An interview with Robert Thorpe, Research Associate

In this interview, Robert Thorpe, a Designer and Research Associate at the Helen Hamlyn Centre of Design RCA, explains why he used Confers for an online Q&A session with stakeholders gathering their inputs about his working from home technology research to improve his final engineering presentation.

Claire: Could we start off by talking about your background as a researcher. I’m really interested to hear about the Domestic Digital project.

Robert: I studied Product Design at Goldsmiths, University of London and then went on to do a Masters in Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Art (RCA). My first job was working for a technology consultancy in New York doing research on advanced technology design and media such as fibre optic window displays and transparent OLED screens.

Now, back in the UK, I am a Research Associate at The Helen Hamlyn Centre of Design, RCA. I am nearing the end of a 9-month contract leading the Domestic Digital project commissioned by Intel and run collaboratively between the WORKTECH Academy and The Helen Hamlyn Centre of Design.

The project is all about understanding the future of work and how people use technology when they are working at home - whether they are doing paid work (for their career) or unpaid work (such as home admin).

The aim of the study is to provide some insight and evidence for Intel to build a thought leadership position around working related technology and the use of technologies in the smart home.

Helen Hamlyn Robert Thorpe interview image

Claire: What is really important for a research project like this?

Robert: Over the summer 2018, I interviewed and worked with 21 different participants who live in three regions in Europe – Sweden and Denmark, Switzerland and France and the U.K. - and who work from home in different capacities.

I focused on how home workers manage their workspaces, the technology they use to help them work, and how their own daily routines and behaviours informed the way they run their work and home lives. It was a fascinating insight into the future of our relationship with technology.

I used an ethnographic research methodology where it’s critical to create a sense of ease and trust, so people feel comfortable sharing their ideas and effectively focus on the emotional connection with technology instead of just looking at raw data.

One important aspect is that all the themes and insights from the study have to be very carefully evidenced. This is where I think Confers has been a really useful dissemination tool for the project, especially with a client team on the other side of the planet from me.  

Claire: How did you come across Confers? What was the problem you were trying to solve?

Robert: The Helen Hamlyn Centre of Design together with The Open University ran a project a few years ago using Confers (formerly Stickyworld) for a large research project called Creative Citizens, where the focus was on engaging local communities. One of my colleagues encouraged me to take a look at the software because it provides a modern, fresh online approach to disseminating ideas, engaging remote stakeholders and gathering feedback which for a technology client is key as they constantly want to break the norm in different ways. Using it also seemed to suit this project about the future of work and the capabilities of technology to support and enable remote working.

The main issue I had to solve was around dissemination. My client’s engineering team at Intel was based thousands of miles away in the US. I needed to engage this team so they understood the study’s findings and could see and interrogate the evidence I had gathered. They are also a really hard to reach group of people because they are so busy and regularly building hardware.

Claire: Can you tell me about the online Q&A session. What was most useful about Confers?

Robert: I set up a private online Q&A session timed to run for a week before my final presentation of the data. Using Confers, I then invited the team of engineers in Intel US to take part. My aim was to gather their questions and observations to inform and improve my research presentation, making sure it completely met their needs and did not miss anything.

Each of the participant’s homes was presented in an interactive slideshow carefully curated and organized so the engineers could quickly and easily navigate the content and provide comments in the context of the media.

It was ideal because the engineers could access it at a time and place to suit them 24 hours a day. They were also reassured that the engagement was secure and private. They could see what each other had commented and it was professional and engaging.

I was able to set a clear, week-long timeframe for the engagement and highlight the closing date by which I needed their feedback. Using Confers helped me build everyone’s confidence in the project and remove any risks that I hadn’t covered or incorporated.

It was great. The engineers liked the fact that I had used an innovative, interactive tool to share the research with them. They are under a lot of pressure so making this as easy and interesting as possible was key to getting their time and involvement.

Claire: So how did you use the feedback?

Robert: I received some really useful and detailed questions and comments all in time for me to analyze. Some were around the methodology, others about my observations in the study asking about what I meant about certain things.  I used everyone’s input to hone, prepare and improve my final presentation which I then gave over Skype.

The engagement also now gives me an evidence trail to showcase the dissemination of my research and prove the impact that this had on the successful outcome of my study. I’ll be able to refer to this in the future.

Claire: How else could Confers help you and others to disseminate research findings?

Robert: Dissemination of research to remote stakeholders and hard to reach groups can be hard work. Confers is a great tool for explaining complex ideas and research and I can see how engaging it is. I think it could be a great way of sharing research ideas and findings across the research community, for example.

I can also see how the tool could be used for project-based communication at earlier stages of the research process with different stakeholders, for example, online design reviews and I will look to do this in the future.

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