The Kinsey Reporter App is an exciting (if controversial) introduction to the future of user research

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The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University is challenging us through its controversial Kinsey Reporter app to become researchers of human (sexual) behavior, and I am thrilled. Aside from the sensitive subject matter of human sexuality I believe that the researchers at the renowned Kinsey Institute are showing us the future of user research in a truly exciting and experimental way. 

Note: The Kinsey Reporter app is currently undergoing additional review by the Indiana University human subjects and ethics board to ensure that the participant/reporters’ personal data remain confidential. This is clearly a good thing for all of us future users, so patience should be a small trade-off in waiting a little while longer to download and use the app.

Why does this app matter?

This app has the potential to set a very bold precedent for user research not only in terms of research methods and technology, but in how we gather understanding about human behaviors overall.

There’s a real potential for improving UX research methods and tools.

One of the most popular requests I get for user experience research includes observing human phenomena in the wild, particular as it relates to people using their mobile devices such as an iPad or iPhone. When folks are looking for insights and inspiration (otherwise known as qualitative research), I often suggest to them to just get out of the office and watch people to see what they are doing. You don’t need fancy tools and equipment, you just need to get out of the office and keep your eyes and ears open. You can’t go far without watching someone struggle to carry groceries and manage a phone conversation, text while crossing the street, or share pictures or videos with someone using a mobile device.

Yet observed patterns are a tricky thing to accomplish without structuring a specific context or set of tasks, such as mobile use ‘during commute’ or ‘in the home’. Without a specific context of use, a researcher would have to spend an astonishing number of hours observing a participant with a device in order to ‘stumble upon’ a verified pattern, as the combination of variables is often too great or complex to manage. As a researcher myself I know it is possible; there are ways to accomplish this but they depend highly on the quality of the participants and are rarely 100% effective.

Leveraging a free app that users can quickly download and use on their own using their mobile device could be a vast improvement to some of the tools that user experience researchers currently use for remote data collection, such as via home journals or diaries. In the past these tools have taken the form of surveys sent in email, networked note taking devices (paper or electronic), tools limited to specific media such as Pinterest, or good old-fashioned books that users are expected to remember to add to regularly when the researcher is not present to observe. Even with these tools much of the time the data users record and/or discuss with the user researcher is not the desired observational data occurring in real time but are remembrances recalled in hindsight or when prompted by a researcher. Try as we might, I have yet to see a researcher (including myself) collect remote user data in a way that is as mobile, fun, convenient, and easy to use as say, taking and sharing an Instagram. It feels like the Kinsey Reporter is heading us in this direction due to its initial design, subject matter, and social participation.

Users can report authentic data – they’ve been doing it for a while.

But is this app collecting actual data or not? Based my current understanding, the Kinsey Reporter leans on a measure of data quality that researchersalready use – the degree to which someone is a good participant and can report authentic behaviors. Whether I am interviewing someone in his or her home or collecting survey data, whether the data is observational or evaluative, I still depend on the user being or responding in an authentic way. At the end of the day, no matter what tool I use, the quality of my data depends on the quality of the participant. It’s a good thing this is one of the things I can manage when I design my research!

In order to control for this aspect I envision the Kinsey Institute creating specific studies that carefully sample their participants (aka reporters), through invitation-only downloads or special filtering, all the while rendering the records anonymous or securing the personally identifiable information. Whether the users are based in Cape Town, South Africa or Bloomington, Indiana, good sampling and anonymity should support the collection of authentic data. Using proper sampling, the app is simply a tool facilitating the research and is really nothing new.

The app can engage and inspire new researchers through crowd sourced data.

Thankfully, the Kinsey Reporter also appears to display crowd sourced observations of human sexual behavior, creating a new excitement around the subject area as well as minimizing the distance that can be created by ‘ivory tower’ academic research. The benefits of viewing the data collected through a community of users (if truly anonymous) is that it safely engages us in our curiosity of this sensitive but important subject matter, and creates interest and excitement in participating in research through your mobile device. These are benefits to my field that clearly outweigh the limitation of doubts on the representativeness of the data and outcome. Those who focus on this aspect miss the point.

The most exciting part of the of the Kinsey Reporter app is that it has the potential to force us into rethinking user experience data collection as an experience in and of itself, and makes the research process as accessible as your average Twitter feed. It has definitely inspired me to think about how I can engage my participants more and take my research to the next level.