The world is full of stuff no one wants. Like, for instance, pretty much anything sold on TV after 11 pm. If it seems like no one was asked if a Chillow should actually exist, it’s probably because no one was asked.

The best products or services are the ones people actually need, and the most reliable way to find out what people need is to (surprise!) talk to them. Traditionally, companies that are curious about a certain demographic’s opinion will send out surveys or hold focus groups. Best case scenario they might invest in an ethnographic study that gives them deeper insight into culture and human behaviors. In this form of qualitative research, companies send trained teams around the world to interview and observe people as they go about their daily lives. The researchers shadow their subjects as they peruse the grocery store aisle or take stock of how often someone flips the channel when commercials come on. This low-grade form of stalking has an important purpose in the design and business world: To identify the patterns and nuances of human behavior that could ultimately lead a company to its next big product.

The problem? It’s expensive. “These are highly coveted programs, says Doreen Lorenzo. “But fewer and fewer companies have budgets to take a team and send them around the world.” Lorenzo is a veteran of Quirky and Frog and is now the co-founder of Vidlet, a new app and service that’s looking to democratize ethnographic research by outsourcing it to the phones of its research subjects.

Instead of sending teams of researchers around the world to conduct interviews and shadow people as they go about their business, Vidlet uses a smartphone’s camera to record what’s happening in the respondent’s life. The way it works is simple: Respondents open the app and are greeted by a list of questions at the bottom of the screen. After tapping “record,” they talk into the camera as though they’re FaceTiming a friend and answer a series of around 10 questions. Those answers are recorded and cataloged on the backend in a portal that allows the company that commissioned the Vidlet to organize and tag the video snippets before stringing them together into a what Lorenzo calls a “mini doc.”

Subject, Study Thyself

You could argue that Vidlet is unremarkable in its technical achievements, and while it does streamline an often messy backend process, you wouldn’t be wrong. But in its bigger goal of understanding human behavior by capturing what are essentially video selfies, it does surface a fascinating question: Is it a good idea to outsource ethnographic research to an app?

Few people would argue that a video app could replace true ethnographic studies, and Lorenzo herself says it’s not meant to replace, but rather augment existing forms of market research. Still, it’s undeniable that Vidlet taps into a behavior that an increasing number of people are comfortable with. Talking into the phone, mugging for the camera, expressing our feelings and experiences through the lens of technology—these are all commonplace actions that for many people have become more natural than sitting in a room with a stranger as he asks you questions. A glass screen and a record button can afford a degree of intimacy that other forms of interaction stifle.

Jon Freach, the director of design research at Frog, says the tools used to perform design research should evolve with the current technology climate. He recalls the “beeper studies” of the 1990s, when design researchers would send out packets to their subjects filled with a list of questions, a journal, a beeper, and a disposable camera. These diary studies were a way for researchers to gather data without having to be present. Any time they were curious for a respondent’s thoughts, they’d ping them on the beeper and ask them to record what they were doing and thinking in the journal and with the disposable camera.

Vidlet is in many ways a technologically evolved version of those early diary studies, where a single app has replaced hand-written thoughts and developed film. Despite the decades in between methods, the benefits and shortcomings of this method remain more or less the same. It’s an effective way to glimpse quotidien intimacies while eliminating the inherent biases of a researcher who is translating what he or she is observing. On the flip side, a researcher’s keen eye, understanding of human nature, and ability to engage in back-and-forth conversations can guide an interview to a more insightful place.

As Freach explains it, a good design researcher often possesses a set of “soft” skills. The best researchers are empathetic, good at listening, and, most importantly, deeply curious about the way that people live. “One of the main reasons why you do ethnographic research is to immerse yourself in somebody’s life and to see it first hand and feel it first hand,” he says. “That way they can develop empathy right there.” As intangible as these qualities are, they form the backbone of what makes good design so compelling—it feels like there’s a human behind it. An app that attempts to do the same will undoubtedly do a good job of getting its users to talk. There’s just one shortcoming: An app can’t be curious or empathetic.

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Vidlet Is Out to Lead Companies to the Next Big Product