Our Work 5 – Unpacking and Representing: Digital Days

Continuing the month of posts about our work, Emrys Schoemaker discusses below how we developed the concept of the Digital Day in our recent research with The MasterCard Foundation – Digital Lives in Ghana, Kenya & Uganda.

As part of conducting the research for Digital Lives in Kenya, Uganda and Ghana we wanted to find ways of showing how digital fits into peoples everyday lives. Building on the insights that peoples digital lives are, like our own, driven by the desire for entertainment and leisure and used as much within domestic as utilitarian contexts, we wanted to describe this in an accessible manner that illustrated how digital technology is part of people’s everyday lives. The result is the content of Chapter 4 of the report – Digital Days.

The idea of a Digital Day is an emerging framework that allows us to describe technology use in 24 hours of a users day – ‘a time-lapse photo of a person in digitally mediated motion’. The approach draws on the rich heritage of research methodology and frameworks that Caribou Digital’s diverse research team bring to bear, and combines aspects of Participatory Rural Appraisal and traditional Consumption Diaries, as well as design methods from Human Computer Interaction, Experience Sampling from communication research and psychology and Personas from market research and design communities. The aim is to use tried and tested qualitative research methodologies to dig deeper than often time-constrained market or commercial research. We recognise of course that for many, particularly those steeped in the ‘think’ detail of ethnographic enquiry, this approach lacks depth of a full year of immersive research. Our hope is that our approach can provide a link or signpost to the importance of rich, qualitative research.

One of the ways we hope to drive our research deeper, faster, is through the concept of ‘tasks’. Tasks describes the purpose or intention that underpins and gives meaning to the everyday practices into which people’s use of digital technology is integrated. By making ‘tasks’ the methodological and analytic spine of our approach, we aim to ‘open the black box’ of situated technology use in an accessible way. In other words, our use of the concept task opens up the question ‘what are you doing’ into an exploration of ‘user agency, intent, and contextually and culturally situated practice’.

The Digital Day lens shows how for so many users digital technology is woven into the fabric of everyday life. Smartphones wake users up with alarm clocks and radio apps, whilst social media applications provide constant connections with friends and the wider world:

“For many with phones, the first marker on a Digital Day comes early. Samuel in Ghana connects to social media as soon as he opens his eyes, and Steve in Kenya checking the news whilst still in bed. This continues throughout an individual’s day, with high levels of social media use, such as Anne’s use of Instagram to gain “self-esteem” and Okello’s use of Facebook and WhatsApp to chat to friends until at least 10 p.m.

One of the most important conclusions we draw from the qualitative research is the importance of recognizing that for most users, digital technology use is entertainment driven, much like most of the use we might ourselves be familiar with. This ‘non-instrumental use’ is a challenge to those who wish to advance the use of digital technology as part of life changing and development oriented interventions – especially those that focus on access alone. Yet our research makes a significant conclusion about this insight:

Yet, it is unwise and inaccurate to discount these activities, en masse, as non-instrumental. Rather, instrumental and non-instrumental tasks are so blurred and interlaced on social network platforms as to make the distinctions difficult to separate. In Kenya, Steve describes how he posts his graphic designs on Facebook, whilst in Uganda, Nakato describes how she uses WhatsApp to find out from other shop attendants how their business is going. Yet several of the more instrumental tasks have yet to deliver on their potential, with Steve for example emphasizing that he does not get much work from his Facebook promotion.  In Uganda, Okello describes how, although he browses the Facebook page of different retailers, he has yet to buy anything because he is sceptical about mobile money and buying online.

The Digital Day approach is one that Caribou Digital is actively developing as a lens through which to help understand digital technology use in everyday life. It has already demonstrated its utility in focusing attention on the everyday practices of digital technology users, contextualising use within a wider digital and communications technology repertoire. We are currently planning ways of using the approach to help guide those who are responsible for development programming to answer specific questions, providing insights into technology use that can inform the design and delivery of interventions that seek to help people transform their lives.