Editor's note: Based in Chicago, Alex Hunt is executive vice president, Western region, at BrainJuicer, a London research firm. The author wishes to thank Nancy Luna of Kraft Foods and Claudia Del Lucchese of Mondelez International for their valued input on this article.

In our increasingly digital world – where one fifth of the world’s population now owns a smartphone, according to BI Intelligence – mobile research can connect brands with consumers in ways previously unattainable. It fosters a clear connection to consumers at any time and any place – even in far-flung places and at times that were previously off the grid and thus off-limits to researchers.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the mobile technology, with its steep growth trajectory and revolutionary capabilities announced at an ever-increasing pace. The problem is, these exhilarating developments tend to both impress and confound researchers.

Rather than reassess the traditional research model and its rational interpretation of human behavior, it’s all too easy to just tack the newest technology on top of a familiar approach and feel like change is happening. But it’s not. Taking advantage of technology requires adoption of a new research framework and model for consumer understanding.

Recent learnings in the behavioral sciences – arguably just as impactful as new technological advances – have produced a System 1 framework that can be applied to all research – mobile or otherwise – to great benefit.

In his groundbreaking book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman posited that the human mind contains two systems of thinking that influence our judgments and decisions: fast, emotional System 1 and slow, considered System 2. Most of our decisions are System 1; System 1 can then provide convincing justification for said decisions if called upon to do so.

In essence, according to Kahneman, humans are unreliable witnesses to their own behavior. The more you ask them to explain, the less reliable their answers.

So what does this have to do with market research? Well, direct-response research often puts respondents into a situation where it actively encourages them to think through their answers, engaging their System 2 processing by asking them to actively recall past behavior and project preferences between artificial choices. In real-life contexts, however, consumer decisions can be – and often are – very different.

The implication is that we need a kind of research that can better understand decision-making – one which is more observational and experimental in nature and minimizes direct response. Mobile research, with its “watch and listen” approach, is just that.

It can yield deeper, more honest in-the-moment insight into what people feel and do than the traditional question-and-answer approach. There is less of the consumer bias that naturally occurs with self-reporting techniques and it allows researchers to make sense of consumer behavior through three distinct behavioral lenses: environmental, social and personal.

It’s essential to remember, though, that human behavior is the starting point for research; mobile technology can bring research into the actual context and moments of our lives, allowing more immediate capture of the emotional aspects behind the behavior.

Integrated System 1 thinking with mobile ethnography

Kraft Foods, known for powerhouse grocery brands, is one company that has used this approach to great success. Looking to better understand how consumers feel about the self-catered entertaining process, Kraft partnered with research agency BrainJuicer for a study that integrated System 1 thinking with mobile ethnography.

“For our consumers, their relationship with food – and its role in their lives – is very emotional. This is especially true when they are entertaining. They are trying to impress and satisfy a number of people – who each come with their individual set of expectations related to food,” says Project Lead Nancy Luna, Front End Innovation and Trends at Kraft Foods. “We wanted to see how we could use technology to follow hosts along their entire entertaining journey. Mobile ethnography allowed us to capture more of those moments, pain points and emotions than a traditional approach would have. And, even better, we could observe more consumers across the country rather than just a few markets.”

“The starting point for research, for us, wasn’t technology – it’s how we could answer objectives by incorporating what we know about human behavior. The technology is by and large useless unless there is a framework in place to understand the data it generates,” says Claudia Del Lucchese, packaging insights manager, Mondelez International (previously at Kraft).

On behalf of Kraft, Luna and Del Lucchese approached BrainJuicer to help uncover new consumer insights related to self-catered in-home entertaining in order to identify opportunity areas for new product innovation across business units. Mobile ethnographic research, Kraft reasoned, would get them closest to these insights.

“We know that entertaining is messy, dirty and difficult,” says Del Lucchese. “Unfortunately, the more you ask people to explain a party, the less reliable the answers become. They want to embody the role of the ‘perfect host’ or the ‘perfect hostess’ and tend to misreport or leave out details that may undermine that image. We wanted to capture the ‘ugly’ truth – to delve deeper and understand their experience in a very real, hands-on way.”

A traditional ethnographic approach, however, has its limitations; it’s often expensive, not scalable, the observation period is limited and the mere presence of an ethnographic researcher can influence the consumer subject. Kraft was interested in piloting a new approach that brought in both new technology and new understandings of human behavior.

BrainJuicer recommended its mobile ethnographic approach as a way to observe and identify consumers’ behaviors through the connection to their own mobile device. With the capacity for 24/7 observation with minimal intrusion, it would provide a different and more real insight into the party host’s world – with their behaviors, frustrations, wants and needs grounded in genuine context.

“For this Kraft study, entertainment was the perfect fit for mobile,” says Luna. “But even more importantly, it’s a very emotional experience overall. Only by observing and uncovering System 1 influences – in this case, the entertaining space, the social interactions that take place and participants’ personal hopes and fears for the event and food – could we understand the data in a truly meaningful way.”

Capture a diverse pool of respondents

BrainJuicer opted to recruit through Craigslist, with the ad strategically placed on different regional boards to allow for geographic spread and to capture a diverse pool of respondents. The ad called for participants who were to host a self-catered entertaining event within the next two weeks and would be willing to participate in a photo and video-based mobile ethnography study that captured all stages of the entertaining process.

The non-traditional recruitment medium, which captured 150 applicants, allowed Kraft to gain greater coverage than it would have otherwise – in both geographic reach and entertaining events represented. Ultimately, 28 participants from 13 states were chosen, serving 28 different meal types, spanning event types from hanging out with friends to a three-year-old’s birthday party.

After a warm-up and introductory task, each participant was asked to document event preparation and shopping, the day of the event and the cleanup through their smartphone. Each was empowered to be the ethnographer of his or her own story.

“In a traditional approach, it would be impractical for an ethnographer to observe a participant for the entire process – from the buildup, planning, shopping and prep to the actual party and subsequent cleanup,” says Del Lucchese. “It would be both time- and cost-prohibitive and wouldn’t capture every experience in-the-moment, as mobile ethnography allows. Even if there were the time and budget and the ethnographer were vigilant in his observation, the simple truth remains – it’s not a scalable operation. Mobile ethnography is.”

Mobile ethnography also allows for dynamic observation, affords greater flexibility within a study and provides opportunities for real human situations to play out and, ultimately, become fodder for further interpretation. For example, during the Kraft study, one participant’s guest of honor cancelled at the last minute and the participant contacted BrainJuicer in a panic, concerned that he would have to drop out. If this were a traditional ethnography study, that surely would have been the case. However, due to the flexible nature of this project, the participant was able to remain in the study, postponed the event and Kraft ultimately benefited by gaining insight into what happens when an event is postponed – how the unused food was stored as well as what was kept and what was tossed.

Because the study was run in late October/early November – with the self-catered events acting almost as a dry run to the biggest U.S. entertaining event of the year – Thanksgiving – Kraft saw value in bringing back some participants to take them through Thanksgiving preparations, yielding further insights. Thanksgiving, a real extreme in terms of social and ritual convention, ultimately provided a more structured entertaining experience to both supplement and contrast the events captured in the first round of the study.

Wide-ranging and revealing content

Kraft received wide-ranging and revealing in-the-moment content from the consumer participants, tagged by BrainJuicer against its behavioral model to provide a framework for analyzing and bringing that understanding to life in the form of visual stimuli.

“As you might expect, we learned that entertaining can be an incredibly stressful yet rewarding event for hosts,” Luna says. “Like technology, cultural norms, conventions and expectations for entertaining are changing. Mobile certainly gave us a window into our consumers’ world, but it was viewing their actions through a behavioral lens that really brought their frustrations, aspirations and needs to life.”

Ultimately, the study enabled Kraft to map the entire entertaining landscape. It revealed 16 themes around it, and for each theme, uncovered new consumer insights as well as opportunity areas for new product innovation.

Kraft has been using the insights as a library of reference for future questions that crop up around the entertaining process that can be used across its portfolio of brands. Aside from the resulting insights, Kraft also gained access to the physical data amassed throughout the study – in this case, 1,000 pieces of content spanning video, pictures and text.

Can get in the way

Like any collection technique, mobile ethnography does have its limitations. Whereas we often think of technology giving us unfettered access, it can also get in the way in terms of data collection and quality.

 “With party entertainers, especially, who tend to need many more hands than their given two, it can be difficult to work a mobile phone into the mix,” says Del Lucchese. “When a host’s hands are coated in cake batter or, later, dish soap, capturing the moment is just not a viable possibility – limiting data collection to more ‘before and after’ updates.”

Also, in the absence of an ethnographer, who makes observations in context, the researcher, instead, has to anticipate relevant data collection points and structure tasks around these beforehand. Additional probing, too, happens after the fact, and is based on a participant’s recall, rather than the ethnographer’s observation. Finally, the project’s team is distanced from the research until the findings are shared.

Despite these limitations, mobile – if coupled with a behavioral framework – is an essential tool to round out, and potentially even rework, the modern researcher’s toolkit. It will help researchers move away from the question-and-answer approach toward a watch-and-listen approach and brings the industry closer to the ideal: research in a world without questions.

By empowering consumers to set the agenda for the research, we provide a context in which consumers let the researchers and brand behind the façade they present not only to the outside world but also to traditional market research methods and, crucially, to themselves.

This is where we start.