Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Art & Imagination in Online Qualitative Research: A New Tool for Brand Listening

How can we engage improvisation and imagination in digital research?


At the beginning of the pandemic, I was pretty sure I was done. I had been a qualitative researcher and brand consultant for 25 years. I had spent the past decade building my practice around an approach that centered contextual and imaginative face-to-face research. I called it brand listening, and it combined ethnographic interviews and free association and projective techniques.

In a 2019 project for Tom Brady’s fitness brand TB12, I tagged along with people as they went to the gym, to a stretching session, even a pole dancing studio. I will never forget what Michael showed me about the burden of masculinity, when he confessed to me he would only do yoga at home, out of embarrassment. Or what Lisa showed me about belonging, when she talked about her “pole sisters.” Working for the mattress brand Leesa Sleep in 2018, I was welcomed into people’s homes and bedrooms to explore rituals and routines around sleep. The ability to connect there and facilitate fresh encounters with mundane materialities of their sleep spaces  —their bedside tables, outlets and decorative pillows—is absolute magic.

I missed the feeling of connection, and the moments of shared discovery that become possible in shared physical space. Everything I learned in this work was because of this presence, and my ability to connect emotionally and physically with research participants, opening up worlds of meaning.

The pandemic forced me to re-imagine brand listening in a way that reconnected me with the core value of what I do for a living. Without the ability to explore in context, I designed projects for more interactions done remotely and leaned even deeper into my imaginative tool box.

What I discovered was that what I lost in physical presence, I made up for in imaginative intimacy. In one-on-one zoom interviews, my free association and projective techniques proved powerful. The disinhibition effect of the webcam actually enhanced the intimacy of the conversation, and augmented the efficacy of these exercises.

A Convergence of Research & Performing Arts

Then an unexpected encounter changed everything. In October 2020, I met Christine Jones, an acclaimed scenic designer and founder of Theatre for One. Theatre for One is exactly that: a portable, one-on-one performance space for a single artist and a single audience member.

We bonded over the isolation caused by the pandemic, and the fallout it had caused for our work—me in research, her in the performing arts.  “We discovered that we were drawn to considering modes of intimate engagement,” Christine explains, “and how to create spaces in person or virtually that allow for deep listening. And, as it turns out, we were facing similar challenges.”

For their first pandemic season, Christine partnered with OpenEndedGroup, a collaboration between multimedia artists Marc Downie and Paul Kaiser, to reimagine Theatre for One as a digital experience. The pair created a signature element of the show: a digital “Waiting Room” that simulates the feeling of lingering outside the door before a performance. People enter this liminal space not knowing who else is in there—but they quickly find ways to connect.

Says Christine, “the approach is to strip things down to the essentials, so that the computer screen feels more like a portal and less like a divider.”

Almost immediately I saw it as an ideal and unique digital space for an imaginative group  conversation. So we—Theatre for One, OpenEndedGroup and I— got to work adapting the Waiting Room into a research tool, and called it RoundRobin, a totally novel digital space that invites 20 people to gather for 60 minutes of free association and generative conversation.

“From the beginning we were delighted and surprised by how the space seemed to foster intimate engagement that felt both poetic and playful,” Christine recalls. “The first time we all tested the platform and entered the waiting room, we were caught off guard by how unguarded we felt, and how connected we felt.”

Thinking with Imagery and the Body

Free association and imaginative techniques have been powerful in my work. What research is there to back this up? Stephen T. Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago and cofounder of the college’s Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture, has written extensively on the imagination and its “sense-making ability.”

In “Imagination is Ancient,” he argues against our modern view of the imagination as “a liability rather than a resource to be cultivated.”  Instead, he asserts that imagination is “‘thinking with imagery’ and ‘thinking with the body’,” and that it predates the development of language.  

In his 2021 paper “Adaptive Imagination: Towards a Mythopoetic Cognitive Science,” Asma calls imagination the ‘Mythopoetic cognition:’ built on an instinct for narrative and emotional meaning-making that “sees the world primarily as a dramatic story of competing personal intentions, rather than as a system of objective impersonal laws.”

Imagination as Method

A 2014 paper by scholars of education and culture Michael Thomas Hayes, Pauline Sameshima and Francene Watson, “Imagination as Method,” argues that “because the primary concern of ethnography is culture and society, we must first foreground the imaginative, creative, and generative aspects of modern global society.”

Like Asma, they argue for the centrality of the mythopoetic, “the generation of ethnographic narratives that have an impact on the way the world can be.” The ethnographer should seek ways to access the mythopoetic through play:

“In a method of the imaginary, play moves to the foreground in all activities related to the generation and organization of signs …This means that, rather than establishing the reality of an already existing phenomenon, play allows the ethnographer to imagine ways in which the signs constructed from everyday experience can be rearticulated into promise and possibility.”

I saw my experience of RoundRobin echoed in their thinking on how play opens up the realm of the mythopoetic – and how the mythopoetic exercises helped clients gain  fresh and intuitive understanding into the lived experience of their customers.

A Public Challenger Brand Seeking an Identity

Soon after my work with Theatre for One, I had the opportunity to use RoundRobin for a new brand development project for a partnership between the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and the technology nonprofit LYRASIS.

They were building a ground-breaking, not-for-profit platform for patrons to access e-books and audiobooks from their local library. Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the platform was to be built on open-source code developed by the New York Public Library.

The current front-end experience of the public library is dominated by Libby, a much-loved app by OverDrive, a private corporation. Libby CEO Steve Potash is credited with bringing the entire library system into the digital age. But as digital books have come to play a bigger role (especially during the pandemic), digital lending has become contentious, and libraries have begun to seek more control.

The task for my group was to create a name and visual identity that would resonate equally well with the two primary audiences: librarians and digital content users. We conducted a workshop with the leadership team, brand listening interviews with librarians and patrons around the country, and two RoundRobin sessions (or RoundRobins, for short) with adult and teen library users and digital borrowers.

The RoundRobins gave us access to a rich visual and emotional language with which to build our creative directions, and expanded our horizon as we developed naming options, creating permission for names that were more aspirational than descriptive.”

The Birth of the Palace Project

We used the imagery generated in our RoundRobins to develop creative territories, which ultimately led to a name we felt captured the relationship we heard patrons describe in our RoundRobins, and would invite a reconsideration of this beautiful, necessary public institution.

It is a metaphor that sociologist Eric Klinenberg puts at the center of his 2018 book on social infrastructure:

“There’s a term you don’t hear these days, one you used to hear all the time when the Carnegie branches opened: Palaces for the People. The library really is a palace. It bestows nobility on people who otherwise couldn’t afford a shred of it. People need to have nobility and dignity in their lives. And you know, they need other people to recognize it in them too.”

And so we landed on our final name: The Palace Project. The emergence of DPLA-LYRASIS and the effort to fight for library independence has rallied players throughout the publishing ecosystem. Publisher’s Weekly named it one of the Top 10 Library Stories of 2021

I feel we have given our clients a name that connects to our experience of the library, and speaks to our higher ideals, matching the ambitions of our clients, whose mission is to make the public library the digital center of knowledge and creativity for their community.

There is a kind of magic in the design of RoundRobin. The platform allows the improvisational nature of the human imagination into a digital research experience—occupying a unique position between the asynchronous, linear experience of discussion boards and the face-to-face zoom interview.

(Next time you are at your local library, ask them if they’re a Palace library.)

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Image featured in this article: Photo via PXfuel


Photo of Peter Spear

Peter Spear, SPEAR

Peter is an ethnographer and brand consultant with over 25 years experience helping teams explore and understand the human experience of their business. He has worked for Gatorade, Weight Watchers, GoGoSqueeZ, Leesa Sleep, TB12, Lundberg Family Farms, MegaFood, Nutrabolt and The Digital Public Library of America. He lives in Hudson, New York.