Let the participant become a co-researcher using mobile ethnography...

Ethnography, a type of qualitative market research that puts the researcher “in the moment” with participants, has an exciting new outgrowth known as mobile ethnography. Today’s digital technology and on-the-go electronics has made mobile ethnography possible, allowing participants to actually do the job of the researcher by documenting their experiences as consumers.

In a way, anybody with a social media account is already familiar with this concept. After all, how many times have you seen friends post a picture of, say, a delicious spread of goodies at a bakery as they decide which item to pick (usually followed by a triumphant photo of them with their final choice)? Our friends are constantly “taking us along” through their consumer experiences in this way. Mobile ethnography is a way of adapting this behavior for qualitative market research.

Respondent and Researcher in One

Traditional ethnographers make a great effort to be unobtrusive and observe the participant authentically in a natural setting, but there’s bound to be some effect of having that researcher there. So the “self-ethnography” made possible by the use of mobile technology takes away any such potential distraction by using the participant as a co- researcher.

This is a significant advantage, since it means the person is less likely to feel self-conscious or edit their own thoughts, which they might otherwise do when later being questioned by a researcher. Even if subjects don’t purposefully filter their responses when being interviewed, they may simply remember what they felt at the time inaccurately. Mobile ethnography removes such distance and barriers by having the participant capture activities and feelings in the moment.

Documenting Consumer Experiences

Mobile ethnography employs a growing list of tools that are expanding at the pace of each new advance in technology. Smart phones and tablets are among the most useful tools, as participants can use them to post pictures and make explanatory videos as they are in the midst of an experience. They can document their experience on blogs or through social media platforms, providing a mix of media and text.

When reflecting on their experiences, the participant can convey information through text, audio recordings, or video diaries. The qualitative market researchers who are gathering this data can also request that the participants answer surveys or use online polls as a way of getting them to respond to specific questions about a task they may have been asked to complete.

Mobile Ethnography


With mobile studies, researchers don’t have to fear as much that the respondent will forget critical details, as many of these things will be captured in video and picture formats that can be viewed again and again and aren’t subject to the limitations of memory. Furthermore, this type of documentation is bound to reveal interesting contextual insights about location, background, and other people who were a part of the participant’s total experience.

Potential Challenges

Transforming participants into researchers and having them use modern technology to document consumer-oriented tasks at home or out in the real world is an amazing market research innovation that eliminates the “middle man,” so to speak. However, the absence of that middle man (i.e., the ethnographic researcher) means that the team will have less control over the progression of the research.

It’s hard to know exactly what a participant might do when left to their own devices. Some might not follow their instructions precisely, focus on the wrong things, or make errors in their documentation. Some may fail to contribute as often as they are supposed to. There are likely to be some problems, but chances are that the insights gathered will far outweigh the mistakes.

Plan Carefully

The mobile method is a direct, unfiltered, and constantly developing methodology in qualitative market research. It is a technique that is well-suited to our modern world, where mobile technology is widely used and where people love to share their day-to-day experiences on social media. With 4G being more readily available it is beginning to come to into its own and making online methodologies even more user friendly.

But you can’t just casually send people off shopping with their smart phones and expect great results and in-depth insights. A successful research study using mobile ethnography demands smart, thoughtful planning. You should do plenty of your own research in advance, have a clear understanding of what you want to learn from the study, carefully design the tasks, determine how you want the participant to document tasks, and provide good instructions. Read our guide for more infomation on ensuring your market research online communities are as smooth as possible.

With a strong plan in place and your goals set, you should find that mobile ethnography is an eye-opening and helpful qualitative market research method.

If you're considering planning mobile ethnography research into your next proposal, read our guide to finding the most suitable software providers:

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