The old saying that you must walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand what they are going through defines the purpose and value of ethnography. Traditionally, ethnography in market research required researchers to spend hours in the field walking side-by-side with their subjects, observing and recording their behaviors. Although the methodology provided rich context and perspective, it was limited in scope and scale.

The recent widespread adoption of mobile technology has allowed researchers to reimagine traditional in-person methodologies, including ethnography. The global impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated that trend. Using mobile devices and apps, researchers can now virtually walk in the shoes of their subjects, expanding the application and benefits of ethnographic research.

Defining Ethnography

Researchers use ethnography to understand how people behave in the real world. The theory is that respondents will act and react more authentically in their natural setting than in a research lab or in front of a one-way mirror. By observing respondents in their natural environment, researchers can gain a reliable understanding of their actions and expressions to generate rich, behavioral insights. They can observe dynamics they may not have uncovered simply by asking.

Ethnography is a form of qualitative market research. In an ethnographic study, researchers use observations and interviews to glean insights about a consumer’s lifestyle, environment, and everyday behavior. For example, a researcher might interview a consumer in their home, office, a shopping market, etc., to observe how the consumer interacts with a product and uses it within the context of their everyday life. This method provides researchers with a unique understanding of the consumer’s perspective.

Traditional in-person ethnography is a time-consuming method, however. Researchers must embed themselves in a setting with each respondent long enough to gather sufficient observations to gain a representative picture. A significant amount of time and expense is also required to travel between each setting/respondent, limiting the scope of a study.

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Mobile Ethnography

Ethnography as a whole is a relatively recent form of research. It got its start as an anthropological research tool with anthropologists immersing themselves in a society for months or years to study a particular people or culture. Upon adoption into commercial market research, however, ethnography transformed to meet the tighter timelines of the business world.

Even in market research, in-person ethnography typically requires more time than many other forms of research. Researchers have to travel to and develop a rapport with respondents and then process and analyze their observations before sharing results with clients. Scope and scale remain issues for commercial in-person ethnography.

The development and penetration of mobile technology, and smartphones in particular, present new opportunities and capabilities for ethnographic research. Through a smartphone camera and smartphone apps, researchers can remotely observe respondents in almost any environment at any time. Remote observation limits the time and costs associated with travel, allowing researchers to study more respondents in less time.

Many consumers, especially younger consumers that have grown up with smartphones, have become accustomed to sharing feedback through their smartphone camera, making mobile ethnography a more discreet way to observe the consumer experience than traditional methods. This can shorten the amount of time required to develop a rapport with respondents, enabling researchers to further expand the scale of their study.

Application of Mobile Ethnography

Smartphones enable a variety of use cases for mobile ethnography in market research. Some common examples include:

  • Product testing: Smartphones allow researchers to observe consumer interactions with a new product, from opening the box, to setup, to use in their everyday life. They can observe the consumer’s emotions through those processes, any issues they might have, and if they are using the product as intended. Ultimately, that feedback can help companies improve their products.
  • Target customer identification: Observing consumers in their natural environments helps researchers uncover their behaviors, attitudes, and needs. Consumers often are not able to articulate what they want or need when asked directly, but through observation researchers can gain an understanding of how consumers live and develop insights about their needs. Those insights help them to identify and define who their customers are.
  • Mobile diaries/longitudinal studies: Numerous mobile research applications allow respondents to capture and upload their thoughts and experiences over an extended period of time via video, photos, audio, screenshots, texts, emails, etc. Researchers can follow and report on those experiences as they are uploaded to gain a thorough picture of the complete customer journey.
  • Retail shop-alongs: Consumers can take researchers along via their phones to observe their entire in-store shopping experience. Whether recorded or in real-time, researchers can witness all the elements within a store that contribute to the buying decision, including the store layout, advertising, staff interactions, etc.
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Mobile ethnography can be conducted asynchronously, in which respondents capture and post feedback on their own, or synchronously with a researcher observing a respondent’s behavior and environment through streaming video in real-time. In either format, researchers can provide guidance and/or pose specific questions for respondents to address, or simply passively observe respondents in their natural setting.

Benefits of Mobile Ethnography

Mobile ethnography provides several advantages to in-person research:

  • Omnipresent: Consumers can take their phones almost anywhere and almost always have their phones with them
  • Global reach: Consumers from around the world, including emerging markets, can take part in any given study
  • Cost: Virtual observation significantly reduces researcher travel costs
  • Scale: Many respondents can record their experiences at the same time increasing the number of behaviors observed and overall scale of a study
  • Time: Researchers do not have to spend time traveling and can view and share video/results with stakeholders in real-time
  • In the moment: Instead of relying on consumer’s memory and articulation about past experiences, researchers can observe their behaviors as they happen
  • Discreet: Mobile techniques minimize the presence and intrusion of the researcher

In summary, mobile ethnography is an innovative market research methodology that harnesses the always on and always available aspect of mobile phones to help researchers and companies understand how consumers truly behave in their natural environment.

Conduct Mobile-Based Research Around the World

GeoPoll has experience transitioning face-to-face research to remote methodologies and has the existing infrastructure to support robust data collection. Our team are experts in remote data collection methodologies and can quickly transition an in-person study to a remote, mobile-based methodology. To speak to a member of our team about your project, please contact us today. For more information about GeoPoll’s research methodologies and conducting research throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, download our guide to research in emerging regions.