Mobile ethnography: tapping into market research success

Global smartphone uptake shows no sign of slowing in the coming years. This is coupled with increasing consumer familiarity with not only sharing personal experiences via smartphones, but feedback on everything from holidays to takeaways. This opens a huge opportunity for market research to combine smartphone proficiency with traditional ethnography.

Old dog (traditional ethnography)…

As with traditional ethnography, mobile ethnography (sometimes known as digital ethnography) explores respondents’ behaviours, attitudes and perspectives in real-time, whilst retaining some key advantages of the original method. Most notably, the ability to observe respondents engaging with their day-to-day life, rather than recalling memories or experiences that may have happened days, weeks, or even months prior, or talking about the topic in the abstract. For example, an interview probably wouldn’t take place while the respondent is shopping, working, or dealing with the subject at hand.

Creative insight emojis mobile ethnography results

Membership benefits mobile ethnography outputs, as discussed in a case study below

However, there can be many complications with traditional ethnography. Observing respondents to such a close degree tends to not only be time-consuming and costly, but can feel intrusive for the respondent, even when ethics forms have been signed and boundaries set. Researcher note-taking can also be a trouble-spot.

  • When should the researcher take notes if trying to observe at all times?
  • How can notes stay discreet when working so closely with respondents?
  • How can we ever be sure these notes are truly reflecting the unique and wholly personal perspective of each respondent?

… new tricks (mobile ethnography)

At Shift Insight, our mobile ethnographies involve conducting research with participants via smartphone during their day-to-day life. Respondents are set ‘tasks’ (read: research questions), which they can respond to either in their own time, or at very specific times, depending on the needs of the research. Furthermore, respondents aren’t limited to the written word when expressing their viewpoint, as they can also provide photos, videos, social media content and screen recordings.

Mobile ethnography seems to alleviate some anxieties triggered by traditional ethnography, whilst providing entirely modern data types. Although boasting these triumphs, mobile ethnography is still a relatively new research method, made more complex by the ever-changing ways in which consumers share their opinions over smartphones. So, as a research method where the rules are still not entirely set, how does it really compare to more traditional methods, both in the field and in analysis? And what kind of results can you expect to see from it?

Shift Insight has partnered with Indeemo, a mobile ethnography platform, to develop a number of case studies showing how our mobile ethnographies could be the methodological solution to your next research area.

Mobile ethnography insights diagram

Jump to Visual insight, Creative insight or Precise insight.

Behavioural insight

Ethnography overcomes the drawbacks of other research methods, such as interviews, focus groups and surveys, by allowing the researcher to immerse themselves in the social context of their respondent for an extended period of time. This makes it the ideal method for analysing a respondent’s unfiltered behaviour and determining more accurate insights.

However, traditional ethnography is rarely used in market research as it is simply too complex. In the unlikely event a respondent agreed to being observed for an extended period of time, researchers rarely have the necessary time or resources, while the huge amount of rich data generated is wholly inefficient for analysis.

Mobile ethnography offers valuable behavioural insights in a market research context, without the logistical drawbacks attached to traditional ethnography.

Case study: Plastics diary

Shift Insight asked respondents to share how much plastic they use in an ordinary day, including times when they were and were not able to avoid using it.

Research queries such as these are notoriously difficult to explore. Everyday behaviours such as using plastic and throwing away waste are unremarkable events to most respondents, meaning information and experiences recalled through surveys or interviews are likely to be inaccurate.

Conducting this research (and similar queries) as a mobile ethnography allowed Shift to collect insight from the moment the respondent engaged with the topic at hand, meaning they never had to give an abstract answer, and could always provide specific examples of their experiences. We could also probe for further detail on answers as necessary, meaning the respondent was never unduly impeded and no excessive data was collected. This allowed us to really drill down into which plastics respondents could and could not live without, often as they were realising it themselves, and accurately track an overall picture of daily plastic use.

Mobile ethnography outputs on plastic usage

Another key benefit of collecting behavioural insight in this way was allowing the construction of a narrative. Respondents became aware of their own behaviour, which they may never have thought to analyse before. The mobile ethnography allowed Shift to track respondents making lifestyle changes throughout their week and their behaviour as they realised just how much plastic they used, allowing us to explore their thoughts on this through their very own commentaries.

Case study: Ideal university course

Shift Insight asked respondents to share how they would search online for their ideal university using a screen recording.

The Internet can pose a complicated problem for applying more traditional qualitative research methods. Respondents may struggle to remember their behaviour and actions in the physical world, but even more so when visiting a website or searching for something online. However, Shift’s mobile ethnographies allow the respondent to upload screen recordings of the exact journey they make when browsing on their smartphone.

Shift asked respondents to use their smartphone to search online for their ideal university course. We also asked respondents to provide a verbal commentary to capture nuances behind navigation choices. The unique insight into online behaviour provided by the mobile ethnography allowed us to not only record the exact websites and search techniques used by respondents, and why they chose them, but also identify what respondents prioritised and valued when making these choices, and their preferences for how information was conveyed to them.

Because the research took place on the respondents’ smartphones, we did not have to constantly observe their lives, but instead cut straight to the moments most relevant to our research.

Ideal university course mobile ethnography results

The respondent did not even have to speak with the researcher, let alone have them intrude at an inopportune time, which could compromise researcher-respondent trust and rapport.

Visual insight

The dominance of interviews, focus groups and surveys in qualitative market research has meant that the written and spoken word has been the gold standard for understanding what respondents think and feel. However, ‘Visual studies’, a rapidly growing methodological framework in the social sciences, argues that a new visual language is developing that market researchers cannot afford to ignore.

Indeed, individuals are increasingly sharing their thoughts and experiences through media such as photos, videos, emojis, memes and GIFs. Equally, companies now spend huge amounts ensuring the visual user interface and online experience strikes the perfect tone, wordlessly. These all contribute to a language of visuals that can be difficult to translate directly into the spoken word. In research, when respondents are asked what appeals to them visually, it is common for them to struggle and end up relying on either vague or basic descriptions, which aren’t all that helpful for deep insight.

Mobile ethnography offers the chance to capture visual language in its purest form. By asking respondents to seek out and share content they come across on and offline, they are able to provide specific examples – enabling the identification of trends that may not have been apparent from word-based descriptions alone.

Case study: Effective charity campaigns

On behalf of a UK charity, Shift Insight asked respondents to share examples of charity campaigns they had come across recently, both digitally and in print.

Mobile ethnography allowed Shift to see the exact campaigns, including graphics, slogans and physical placement in the public sphere – finer details that may had been missed had we asked respondents to simply recall campaigns from memory.

Charity campaigns mobile ethnography results

Mobile ethnography also helped us identify trends that may also have been missed from recollections alone. For example, while respondents shared a wide variety of campaigns, they overwhelmingly shared those involving people’s faces, especially children’s faces. Even though these campaigns didn’t necessarily relate to issues present in young people’s lives and were not easily shareable or present on their personalised social media feeds, the campaigns using children’s faces clearly helped them relate to the issue and carried an emotional resonance that was difficult to describe in the spoken word.

Furthermore, Shift could identify other effective aspects of these campaigns, such as which facial expressions were most effective and how prominent the face needed to be. Entirely independent of each other, these respondents all tapped into and expressed the same visual language to describe what they thought was effective.

Creative insight

Interviewing in qualitative research has developed hugely from the original question-answer-question-answer format. Nowadays, respondents are often encouraged to provide thoughts through creative exercises, such as word association, role playing, personification or guided fantasy. While these techniques all have their strengths, a common limitation is the respondent still being asked to provide spoken descriptions, which may not capture their entire perspective.

Unlike interviews, mobile ethnography gives respondents the time, space and access to alternative formats for developing creative answers to research questions, which may provide deeper and more nuanced insight than on-the-spot spoken reactions.

Case study: Membership benefits rating

Shift Insight asked respondents to give feedback on the benefits they receive as part of a membership in the form of emojis and hashtags.

As mentioned above, we as consumers have slowly learnt a new language, possibly without realising it. The language of social media has seeped offline and into our media, workplaces and homes. Two examples of this are emojis, for instantly expressing specific emotions and concepts, and hashtags, for encompassing whole ideas and opinions in a simple phrase. They allow us to express ourselves in a wholly modern and unique way, which does not always translate back into standard speech, especially amongst younger people who are the vanguard for how this language will develop and become more nuanced.

Mobile ethnography gives market research the rare opportunity to not only embrace this new language, but translate it into valuable insight. A benefit of emojis is the huge range of emotional expression. In a research context, this encourages respondents to go beyond just positive and negative. They may feel negatively, but is this anger, disappointment, frustration, distrust, uncertainty, or something else? They even allow respondents to look outside emotions and feed back on aspects they may not have thought about without access to an emoji keyboard.

Emojis mobile ethnography results

Hashtags operate in a similar way, allowing respondents to provide nuanced and snapshot feedback in a format they are familiar with. As always, mobile ethnographies allow Shift to interrogate these answers further if respondents provide anything contradictory or unintuitive.

Case study: Letter to a favourite professor

Shift Insight asked respondents to imagine they had just completed a degree and were sending a letter to their professor, thanking them for their help and mentioning what made them important.

This exercise would have been possible through more traditional research methods, such as a focus group or workshop. However, even these have limitations; such groups are nearly always time-limited, meaning respondents may not be able to think through responses, while the observational effect of having a researcher present may risk bias.

Letters to favourite professors mobile ehtnography results

Mobile ethnography allowed us to overcome these hurdles. Respondents had time to carefully think through a response and be more creative with their answers, thus interrogating their own thoughts more deeply. They also didn’t feel ‘observed’ by a moderator, and could ‘post’ their response much as they would in real life.

Precise insight

There is significant overlap between the types of insight described above. When combined, they demonstrate that mobile ethnography as a method can provide extremely precise insight, allowing researchers to delve into multiple factors simultaneously.

Case study: COVID-19 news sources

Shift Insight asked respondents to share news stories they trusted to shape their thoughts and opinions on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researching a query like this through mobile ethnography harnessed its unique behavioural, visual and creative insight capabilities. By allowing respondents to share news items as they find them, we could simultaneously see:

  • The sources respondents trust (and why, through comments and probing)
  • Which type of headlines and visual layout are effective for respondents
  • The types of information they value (and why)
  • The opinions they align themselves with (which may aid in segmenting samples)
  • How they consume media and information online (social media versus other online sources)
  • How they browse news articles and seek out information
  • How their opinions change as an event unfolds through time, and their browsing behaviour in response to this.

The above findings would be difficult to ascertain through interviews, focus groups or surveys. Even if internet access could be provided to respondents during these other methods, it would be difficult to trace how respondents find news sources in real time, and how their opinion changes.

COVID-19 news sources mobile ethnography results

Mobile ethnography allows Shift to capture ever-changing, modern digital innovations, and put them to the task of engaging, real-time research. It produces visual, creative, and striking data, and allows for the discovery of insights which may be lost on more traditional research methods. Participating in mobile ethnography is easy for respondents to fit into their day-to-day life, allowing us to capture crucial findings exactly as and when they happen.

To find out more about our research services and read our reports and case studies, please visit our Shift Learning, Shift Sustainability and Shift Membership websites.

About Indeemo

Indeemo Mobile Ethnography platform connects you human to human with the real life experiences that help you understand and empathise with people who matter the most. Leveraging the power of mobile smartphone and cloud technologies it captures rich contextual insights from your customers anytime, anywhere. Indeemo’s pioneering Mobile Ethnography app enables respondents to capture rich photo and video footage of their real-life behaviours, helping businesses, researchers and healthcare providers better understand their users, customers, and patients in order to improve their experience.