Calls, covid-19, Notebook

Researching loneliness in a pandemic: touch and touch-technologies along with its methodological challenges

By Lili Golmohammadi

In this post, I discuss the challenges of moving research workshop methods online, and reflect on the losses and gains of this shift.

In early March 2020, I began fieldwork preparations for a series of research workshops bringing design-based methods to social science. This interdisciplinary methodology involved a three-part creative workshop series designed to support participants to explore the complex areas of loneliness, touch and digital touch. The workshops used a range of methods including mapping, and rapid prototyping (designing in 3D with accessible materials such as tape, paper, card, and recycled packaging). In-between the workshops, participants would be invited to engage with cultural probes. This is an informal method of information-gathering where participants are given packs of materials (such as disposable cameras, and pre-addressed and stamped postcards) and accompanying ‘evocative tasks’ to aid their explorations. The workshops are a part of my PhD research, which aims to expand understanding of the connections between loneliness, touch, and digital touch technologies.

Lockdown implications

I had facilitated a pilot workshop at the Wellcome Collection in November 2019. As lockdown began, I quickly realised it would no longer be safe to hold workshops in person, nor would it be ethical to hand over (or post) the cultural probe packs to participants. Clearly, my research design needed adapting! I found myself facing the (rather overwhelming) challenge of researching touch wholly online, at a distance, and without the shared tactile resources that I had begun to develop for the probes.

Adapting methods to a digital medium

I decided to create a ‘digital probes’ kit and set up a dedicated website. I researched work on digital probes and found a few examples, most of which focused on sending individual tasks to participants’ mobile phones. I decided to develop this approach for my study – I wanted to maintain the ethos of cultural probes as a ‘pack’ to give participants the option to select which tasks they wanted to respond to. The website also hosted activity resources for the workshops, including activity outlines and photos of the tactile resources I’d used in the Wellcome pilot workshop (mapping worksheets, mood boards featuring cuttings from everyday household materials and touch vocabulary printed onto sticky labels). Participants could return their completed probes via email or the study WhatsApp number.

Losses and gains

The tactile resources had worked really well in the pilot (which mapped connections between loneliness and touch) and in another affiliated study. They functioned as prompts through which participants could explore tactile experiences, memories and associations framed around loneliness. In the online workshops, participants still drew on the touch vocabulary, but not the materials of the tactile mood boards. Resources were no longer physical and tangible; they could not be spread out across tables and shared and were instead confined to the space of the screen. This constraint, however, opened up the tasks in other ways:

Cultural probes and rapid prototyping are design-based methods, which have been employed in recent social science research on touch and touch technologies to provide an accessible, tactile and bodily way for participants to engage with emergent ideas or technologies. Traditionally, the materials and resources used are provided by the researcher / facilitator, and participants select from these. Probe kits especially are often carefully curated and designed with high-quality materials and tasks. In moving online, I was providing the tasks but not the materials to carry them out, and participants were required to use their own resources.

A gain of this was that participants integrated materials or objects with specific personal histories. In the online workshops, participants sometimes got up to demonstrate objects in their homes to illustrate their point. One participant introduced an old giant teddy bear bought to comfort her during the loneliness of her marriage breakdown, now a source of joy. Another left their screen to recover a hot water bottle in sheep form that brought back memories from 25 years ago. Being online also impacted the between-workshop probe tasks. Participants who selected the probe task to ‘make their maps tactile’, for example, produced highly personalised responses, taking cuttings from materials they’d held on to for months and even years, or placing objects from their homes on top of the maps. In addition, the online workshops enabled participants to more easily manage strong tactile boundaries. In the (pre-pandemic) pilot workshop, one participant refrained from touching the materials on the mood boards because she only felt comfortable touching materials she owned – a situation that being online removed.

While for some participants, taking part from home created an additional layer of bricolage and customisation into the speculative technological outcomes, it was a loss for other participants who found this activity difficult as they did not have the resources they wanted or needed (e.g. tape). Moving online therefore exposed inequities and highlighted the role of the material for expression. In future, it will be possible to re-introduce some of the tangibility of cultural probes, offer materials, and combine them with more digitised formats.

Losses and gains in recruitment and access

Before the pandemic, I had faced the challenge of recruiting participants to a study whose methodology involved a significant time commitment. Lockdown reduced who and what we touched and required many people to stay at home; this increased many people’s interest in touch and loneliness and their motivation (and availability) to take part. Added to this, moving the workshops online enabled me to recruit beyond London and the UK. To date, I have run the workshop series with four groups, two with people aged over 70 and two with professionals aged 25-55 working from home. I plan to run two more series with people aged 18-24 in the Autumn.

Access to digital devices and platforms was however a challenge, particularly when recruiting participants over 70 to online workshops; while many had recently learnt to use platforms like Zoom, others felt unable to navigate them with confidence. The well-known inequities of an uneven digital landscape are an acknowledged loss in the move of research online.

Lili Golmohammadi is a doctoral researcher attached to In-Touch, a 5-year ERC funded project at UCL exploring how new digital touch technologies shape the way we communicate

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