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Using mobile ethnography research to understand what people do, think and feel

When it comes to choosing a method of market research, you have lots of choices: interviews, surveys, focus groups, observation, trials, data analytics, sentiment analysis, and even virtual reality. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by choices.

But if you’re looking to get the highest-quality data in the least amount of time, digital self-ethnography stands out as the obvious choice. Let’s take a look at why it’s the best way to go and how to get started.

What is mobile ethnography research?

Ethnography, in short, is the practice of spending a long period of time with a subject group in order to better understand their culture, interactions, behaviours, decisions, thoughts, and opinions. Because this is an extremely time-intensive process, the modern practice of self-ethnography has become more widely adopted.

In this method of ethnography, the consumer becomes the researcher. Consumers are asked to record their thoughts, feelings, and decisions on a regular basis through guided journaling, shooting video from their mobile, responding to prompts, and other research methods.

There are a few reasons why mobile ethnography research stands out as a great way to collect market research data.

1. You can observe and ask

More traditional ethnographic studies were designed to observe the participant in their natural habitat. So as not to disrupt the day-to-day habits and rituals of the participant, the researcher didn’t ask questions, they just watched and recorded. Using web apps and smartphones, it’s much easier to both observe but also ask questions over a longer period of time. This adds colour to the picture you’re painting and saves time and money.

2. It’s fast

If a consumer has an interaction with your brand or another experience that you’d like documented, it’s going to be to your advantage to find out about it right away. The longer you wait, the more likely your consumer is to forget that experience.

Collecting data via a smartphone means that your subjects can give you information any time. They can record a video and tell you about a billboard they saw on their commute to work. Or they can tell you how they felt about a particular advert on TV. These things can be done milliseconds after the event or experience, before your subject forgets any details.

3. The platform can be customised to your participants

No matter how your participants like to communicate, you can find a way for them to engage in self-ethnography. With all of the options available, you’ll be sure to find something that works well for your sample. You could have your participants send their data via emails, blogs, social media, or even by leaving a voicemail.

You could ask for reflections, send short surveys, have a standard set of multiple-choice questions, use numerical rating scales . . . the possibilities are almost endless.

4. You get a lot of great contextual data that leads to decisive insight

When you collect ethnographic data, you’ll get a lot of information like context, geographic location data etc. While it takes time to sift through all of the data you’ve collected, you’ll almost certainly end up more contextual information that any other research technique can deliver.

One of the advantages of using qualitative research methods is that you often get answers to questions that you weren’t even asking or looking for; using relatively open-ended questions or allowing participants to leave comments means you can get information on issues that you weren’t aware of when you started.

Mobile Ethnography researchCreating a mobile ethnography research study

If you’ve decided to use a self-ethnography, it’s time to start planning. Before you begin, there are a few questions you need to answer.

1. What do you want to know?

Obviously, this is an important question. What are you trying to get at? Do you want to know how consumers are using your product?

Or a competitor’s product? Are you looking to understand their experiences of a brand over time? How they feel about a specific form of advertising? How much they know about a certain topic?

Keep your research questions and hypotheses front and center as you go through the project; you’ll be more likely to be answer them and be satisfied with your results.

2. What questions will you ask?

You might think that your answer to the question above and your answer to this question will be the same, but spending time thinking about exactly which questions you’ll ask your participants, and how you ask them, is crucial. You’ll likely come up with a lot of research questions. Be careful though, you only want to address a couple of them at one time.

Keeping your questions simple and straightforward is extremely important; if your participants are ever confused and don’t understand what they are being asked to do, the quality of your data will suffer.

3. How will your participants answer your questions?

As we discussed above, there are a lot of different ways that our participants can get their information to you: blog, text, social media, and so on. Figuring out which method will allow your participants to quickly share information with you is an important step. It’s a good idea to talk to a smaller group of consumers who represent your sample to find out what they’ll be comfortable with.

When deciding how to collect your mobile ethnography research data, think about your participants and their lives—how technologically savvy are they? Do they have smartphones? Do they use social media? Are they likely to send a lot of SMS messages? And more importantly, ask yourself the question ‘ Would I do that?’ when asking them to undergo a specific activity

Putting it all together

Creating a successful self-ethnography study requires a lot of forethought and planning—you need research questions and hypotheses, appropriate data collection methods, and questions that are clear, in plain English, but still get you the detailed information and context you want.

When all of those things come together, though, and your study is successful, you’ll get rich insight into how people think, feel and do, and be better placed to make the right decisions and deliver ROI. It takes practice, but it’s worth it.

Want to set up a mobile ethnography research study?

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