Mobile ethnography certainly has its place in the researcher’s toolbox, the author says, but it’s no substitute for data-gathering by a trained observer.
Editor's note: Lili Rodriguez is founder and managing partner of Rabid Research and Strategic Planning, Naalehu, Hawaii.
There’s been a lot of hype lately about using mobile ethnography. So-called mobile ethnography uses technology (i.e., smartphones) to allow respondents to self-report “in the moment,” sending video, pictures and text while they are going about their daily lives.
Ethnographic research is a methodology developed by anthropologists based on the premise that a trained researcher, using observational research methods, will see things that are important in explaining or describing respondent behavior, actions of which the respondent is unaware. Respondents can show you what they notice and what they think they’re doing but they can’t show you what they’re not noticing or what they’re not doing. Only a trained observer will see those things and be able to capture and make sense of that data. And what people don’t notice or don’t do – or what they do so unconsciously that they’re not aware they’re doing it – can sometimes be the most important data in an ethnographic study.
Mobile self-reporting is an exciting methodology that does have the ability to capture respondent thoughts and feelings in the moment and it can be an excellent way to obtain specific kinds of data. It’s especially valuable for capturing respondent thoughts, feelings and reported behaviors in environments to which we, as researchers, don’t usually have access (e.g., the respondent’s workspace; private spaces like bathrooms and showers; family functions like weddings, birthday parties and funerals; private moments like just before bed or when they wake up in the middle of the night, etc.).
Nothing like ethnography
It’s also a great way to supplement other methodologies like focus groups and ethnographic research. But it’s not ethnography. In fact, it’s nothing like ethnography. And it’s not a substitute for ethnographic research.
A trained observer can see habitual or unconscious behaviors that have important implications for product development, product improvement and marketing. Those unconscious behaviors will never be seen or identified using only self-reported data from respondents. As an example, in a study we conducted to help a food manufacturer optimize (and potentially reduce the costs of) packaging, we observed respondents repeatedly (but not consciously) vigorously shake a package of product before finally opening and using it. In fact the behavior was so habitual and unconscious that they even vigorously shook the product before putting it back in the refrigerator. Our client’s packaging folks had no idea that their package had to withstand that amount of ritual abuse and it saved them from making a potentially very costly mistake. The research showed that while making the package less durable would save money, doing so would have disastrous consequences in-market.
A trained observer will see behaviors that respondents will rarely choose to report on or show. For example, respondents won’t document the myriad casual social interactions that occur throughout a day and have no particular conscious importance to the respondent but that reveal how they handle peer interactions, how peer groups influence decision-making, how the decisions about what to do and when or where to do it get made.
Ethnographers see behaviors (and incidents and environments) which respondents will be inevitably reluctant to show or report because they’re embarrassed – a dirty or messy home, a silly mistake they make using a product, a misbehaving child, an “oops” moment they’d rather not remember. And it’s difficult for respondents to report on the smells and sounds that surround them and that vary from environment to environment, which might be relevant to a particular marketing challenge or opportunity.
The things they don't see
And, perhaps most importantly, respondents can’t report on the things they simply don’t see, don’t notice or think they don’t care about – some of which might be your products. As part of an ethnographic study we did for a snack-food company, we went grocery shopping with a relatively large number of moms (large by qualitative research standards, anyway) during a time period when the client had a very large freestanding display positioned prominently in supermarkets but outside of and away from the snack-food aisle. Our respondents were specifically asked to shop for the things they pack in their children’s lunchboxes for snacks as a part of their regular weekly shopping trip.
Astoundingly, none of the respondents we shopped with noticed the large (and very expensive) freestanding display. We were able to document how automatic and habitual their shopping trips were and how difficult it is to interrupt that behavior and sell products in parts of the store they don’t normally shop when looking for products in that category. That data would never have been revealed if we’d relied on self-reporting (regardless of the technology employed). And because we were with our respondents and observing the behavior, we were able to bring them back into the store at the conclusion of the shopping trip to point out the display and probe the behaviors that caused them to ignore it.
Exciting and useful
Mobile qualitative research using smartphone technology is a very exciting and useful new methodology. It’s a technology we have used at our firm because we believe it allows us to address some learning objectives that would have been very difficult to address otherwise. But it’s not ethnography and it cannot (and should not) be used in place of ethnographic research.
Mobile qual is a tool – and a great one to add to our qualitative research toolboxes – but it is not the solution to all research problems and cannot replace true observational research methods. Let’s call it what it is rather than sell it as something it’s not.