Our prototype plugin: ready for testing!

It seems like a long time ago that our project team met for the first time in a crowded, very much un-socially distanced Boston Tea Party on Park Street. It was hard then to envisage a time when we would have a ‘minimum viable product’ available for testing. But here we are! Next week we enter the final stage of the Brigstow funded part of our project – testing a plugin with sustainably minded consumers.

The I Didn’t Buy project was set up to develop a web browser plugin that would allow people to rapidly access information on sustainability of products they were researching and ensure that sustainability featured as one of the normative evaluation criteria for online shopping, along with price, appearance and customer review. Thinking back a few years, online shopping did not take customer opinion into account, and that has changed thanks to new and now normative technologies that afford user generated content. We are intending that sustainability information does the same and becomes just a normal part of everyday online shopping. We also want to empower consumers to work with, and for, this information and the plugin makes it easy and appealing to share thoughts with other consumers and with manufacturers, for example calling for better sustainability information and transparency.

Since the project launched in January, we have been able to hold two face to face focus groups and then moved our methodology over to online interviews. These two research phases were focused on understanding how sustainability minded people shop, and the experiences they have of shopping online. The findings emphasise the confusion and complexity surrounding shopping with sustainability in mind. Corporate sustainability language is difficult to follow and often buried. Consumers rely on known brands or just give up. Many people avoid online shopping altogether if they can, so they can better guarantee the provenance of the products they are buying.

Using our rich data, analysed using thematic analysis and presented in report form, we developed a set of requirements for the plugin. We have developed the MVP and are now ready to test. The final phase of research is the most ambitious and involves three stages with 17 sustainably minded consumers who range from rapid, largely unreflexive shoppers to those who are more considered and careful and keen to share their experiences. The shoppers we have recruited will be shown a video of the MVP as a short familiarisation and training exercise (online, with a synchronous question and answer session). For a week they then go about their normal lives, but we ask for a short survey to be completed each time they search for something online (or a minimum of three times). These questions prompt reflection about how the plugin would have been useful. Finally, an hour long online interview will be conducted, where the plugin will be interrogated for its design features, depth of content, presentation of information and usability.

We have had to adapt our methodology considerably during lockdown and it has certainly slowed us down. We were initially hoping to finish the project in April. However, the slower pace has allowed more detailed reflection about our approach and the chance to theorize our findings. It has been fascinating working in such a strongly interdisciplinary team from both academia and practice. Our modus operandi has been communication and clarity at every step. We might have different ways of describing or researching phenomena, but through good humoured conversation have always managed to reach a point of agreement. The next step is publication (for the academics) and securing further funding to facilitate marketisation.