Customer Experience Tracking: Adopting Self-Ethnography

Published 03 Oct 2014 3 minute read

Future ready

Qualitative research, even in the relatively new field of online qual, has traditionally been conducted after the moment or experience of interest has taken place. Participants are asked to report what they saw or experienced, how it made them feel, what they recall about the brands and people they encountered, and so on. This questioning and interrogation, which typically takes place days or even weeks afterwards, can lead to inaccurate reporting and memory lapse.

The first, and foremost, problem with this method of reporting is that it relies heavily on the notoriously fickle human memory. Memory is affected by many things, including fatigue, emotion, environment, attention and other factors. As far back as 1860,Laycock T., in his paper titled Mind and Brain, noticed that a lot of perception memory and behaviour occurs without consciousness, deliberation or will.

Observing Tribes

One solution to this problem is ethnography, or as its modern counterpart has become know, self-ethnography. Ethnography is a research tool borrowed from anthropologists which sees a researcher spending hours or days with a participant or family (tribes), observing them in their natural environment, going about their daily lives and rituals. Ethnographers will record and document every moment, every interaction, every behaviour, and every decision the participants make. The researcher might accompany the participant to a car showroom or supermarket, for example, or just spend time in their home observing them preparing the family dinner.

Ethnography has the ability to uncover some big stuff: instead of just capturing the customer's thoughts and opinions (meta-thoughts, as it were), researchers are able to see, record, and analyse the full range of behaviours and interactions. Every interaction with a brand or consumer product is a complex event; location, accompanying actors, time, mood, and response are just a few of the incredibly important contextual data that enrich the insight gleaned.

It's not easy for participants to remember all of these things in an interview or a focus group that takes place after the event. And many people's actions actually contradict their self-reports; not because they're trying to mislead the researcher, but because they see their actions in a different way than they might be interpreted by a more objective observer or by using neuroscientific research methods.

As you can imagine, this is a very time and labour-intensive endeavour, and consequently can be very costly. What’s more, having one or two people with cameras and notepads following you around all day is likely to result in unnatural and forced behaviours. Therein lies the big challenge (yep, another one!).


The Consumer As Researcher

Enter Self-ethnography and Customer Experience Tracking. When consumers turn into the researchers and report their everyday lives and experiences, research professionals are better able to understand what motivates them to make decisions, and how they feel and think in-the-moment. You can even begin to gauge happiness, a key new contextual measure that’s long been forgotten.

The rise of mobile and device-agnostic research technology like Tandem has enabled this new and exciting way to follow and observe consumer behaviour close-up without the need to physically be there. Ethnographers need no longer be in the field; now consumers are the researchers and collaborators, effortlessly (and naturally) capturing and sharing their own lives, minute by minute. SMS-based, device-agnostic, and app-based mobile research software enables the consumer to record their brand every moment and interactions as it happens, and with higher-quality contextual data.

For example, say you want to understand opportunities within food categories. Consumers could be tasked with taking video of their meal preparation times, or rituals during the day that involve food. At the same time, they would record their emotional state, how they feel about what took place, and why they did what they did. This would see the data captured as close to the moment as possible when the mood and emotion is current. More details of the interactions and greater richness around the emotion is captured.

Always-On, In Real-Time

It's this type of always-on, real-time customer experience tracking, enabled by software like ours, that lets researchers build a rich and colourful picture of consumers' lives and their multitude of experiences and interactions. In the past, the focus of researchers was on touchpoints from brands, most of which took place once the consumer was already in the acquisition funnel, giving those companies skewed results. By capturing real-time updates from a variety of participants, researchers can tell a fuller and more cohesive story of consumers' lives and what motivates purchase decisions.


The principles that drive traditional ethnography are alive and well in the connected world. No matter which style of mobile ethnography you use, remembering to place the emphasis on lives, rituals, habits, behaviours, feelings and emotions, and not just the brand touchpoints, will help you uncover the real truths that make a difference. There's a danger of over-simplifying your understanding of consumer behaviour, and of narrowing the focus of qualitative research to specific times and places. Taking advantage of the full spectrum of capabilities afforded by device-agnostic research technology provides the insights needed to really get a handle on what's happening in customers' lives and how it affects their decisions.

For more information on how Self-ethnography can get you closer to the truth and help you make better decisions, contact or call +44 (0) 20 3515 3301 , +1 310 853 6986 or Let's Talk

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