Mobile ethnography in practice

Have you tried mobile ethnography yet? I recently did a case study using the Indeemo platform, and before then I had checked out four other platforms. Based on this cumulative experience with mobile ethnography, here’s what I have learned: it works (the platforms are easy and reliable), it’s engaging (for both research participants and research consumers) and it can be very cost-effective compared to other qualitative research options.

New to the concept? Mobile ethnography requires an app on the participant’s phone, which is used to receive notifications and to easily upload text, image and video responses. Depending on the topic, participants are asked to do things such as capture an image of their kitchen during meal preparation or to record how they feel while entering a car dealership. By using an app-based mechanism, an in-person observer is not needed – saving budget and making things more natural for the participant.

Wait, is this really ethnography?

Mobile ethnography as a platform category has its controversies. Is it really ethnography if participants are ultimately choosing what to report and record? Does it meet ethnography’s promise of mitigating the risks of biased self-reporting by using “observation” versus “asking?”

To be precise, calling this “ethnography” is a bit of a stretch since it isn’t pure observation. However, another core attribute of “true” ethnography is observing people in natural environments – and with mobile ethnography, participants engage from where they live, work and play. This isn’t trivial – market researchers have never before had a scalable mechanism for capturing in-the-moment data about experiences and behavior. And that data? It’s an illuminating mix of text, image and video.

Fast, cheap or good?

Definitions aside, the real question for most market research and insights professionals is this: Can I use mobile ethnography to improve my research outcomes? Can I do my work better, faster and maybe even cheaper?

There are many situations where mobile ethnography platforms will allow the researcher to discover and explore customer behavior and experiences better, faster and at a scale never before possible. But the success in any given case, as with any methodology, is highly dependent on the user (in this case, the researcher) and how well they plan and execute the project. A great methodology can’t make up for poor project management.

Six reasons to add mobile ethnography to your methodology toolkit

As a market researcher, I like having many methodologies from which to choose. And if any of the following six mobile ethnography benefits resonate with you, it may be time to for you to do a pilot. A pilot will help you determine if the topics, product categories and populations you focus on would be a good fit.

  • It gets great engagement from participants. People love their mobile phones and many have them handy during all waking hours.
  • It collects authentic, scalable qualitative data like never before. Participants are usually very candid in their selfies and videos (and sometimes astonishingly so). And if the researcher has a qualified group or panel from which to recruit, data collection can be done very quickly at volume.
  • It engages the research consumer (e.g., the business decision maker). This is largely due to the power of video. Having numerous clips of people using your product (or product category) where they use it in the real world is very powerful.
  • It has a secret army. Mobile ethnography’s secret army? The cameras that more than 2 billion people have in their hands thanks to their smartphones (source: Statista). These platforms allow people to engage in interactive research using their preferred device, interface and communications mode. And we researchers get rich text, image and video data. 
  • It is widely available. There are several mobile ethnography platform options. I recently had the opportunity to try out one that was launched in 2017, Indeemo. Previously I had been familiar with options from 20|20 Research, Dscout, Mindswarms and Over the Shoulder. These platforms have a lot in common – all have reasonably intuitive interfaces, collect multiple data types and support scalable qualitative data collection. Differences are mostly related to output, analysis and reporting-related functions (these are also the areas where we will likely see the next wave of advances).
  • It’s affordable. Pricing models vary by brand and absolute pricing varies by project complexity and sample size. But you can get started for $5,000 and I have seen several great projects that were in the $10,000 to $20,000 range (for platform, sample and incentive costs).

College student case study featuring Indeemo

Getting hands-on 

To test out Indeemo, I conducted a small pilot project about college student study behavior (a mock case study for a hypothetical company in the e-learning software category). Ten college students were recruited and participation lasted seven days. Here are a few key learnings, in two categories: lessons specific to mobile ethnography as a methodology and those specific to Indeemo. 

Mobile ethnography learnings: 

  • Recruiting. Be precise about requirements and compliance expectations. Not everyone is willing to take videos of themselves, their homes, etc.
  • Providing video instructions. Tell participants for how long they should record – or you’ll get 80 percent recording 10-second videos and 20 percent recording 10 minutes. Neither extreme is ideal.
  • Moderating. Consistent, daily moderation is essential. I knew this already but this case study amplified the lesson.
  • Conducting analysis. This will be the next generational churn: harnessing new tools to automate coding and analysis of unstructured text, image and video data. But for now, this is still quite time-consuming.

Indeemo learnings: 

  • Setting up is easy. Once you design the activities and when you want them released (once versus daily, etc.), adding them in the platform is simple. If you’ve ever programmed an online survey, this will be a snap. For an example, see Figure 1.
  • Managing participants ensures quality. Reporting features make it easy to know when to send reminders to a group or individual. For example, the “task completion” view makes it easy for the moderator to identify respondents who may be falling behind.
  • Observing is powerful. The Collage View gave me a great at-a-glance way to “observe” at-scale. In this case, at a glance I saw that our students all use laptops (versus desktops or tablets), many study on their beds and many study in dim lighting. See Figure 2.

Indeemo has many other cool features but these are three that particularly boosted efficacy. 

Summary: Mobile ethnography for research rockstars

Based on my Indeemo case study and previous platform experiences, I consider mobile ethnography an excellent option for projects that require two or more of the following: 

  • Discovery of consumer attitudes, behaviors or experiences.
  • Discovery “at-scale” (e.g., I want somewhere between 20 and perhaps 100 or more participants).
  • Reaching populations that are unlikely to be effectively engaged via interviews or focus groups.
  • Collecting visual data (stills, videos) in combination with text data. See Figure 3 for an example of how this looks on my case study project dashboard. 

For the market research and insights professional, mobile ethnography offers another benefit: keeping your methodology skills current. Hiring managers often specify “ability to use new methods” or “identify new and innovative market research techniques” in job postings. Today’s managers value job candidates who can offer more than surveys and focus groups.

Mobile ethnography may blur some lines around the definition of ethnography but that’s fine. It makes up for that by adding authenticity and scale to qualitative research.


Research Rockstar_Korostoff_20180627

Kathryn is passionate about helping all market researchers become Research Rockstars! Contact:, @ResearchRocks