What is Design Thinking?

“Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Involving five phases—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test—it is most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown”


Interaction Design Foundation

We started to explore potential alternatives to capture comparable data about the household experience. We drew from the research team’s previous experience of conducting diary studies and developed a new plan to capture people’s experiences in real time directly from their home environment. This included:

  • A photo elicitation study, where participants take one photo every day of single use plastics in their home and explain to us the story of that piece of plastic, for 7 days.
  • A short question diary study, we ask one question per day to participants about the dynamics of their household, for 7 days.
  • At the end of the 7 days, a semi-structured interview where we ask them to reflect on the pictures that they took the answers that they gave. A self-observation of their experience.
Mapping our aims:

It was important to ensure that our study was still able to achieve the aims we had intended as much as possible. We therefore undertook a mapping exercise where we scrutinised our original objectives from the workshop. We broke down each of the design thinking exercises that were planned and reflected how that would be translated into the photo elicitation and diary study methods. The table below shows this mapping process in more detail.

Rethinking, rethinking ethical consumerism – mapping our aims (2020)

We found that whilst it was not possible to exactly simulate the workshop through our new methods, this mapping exercise helped us to identify areas of divergence and to reflect on what this would mean for our findings (for better or for worse). For example, the first aim was to understand the day to day flow of single use plastic into and out of the home. The workshop activity we had designed asked participants to share specific examples of single use plastics in their home with the group (a core part of the design thinking approach). In the workshop we would have had to rely on retrospective analysis. Our mapping exercise reveals that using the diary and photo elicitation would allow us to capture the decision making through photo, and explanation. This is an example of one of the aims where having to revise our methodology may have been an improvement.

However, the second objective was to understand how other household members influenced these decisions. This would have been best explored through group discussion, because we wanted participants to be able to compare their experience of how much control they had over household plastics with others from different household situations. An individualised diary study was never going to be able to capture that comparison in quite the same way. Through a specific diary study question about who makes the decision within their household, we were able to elicit some ideas about who has influence over those decisions which we can compare through analysis but we were forced to acknowledge that this did not fully achieve our objective. This is an example where we have a less than optimum solution but we decided that this would be a tradeoff we were willing to make.

Overall, our adapted research design allowed us to continue the research we had set out during a time when so much research has been put on hold. The experience of pivoting our research forced us to look more closely than ever at what we wanted to achieve with our methods and what our priorities were. For us, our priority was to capture household experiences. We hope to have the opportunity to revisit the workshop and focus group activities which we had planned at some time in the future, but for now, we have a very rich, detailed data set from our diary study to explore.

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