#TMRTE 2012: The Parasite Paradigm

Colony of Digital Organisms
from Michigan State University

Years ago I saw a demonstration by a professor who had developed a digital organism.  I’m not talking about those little robots you carry in your pocket and feed when they whine, but a totally digital life form.  He created a visualization of it for us but the digital life form was embedded in a hard drive so it didn’t really have a visual essence of its own.  To be ‘alive’ it conformed to the rules defining life ‘ it ate, slept, reproduced and ultimately died leaving offspring to carry on.  In fact, as the demonstration was ‘live’ we were able to see population growth in real time.

This came to mind as I watched today’s Mobile Research presentations at The Market Research Technology Event in Las Vegas.   Several presenters highlighted the fragmented nature of the mobile platform, the distracted nature of the mobile survey taker, and the general lack of engagement of people taking a survey while mobile.  I imagine myself trying to answer survey questions while walking in a crowded airport.  There is no way this would go well for me.

One speaker mentioned that a key challenge of mobile research is the number of mobile platforms and the challenge to the developers of survey tools and apps.  And he said we were waiting for it to ‘settle down.’   This was preceded by a presentation on engagement ‘ how consumers are not engaged in survey taking or most of what brands publish in social media.   In fact, it was noted that engagement levels erode over time.  For example, consumers were originally much more engaged in online surveys than they are now.  Attention spans tend to wane as familiarity with an experience wears on.

At this point my own attention span waned and I began to think about films.   It seems that we have a popular group of male actors, Ben Stiller for example, who appear in film after film.  But in each film they have a different girlfriend, a female actor we’ve never seen before.  And we never see her again in any other film.  Why is that?  Well, I’d suggest that the attention span for the female characters is short and as a film going public, we’re on to the next fresh face.

It’s the same with digital devices.  We replace them well before they wear out.  We upgrade for the next performance enhancement, screen size or cool interface.  It’s the next fresh face.  This probably explains the lack of enduring engagement in technology based research tools.  It’s cool and engaging for a while but then our interest wanes and engagement declines.  This pattern is predictable, so waiting for mobile platforms to ‘settle down’ so we can design widgets, programs or apps that will work on a finite set of devices seems unlikely to be effective.   And we must continuously raise the bar on engaging survey content as this is a moving target too.

What if we created research tools that acted more like organisms ‘ more specifically a parasites?  It would detect the type of host (digital device and consumer preferences) and adapt to attach accordingly.  It would read the individual and adapt to be the perfect interface for that person, altering visual dynamics, language, time of day approached, length of the survey, etc.    It could know how many surveys you’ve taken and what type so that it varies your content to engage.   I truly believe that adaptive design is the only way to keep up with unpredictable change.   That’s because things will never settle down, so riding with the waves of change is the only way to go.