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Mobile Ethnography in Market Research: Fact & Fiction

Let’s be clear: incorporating mobile devices into your research plan doesn’t automatically make your research ethnographic.

The term mobile ethnography is beginning to enter the commercial researcher’s lexicon. And this worries me. Not that I think either mobile market research or ethnography are bad things, or even that the two can’t work together. On the contrary, both fields of research are a particular passion of mine and have had a great impact on my career. Each has a key strength, which is their ability to give valuable insight into the context of human behaviour.

My concern is not the term itself, but the ease and carelessness with which both are being used and misused. It is beginning to creep into marketing campaigns, sales pitches and agency collateral. History shows us that such creep can devalue a term. Just look at how broadly the word community is so broadly applied. Or even, the most extreme example, how the term insight is readily used to describe the mere act of collecting data.

Mobile ethnography, if applied correctly, is a powerful approach for market researchers. It can become one of our great achievements. It involves harnessing technology to move closer to the goal of gathering true insight into behaviour. But let’s not devalue it by using it to describe anything that allows you to upload a picture from a mobile. Ethnography is more than just a photo. Mobile research is more than just an upload.

Defining Ethnography

Ethnography is a whole field of research. It is itself relatively new itself, with the most common form first described in 1988 as a subset of anthropology. It was adopted relatively quickly into the commercial market research industry, around ten years later.

Ethnography is the study people and culture. It is designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study.

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"Ethnography is designed to explore cultural phenomena from the subject's point of view."

It is a method dedicated entirely to fieldwork, where the researcher aims to explain patterns of behaviour, values, beliefs, language and culture that are shared and are common across a group of people. This definition alone begins to unpick the reasons why it is so much more than the ability to upload a photo in-situ.

Characteristics of an Ethnographic Approach

Taking this argument one step further, we can look at the practical elements of an ethnographic study. To truly understand this, we must understand what makes a piece of research ethnographic in nature:

  • Ethnography is field based. It is conducted in the setting in which real people actually live, rather than in controlled environments such as a focus group facility or hall test.
  • The researcher acts as a participant observer. The study requires extensive fieldwork where data is mainly collected by researchers who are in day to day contact with the people they are studying, making them both participants and observers in the lives under study.
  • It tends to have small samples (often just one or a handful). Due to the in-depth nature of study, sample sizes tend to be very small, commonly less than 10.
  • The researcher needs to have minimal influence on the environment.Due to the fact that the researcher is directly involved the aim is to minimise the influence that the researcher imposes, ensuring the observation is as natural as possible.
  • Multi-method. Contrary to popular belief, ethnography is not solely related to field observation, it is a multi-faceted approach that should combine several ways to describe the culture being studied – including secondary collection, interviews with related individuals, transcribing elements of a life or collecting artefacts from it.

Key Limitations to Ethnography

Ethnography is often thought of as a market research utopia – research in its purest form. However, it has some serious drawbacks that have inhibited uptake over the past few years. The most prominent of these are:

  • Duration and cost. The obvious complaint about the approach is the time it takes and the budget required. Because of the in-depth nature of the study, duration and cost can naturally create logistical challenges to conducting the fieldwork.
  • Researcher bias. Due to the small sample sizes and the direct involvement of the researchers with the group being studied, there is a high risk of researcher bias.
  • Sensitivity. The researchers need to be very sensitive to the group under study because of their closeness during observation. It is critical that the researcher is sensitive not to influence or pressure the group being studied in order for a true evaluation to occur.
  • Deep expertise is required. The researcher is interacting directly with the people being studied and a deep understanding and expert knowledge is required to ensure minimal bias and put the individuals at ease. This will ensure smooth communication and observation.

How Does Mobile Fit In?

Smartphones are a fantastically useful tool for ethnographers because they enable a researcher to gather data directly from the field of study whilst also reducing their direct influence on the subject. Mobile devices can potentially decrease the cost of the study and increase the scale of the sample. You can almost hear the sales pitch now – the new unholy trinity of market research marketing: make ethnography quicker, cheaper, bigger!

But mobile ethnography is more than just enabling a participant to upload a photo from their smartphone. It is more than just inviting them to capture a video from their phone or to have them answer a survey from a specific location.

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"Mobile ethnographies must be multi-faceted. diverse and carefully planned."

It is disingenuous to reduce ethnography to a mere data collection technique. It is a methodology in its own right and one that is actually based on a multi-faceted approach, combining different elements to capture and describe a group’s behaviour.

7 Tips for Effective Mobile Ethnographies

  1. Don’t rely solely on the use of mobile. Make sure your study includes several techniques. Incorporate reflective diaries or host online group discussions with the extended social group. Arrange face to face interviews and observations to complement the online and mobile study.
  2. Gather observations and artefacts from moments you can’t directly share. Mobile enables you to extend your field of study. Traditional ethnography requires you to be present with your subject to observe behaviour. Mobile enables you to gather data and observations even when you are not there by asking for feedback, videos and pictures from different events and moments.
  3. Use the mobile to create a dialogue in-between interviews or observations. Be sure not to let your research become static one off points of collection. Ethnography is better where there is a dialogue so use the mobile to create a continuous dialogue with your subject over several days or weeks. This will transform your ethnography by getting more in-situ feedback even when you are not present.
  4. Use location tracking. Why not use the GPS technology of a phone to track your subjects’ feedback? By using location information you can enrich the direct feedback and conversation by adding mapping data and exact locations.
  5. Analyse the context of events. Context is proven to influence behaviour so make sure you harness the true in-situ nature of mobile by setting tasks to be completed via smartphones either at regular time intervals or from specific events or locations. Focus on setting contextual questions to be completed during these tasks to increase your understanding of the experience of time, environment, social pressure, motivation and previous experience.
  6. Use a mobile app to gather communications between a social group.There are a handful of apps, such as Wakoopa, that allow you to collect activity data from phones. These sit in the background and record the apps, locations, browsing and content that are consumed on a phone. Ethnography is the study of culture and these apps can enhance your study by gathering data quietly all of the time. You will need fully informed consent from your subject but if you combine this technique with the other points in your list you will have access to significant, valuable new insight.
  7. Use geo-fencing to stimulate spontaneous feedback from specific locations or events. As well as setting timed tasks (see point 5), why not consider the use of ‘geo-fencing’? This is a technique that alerts your subject to complete a task when they enter a specific location. For example, if could be when they reach the high street or enter a stadium or even step onto a train. This can be particularly powerful in ethnography by setting the geo-fences that are local to each individual and pertinent to the behaviour you are studying.

A successful and true mobile ethnography is one that harnesses smartphones in several ways throughout a study, creating a powerful form of ethnography, one that is indeed liberated by the use of the mobile. In this design, mobiles would enhance the ethnography, not be the sole technique.

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Paul Hudson

Written by Paul Hudson

CEO and Founder of FlexMR, Paul has over 20 years of market research experience. As an experienced online researcher, Paul remains active within the insights industry and is dedicated to innovating market research techniques for online application. You can follow Paul on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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Topics: Innovation