In praise of audio recordings

Smartphone-based qualitative as a methodology is growing rapidly. But as market researchers, we’re still learning a great deal about the best way to get great insight from participants. As an example, take the decision of whether to ask participants to respond using video or audio.

Capturing video from consumers through their smartphones is an amazing tool. In-the-moment consumer videos are rich, visually powerful, and a great way to tell a story and make a point. That’s why high-quality video is a core component of the Over the Shoulder platform, and a centerpiece of virtually every project our researcher-clients conduct.

But in many cases, the power of video overshadows another very powerful way for participants to express their thoughts and feelings: good old audio recording.

Recording an audio elicits a different feeling compared to recording a video. Try it yourself. Go to your smartphone's video camera, and make a “selfie” recording telling me about something that annoys you.

How did you feel doing that? For most people, the answer is “I feel a little self-conscious and maybe a little distracted.” You have to look at yourself talking, which many people don’t really like to do. Did you fix your hair or adjust your appearance before you hit “record?” That feeling of self-consciousness can get in the way of your ability to let your thoughts flow freely.

Now make an audio recording telling me about something that’s annoyed you at some point today. Did it feel different? You may have noticed that your thoughts flowed more freely as you recorded your audio. And that free-form thinking is extremely valuable in smartphone qualitative.

So when is audio preferable to video?

  • We sometimes counsel the researchers who use the Over the Shoulder platform to “use audio responses to get depth of understand of your consumer, and video when you want to be able to make a point in a presentation.” It’s not that video isn’t great, it’s simply that in many situations, audio recordings get a more free-flowing, unedited response from participants. 

    Beyond getting more free-flowing responses, allowing your participants to respond with audio recordings has other big benefits. 
  • Imagine you’ve got participants journaling a visit to the drug store. You’ve got them standing in front of the shelf, viewing all of the hemorrhoid remedies they could choose, and you want to understand what products are connecting with them and communicating something relevant. You could ask them to record a selfie video explaining their thinking, but you shouldn’t expect great a response. But if you prime your participants to answer the question with an audio recording and suggest they hold their phone up to their ear like they’re quietly talking on the phone, you’ve created a situation where they can much more comfortably share what’s going on in their heads, This will lead to responses that are free from embarrassment and self-censorship, and that means great insights for you.
  • Here’s another example: say you want participants to share their thoughts first thing in the morning, before they get out of bed. Or you want them to talk about their post-shower routine. You can ask for a video, but you’re unlikely to get it. But if you ask for an audio recording, participants don’t have to worry about their bed-head or appearing naked in a video. They can easily express themselves in an audio recording, and you can get their true in-the-moment thoughts and emotions.

And what do participants think and feel about audio?

We regularly poll Over the Shoulder participants across projects, and their feedback bears out the strengths of using audio recordings. We asked over 1,000 participants who had just completed projects on the Over the Shoulder platform “Thinking back to all of the different ways you were asked to answer questions in this project, which did you find the easiest to express yourself in?” People were more than twice as likely to prefer “audio recording” over “videos.” When we asked them why, they gave answers like “you can record an audio anywhere, anytime, without feeling self-conscious” or “my thoughts just flow when I’m able to talk without the distraction of seeing myself in the video I’m creating.”

With all of the benefits of allowing research participants to answer questions with audio recordings, it’s a wonder why the vast majority of smartphone qualitative platforms don’t include audio recordings as an option. The answer is that enabling audio recording across Android and iOS devices is technically difficult. But at Over the Shoulder, our devotion to making it easy to be a participant, and making it easy for participants to express themselves freely drove us to figure out a way to ensure that audio recordings are always an option.

So, the next time you’re designing a smartphone qualitative project, bear in mind that an audio recording may be the best way to capture in-the-moment thoughts and emotions and make sure that you’re using a platform that makes recording audios easy for participants.