Living Lab for the Study of Social Networking and Cybersafety

In a recent report published in Australia reveals how the Living Lab and Interrupting Spaces methodologies have been used to do research into how young people use social networking services. 

The argument is that the use of quantitative methods that use surveys and focus groups the research could be tainted by an initial bias based on pre-existing assumptions. The Living Lab method (Leven & Holmstrom, 2008) and Interrupted Spaces (Bolzan and Gale) are more user centric and therefore the focus will be on how users actually operate.

After reading the report, I found it difficult to convince myself if these methods are more “precise” than the widely used quantitative methods. I can see arguments for both sides but I tend to favour the more traditional methods, until further proof is offered.

The key point here is the design of the study is critical for both types of methodologies. On one hand, the argument is that surveys and focus groups tend to make assumptions about how users think and operate and thus influencing the type of questions that are asked. On the other hand, putting the user in the middle begs the question of who the representative user is. How would you know who to invite to participate in the living lab? For that, one has to do a study and use… traditional research methods to establish a user profile that will be referred to by the recruitment process.

The Living Lab method doesn’t scale. It has limited participation, therefore the selection of users must be accurate and offer adequate representation.

In this particular study, Intergenerational Attitudes Towards Social Networking and Cybersafety,  a group of young people and a small group of parents have been invited to participate in an experiment to determine if there are benefits for young people if they use social networking services (SNS).  It follows, that there are positive benefits and actually parents learned from them during the experiment.

As a parent, I did not recognised myself in any of the adults in the selected group. I also noticed that the experiment started with a preparation phase, which undoubtedly must have had an influence on the participants’ behaviour. I asked myself the question of how the selection process occurred. Was there a consideration of the socio-economic background of parents, geography or demographic profile? Is the pairing young people-adults in the experiment reflecting a real family structure?

The conclusions of the study mirror the assumptions that were used to design the setting of the Living Lab. Perhaps I need to look into a number of such research studies and get a better understanding of this type of methodology. There is a valid argument that experiments organised in a natural context offers a more complete view of the subject of the research study, the design needs careful consideration in order to avoid undue influence of outcome anticipation.

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