Shaken not Stirred: Leveraging the Mobile to Optimize Traditional Ethnography Research.

Shaken not Stirred: Leveraging the Mobile to Optimize Traditional Ethnography Research.

Scientist  known that the best way to make  a vodka martini is to mix the ingredients with a thin wooden spoon—it combines the ingredients effectively without raising the drink’s temperature the way a metal stirrer would.But this does not deter James  Bond,the world’s most sophisticated martini drinker,routinely order his cocktail “shaken ,not stirred”?

Similarly this paper argues that when the tenets of traditional ethnography are shaken with the elements of ‘mobile ethnography’ this can result in a potent drink for the connoisseur!

‘Ethnography is a research method located in the practice of both sociologists and anthropologists ,and which should be regarded as the product of a cocktail of methodologists that share the assumption that personal engagement with the subject is key to understanding a particular culture or social setting.’ (The SAGE Dictionary of social Research Methods – 2006)

Ideally a good ethnography   research yields insight on the following:

  1. An Overview of the ‘material culture’: What products and services do people use?
  2. An overview of ‘behaviors’: What do people do?
  3. An overview of the ‘deep structure’: Why do people do what they do? To map how context impacts behavior.

While anthropologists and sociologists understand that to understand the ‘deep structures’ it is important to live among of enquiry. As by living among the subject researchers   can understand.

  1. What people do versus what they say they do?
  2. The why or the underlying motivation beyond what people do?

However, over the last couple of decades ,’ethnography’ as practiced by market research companies has become  distilled into short dips  of a couple of hours into peoples’ lives.

This usually is inadequate to yield insights about the ‘deep structure’ and to address the question that forms the heart of research i.e.

  1. Why people do what they do?
  2. To map how context impacts behavior?

An ‘ethnography’ as practiced by market research companies suffers from the following challenges:

  1. The very act of observation in fact often results in a bias or a change in behavior i.e. the Hawthorne Effect e. human subjects behave in special ways because they knows they are subjects of an investigation.
  2. Observer and interpretation bias that sometimes creeps in despite use of experienced

While no technique all good or bad, this is couple with on occasion poor analysis has over the years resulted in increased client disenchantment with the technique. But with the advent of technology especially mobile it is now possible to push the boundaries of traditional ethnography and get superior insights.

In this paper, based on the idstats mobile ethnography experienced across categories, markets and indeed continents the author argues the case to use mobile ethnography as an alternative to traditional ethnography.

What makes Mobile suitable as a Substitute for ‘Traditional Ethnographic research’?

At idstats we have been using mobile ethnography along with traditional ethnography or indeed mobile ethnography followed by traditional consumer immersions since 2012 to understand consumer lives and context for our clients within Asia and beyond. This approach has also been successfully leveraged for in the moment product research’ especially in the area of new product development and innovation and has yielded much deeper insights than traditional research.

Running is successful mobile ethnography project is however very challenging and often contingent on:

  1. Quality of respondent selection,
  2. Respondent onboarding to become a behavioral detective
  3. The framing of the questionnaire
  4. Sustained participant engagement

However, when done right it is invaluable in helping the researcher build a personal engagement with the consumer and helping the researcher understand the consumer’s life over an extended period of time with only minimal invasion to the ‘privacy’ of the consumer. Both observational and interpretation bias are also lower. 

What makes this possible is:

Mobile ethnography helps us observe real behavior  in its natural setting to get to a deeper learning:

Seeing life as it happens in the real world is the promise of ethnography research.In commercial practice,as shared earlier often a brief two- hour interaction ,most of which is spent in the respondent’s living room. This is sub optimal to get a true picture of respondents’ lives and dig into their conscious and subconscious motivator.

In the moment mobile data multimedia data capture i.e audio text and video data capture, makes its possible to accompany people when and where they live their lives:at the office, in the shopping malls and indeed in the kitchen.One can see where they really go and witness in-context interactions and how they are feeling in the moment.Mobile ethnography ,thus provides a platform to understand and create an ethnographic map of people’s lives and their context.

Mobile ethnography helps us access deeper thoughts and build richer consumer involvement:

In most mobile ethnography project respondents are required to text and photo or videos or audio. This results in consumer sharing richer and often more profound data.

Further as compare to face-to-face research which is entirely of the moment, mobile research allow a respondent to really weigh a question ,sleep on it ,and come up with  something significant .This in turn facilitates a deeper level understanding of consumer life, context  and decision making.

Mobile ethnography helps us capture content that can be shared in real time with all stakeholders:

Mobile ethnography also enables all members of the client team to have a real time access to the data i.e. read and watch videos from participants all over the planet and even interact with them. Thus the approach has many of the same benefits that come from meeting consumer’s face to face research. But without the restriction on the number of people who can observe the immersion in the real time.

Looking at the Other Side of the Coin

However, ‘mobile ethnography’ is not without critics. The key objection this framework is that ‘mobile ethnography ’is based on auto self –ethnography a form of self- reflection.

This has been in pockets evoked a strong resistance to this methodology as humans are prone to generalizations  deletions and distortions and thus poor witnesses of their own behavioral intensions and poor judges of their performance and future intensions. Hence many old school researchers have rejected mobile ethnography as a substitute to traditional ethnography.

However when done is right, it is indeed a great alternative or even a complement to traditional ethnography!

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