Belfast Stories: How asking about dogs unleashed pawfect data
We worked on a very exciting research project for Belfast City Council back in the Autumn but couldn’t say a peep about our findings until the final report had gone to their City Growth and Regeneration Committee. This happened last week, and to our surprise, was accompanied by a lovely piece about our research on BBC News and BBC Radio Ulster.
If you live in Belfast, you’re probably familiar with the Art Deco Bank of Ireland building on Royal Avenue in the city centre. It was recently acquired by Belfast City Council to be transformed into Belfast Stories, a multi-purpose space that will include an exhibition space, a screen centre and public spaces for people to meet, eat, shop and hang out.
We came on board the project last August, in partnership with Daisy Chain Inc, to design and deliver the first phase of public engagement with the project. Our aim was to find out what triggered people to share stories, what might encourage them to open up and what caused them to close down. This also gave us the opportunity to investigate the sense of a Belfast identity and understand more about how people connect to the city and its people.
How did we do it?
From the beginning, we knew we didn’t want to ask straightforward questions like ‘What do you think of Belfast Stories?’ or ‘What could make you more interested in Belfast Stories?’. When you ask such questions, there’s no scope for discussion, and let’s be honest, such questions are no fun. We wanted our questions to be playful so they would encourage conversation and at the same time, would dig into how people used the city and how they felt about it, without directly asking those questions. We came up with the following:
- If Belfast was a dog, what would it be and why?
- What is the most Belfast thing you’ve ever seen or heard?
- What is your first memory of Belfast?
- Why are you here?
- What is your favourite place in Belfast?
We asked those questions in all four corners of the city: on the street, in pubs, taxis, takeaway shops, shopping centres, events happening across the city and online. In total, we talked to 683 people (yes, that’s a lot of one-to-one chats!)
Why did we choose those questions?
It may not seem obvious right now, but we crafted each of those questions with a specific goal in mind. Bear with us!
If Belfast was a dog, what would it be and why? was designed to explore how people in Belfast collectively perceive the city, to learn about its identity. As the research progressed, we quickly realised this question was the perfect icebreaker, as it brought an element of fun to relax people we interviewed and incited them to respond.
With What is the most Belfast thing you’ve ever seen or heard?, we wanted to investigate the city’s identity. We also anticipated that this question would spark longer conversations, where potential stories for Belfast Stories could develop. Overall, it was difficult for participants to answer this question instantly. Respondents often needed time to think about a story that was “worth telling” or opted for an easier response that did not need as much thought – something about food (e.g. Belfast bap) or language (e.g. What’s the craic?).
What is your first memory of Belfast? had been trialled in previous thrive research and was an effective trigger for encouraging people to share personal stories and anecdotes. Again, it proved effective in this engagement and the most likely question to trigger a response, both in person and online. The quality of the responses was also high as respondents usually started by sharing one memory, which then led to another memory and another, until their response became a full, cohesive story.
Why are you here? was asked to find out what it is about Belfast that people love and by extension, why they decide to live and stay here. It was also motivated by the fact that people who are not from here are always being asked this question by locals. This time, we wanted to ask locals themselves.
Finally, What is your favourite place in Belfast? was asked during a series of five events, especially designed by Daisy Chain Inc for the purpose of this research. Each event was held in a different setting to test how environments impact on people sharing stories.
What did we learn?
Did we succeed? Oh yes, we did! Those questions delivered exactly what we hoped they would.
Overall, people we talked to think that Belfast is a city with a strong personality with distinct qualities that sometimes contradict each other. While a majority overwhelmingly describes people in Belfast as welcoming, friendly and warm, almost an equal number of respondents calls the city hostile. Ultimately, people’s opinions of Belfast often express both these positive and negative sentiments, remaining nuanced and acknowledging all the facets that the city can have.
When thinking of Belfast and its identity, respondents recognised a variety of aspects: humour, language and swearing, people’s friendliness, specific landmarks and buildings in Belfast, and food.
The Troubles were often mentioned, especially by people 40 years old and older. Although we now think of this period as being from the past, the conflict still impacts on people today. The normalisation of violence and trauma has been baked into the Belfast spirit – the “just get on with it” attitude and the use of black humour was present in many stories.
This research also told a story about people’s relationship with the city centre. Finally, there are three main reasons for people to move to Belfast and live here: work, study, or love.
Research doesn’t have to be boring. And sometimes, you need to ask questions which at first glance, don’t necessarily seem relevant to what you’re trying to find out. It’s when you bring an element of play into it that people are put at ease, and it encourages them to open up. Be curious about people and they will talk. And at the end of the day, remember, it’s just a simple chat.