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Applications and use case scenarios of mobile ethnography

Thanks to the world-dominating smartphone, the open nature of sharing has evolved through social media – putting market researchers in an excellent position to gain access into real lives and gather feedback that wasn’t available before. One way to do this is through digital ethnography, which can not only bring customer experiences to life but can also help to gain perspectives on brands, services and product engagement – meaning that businesses can outline real opportunities for future developments and improvements.


Explaining ethnography

Traditional ethnography is the practice of spending a long period of time with a subject group in order to understand their culture, interactions, behaviours, decisions, thoughts and opinions. Insightful, yes – but also time-consuming and expensive. That’s where digital ethnography comes in. In mobile ethnography, the consumer becomes the researcher, recording their thoughts, feelings and decisions via their mobile, allowing researchers to get right into people’s everyday lives. It allows researchers to understand the context of what’s taking place without actually being there, diving deeper into people’s thoughts than ever before. The result? Researchers that are better able to understand what motivates consumers, how they think, what they feel and why they do what they do. It’s rarely commissioned as a standalone method – instead mobile ethnography is usually combined with other research techniques. It could be an exercise within an online community or be used to complement more traditional face-to-face methods such as focus groups or in depth interviews to generate invaluable insights. 

How does ethnography add value?

If you’re looking to get high-quality data in the least amount of time, then digital self-ethnography is the way forward. Providing unbeatable access to the true customer experience as well as a range of solutions for individual research case scenarios, it’s easy to see why there’s such a buzz around it. 

Customer experiences, instantly

Qualitative research is traditionally conducted after the moment of experience has taken place – which is often too late. The human memory is a fickle thing and as time passes, experiences are forgotten, leading to misreporting or misattribution. Collecting data via smartphone means your subjects can give information any time – they can tell you instantly about a billboard they saw or how a particular advert made them feel at that moment, granting researchers immediate insight into the customer experience at that precise point in time. 

Mobile EthnographyMore than just thoughts and opinions

Ethnography has the ability to uncover some really big stuff: instead of just capturing the customer’s thoughts and opinions, researchers are able to see, record and analyse the full range of behaviours and interactions. Every interaction with a brand or consumer product can be measured and recorded, from the location to accompanying actors, time, mood and responses. The benefit? Instant access to incredibly important contextual data, which gives enriched, fully rounded insights.

Contextual data means decisive insights

When researching new products, researchers want to explore individual cases and scenarios, gathering information in relation to the context and state of emotions experienced at different touch points. This places the researcher and client in a position where they are able to undertake gap analysis, reflecting upon gaps between the current and ideal customer experience. As a method of research, mobile ethnography provides more contextual information than any other research technique can deliver, allowing researchers to answer questions they didn’t even realise needed asking. 

Powerful participant-led research

Traditional ethnographic studies were designed just to observe participants – however with digital ethnography, it’s much easier to both observe and ask questions, with participants commenting on specific aspects of an experience using a question and answer-based approach. Alternatively, researchers can also employ more design-led methods, tasks and activities that up-skill and promote the role of the participant. This might involve encouraging them to report on what they are thinking on a more spontaneous basis, or undertaking missions on behalf of the researcher. When consumers turn into the researchers, research professionals are better able to understand what motivates them to make decisions, as well as how they feel and think in the moment.

Mobile ethnography use case scenarios

Recent projects here at Dub have ranged from tracking embattled London train commuters’ highs and lows to inform the development of future train carriage designs, all the way through to setting shopper tasks and missions to explore purchase decision making to improve point of sale marketing in supermarket stores. The rise of this type of mobile and device-agnostic research technology has enabled researchers to follow and observe consumer behaviour close-up without the need to physically be there. Ethnographers no longer need to be in the field; now consumers themselves are the researchers and collaborators, capturing and sharing their own lives in real-time to provide high-quality contextual data. This allows researchers to paint a colourful picture of consumers’ lives and experiences as well understanding as what motivates them – enabling them to uncover real truths that make a difference.

To find out more about digital ethnography, including our tips for best practice, why not download our latest guide?


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