Mobile Ethnography—the Fast, Non-Creepy Path to Consumer Insight

At its best, commercial and corporate ethnography provides insights into the particulars of daily life. What are peoples’ rituals, their frustrations, their habits, the disrupters to habits? These are the insights that can drive the success and minimize the adoption problems associated with new products and services.

We can and do engage in much of that work within the confines of our online communities, inviting members to discuss, upload images and videos, brainstorm, journal, etc. But we know that there’s no substitute for in-the-moment, in-context observation. That’s why historically, ethnographers – serving primarily as observers (though minus the creepy suits and glowing scalps of these guys from Fringe)  – often temporarily move in with a family or simply follow them around), in order to more closely note the compensation, workarounds, and rituals associated with a specific product or task.

But the smart phone, Flipcam, and YouTube have collectively deputized ordinary people to become participant observers, and not just of the lives of others, but of their own lives. And by engaging them as participant/observers of their own lives, it lets THEM engage in the useful comparison between what they say, what they think they do, and what they actually do.

For the past year we’ve been using a mix of mobile survey and ethnography tools with members of our communities, in projects typically ranging from 2-7 days, with a focus on in-context, in the moment observations, including these:

  • Shoppers have taken us to the store, showing us what they’re seeing on the shelves, what they bought on impulse and why, what displays caught their eyes, etc.;
  • Moms have shown us videos of their children at play, and told us real-time stories (with pictures) of those “help me” parenting moments when they desperately need a tip for coping with a child melting down over a lost barrette or tearing off his diaper the moment it’s put on;
  • Weary and demanding frequent business travelers have sent us real-time dispatches of the sights, smells, and behaviors that have delighted or disappointed them in their hotels. They’ve even taken us out on the town with them when they have a night to kill in a strange city. (Curb your imaginations, readers. I know what some of you were thinking!)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis suffers have chronicled their daily medication regimes – not just what they take when, but where they store their meds, and what measures they take to be compliant during the work day or when travelling.

What I like about this last example in particular is that it illustrates two key points. First, by deputizing our members to serve as self-ethnographers, we’re getting to go places – like into their bathrooms and medicine cabinets – that we might not have been invited to go as participant-observers. We got more access and visibility than we might have gotten through a conventional ethnography.

Second, this illustrates why private online communities and mobile ethnography play so well together. We, as community facilitators, had to earn the right to see into our members’ medicine cabinets. And we only earned it by virtue of having a long-term, reciprocal relationship with them, in a small, intimate, private environment where they felt safe and trusting enough to share it.

In short, all of the insight with none of the creepiness. Who could ask for anything more?