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Mobile ethnography and the curse of the 'over question'

Your client wants to understand how and why people are buying their product in retail stores. So you design a shopper research study using mobile technology and ask participants to share their experiences. However, instead of just letting them shop the natural way, the study was expanded to look at more aspects of the shopping experience and now participants are required to pay attention to the fixtures, the pricing, the signage and the gondolas etc. Worse still, instead of just sharing the moment, your participant is now distracted with five questions to answer during their shop. Sound familiar? 

What’s that coming over the hill…?

Our aim, as online researchers, should be to make it simple for participants to engage with our studies, especially when these studies revolve around mobile ethnography. Allowing participants to share their experiences as easily and as quickly as breathing (or posting on social media) leads to a happier sample and a more genuine reflection of what people are actually doing. However, whilst we want to make things seamless for participants, we also have to focus on certain topic areas and gather vital information, that is what we are being paid to do after all.  The problem is that projects tend to put pressure on researchers to go 'hard-core' on the latter. This can lead to a phenomena we often call, ‘The curse of the over question’. 

In an effort to understand every nuance within an experience, researchers may attempt the impossible and try and ensure participants answer everything they can possibly think of. Not only will this deter even the hardiest and most determined participant, it will likely pollute the very experience that you are often looking to explore (i.e. rather than shopping for shoes ‘organically’, participants are too busy looking at every fixture and fitting around them!). Great mobile ethnography is about allowing participants to engage in their moment, with minimum interference from the researcher, whilst capturing the critical data that you need to make sense of what is happening. This is why effective research is often equal parts science and art.

Thus, we come to the, ‘how to?’ question again. The short version is that it takes practice and experience with design and programming to know just how much you can ask without ‘getting in the way’.

However, fear not, there are some top tips that you can work by:

1) Explore the old with the existing - If you are looking at existing behaviours and habits, make sure that your questions easily allow participants to share what THEY do. Whilst you can add in some questions that ask about new ideas, or focus points they might not normally consider, remember that the more you get them to diverge from their ‘normal’ practice, the more you are leading their behaviour. So, build your activity around one core question or behaviour that you want to explore, and allow participants to express their experience through open ended text questions or video capture. This prevents overloading and over leading.

2) Social sharing - In today’s day and age, thanks to social media, most people are used to sharing their lives through text, photo and video. This means that asking individuals to share their experiences through multimedia is rarely going to be something that is frowned upon or difficult for them to do. However, as the above points cover, this doesn’t mean that you can go to town. Instead, when framing your activity or designing your research, consider how your participants might share their experience if they were posting it to a friend and not you. This allows you to keep the activity fun and personal, whilst also focused on highlighting the areas of interest that participants might be concerned with. If you can combine this concept with the previous point, you will be able to craft exciting yet insightful activities.

3) Unstructured capture - Sometimes the old ways are the best. Traditional ethnography relied upon briefing participants thoroughly and then allowing them to do their thing, with a minimum of interference. When you have the right tools, there is no reason why you can’t do the same thing digitally. Drawing upon platforms that allow participants to share their experiences, through video, text and photo, when they want to, allows them to highlight what matters. Then once they have shared, probe away to your heart’s content. This method really ensures that you aren’t meddling in the moment, but (when used alongside a proper briefing) that you are gathering powerful user focused insight.

Finally, when in doubt, the best guide is to simply try your activity before you unleash it upon your sample. Place yourself into the mind of your participants (e.g. at the end of a stressful day) and see if you (honestly!) feel able to complete the tasks at hand. After that, it all comes down to practice!

Interested to learn more? Well, there's a handy guide to mobile ethnography here that's just waiting for you to download it.

John Whittle

Written by John Whittle

Research specialist by day, sociologist by night. I'm obsessed with finding out the 'why' behind every behaviour, tradition and emotion. Also fun at parties.

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