The world of ethnography has changed. Many of us had had our experiences of uncomfortably cramming researchers, clients and camera crew into consumer’s homes in an attempt to field “natural,” organic research. But thanks to digitally-based ethnography, those days are gone. Or are they?

The Situation

R&D; Insight had the recent opportunity to collaborate with a local consulting firm on a customer experience journey mapping study for a Fortune 500 food processing firm.

The Methodology

  1. Participants were pre-qualified via an online survey which originated from the client’s website properties. They were then carefully screened for the study by a professional recruiting firm.
  2. From there, we leveraged an app for the initial portion of the study, which participants could download to their phone or tablet.
    Over the course of a couple of weeks, participants were instructed to capture quick video segments on their mobile device relating to food-related research situations, then answer quick follow-up questions regarding their experiences.
  3. Finally, we conducted interviews with participants to further clarify and expand upon their experiences.

The App-Based Assessment

From a researcher perspective, this general approach overall worked well and we gained some valuable, comprehensive insight that benefited the client and appeared to not only meet, but exceed their research goals. However, with any research methodology, there were pros and cons to the approach.

There were many benefits to using the app and overall digitally-based ethnography methodology, including the following.

  • Contextually-Based: Participants provided all different types of “in-the-moment” video segments as we had
  • Research Breadth & Convenience: We were able to obtain a variety of geographically-based input from diverse participants. They were able to conveniently submit the research segments according to their busy schedules, which resulted in good response (i.e., some moms submitted segments at night after their kids went to bed, and several who worked focused on research during free time on weekends).
  • Monitoring & Reporting: Near real-time video submission gave us the ability to regularly monitor our participant submissions via an online dashboard. We could then quickly get in touch with participants if we had follow-up questions, needed to provide guidance on direction, or noticed a lag in response. Our clients also appreciated viewing video and reporting outputs.

However, there were also some cons (a.k.a. lessons learned).

  • Slow Start-Up: Most of the participants were very slow in starting the app-based research. For some reason, the task of downloading the app and getting going appeared daunting, even though it was actually very quick and simple. Next time, we would walk them through this piece. And, we would also ensure enough time and effort is built into the project for ongoing communication with participants throughout, for lots of feedback (and encouragement!).
  • Limited Video: The app we used limited video length, so sometimes people were cut off, or only provided limited discussion. This resulted in some variation among the quality of our participants’ submissions.
  • Technology vs. In Person: In the end, the video served as background and context for our interview discussions, which became key to wrapping up the project. We felt that in the instance of this research, the app-based ethnography would not have worked as standalone research.

The Conclusion

Overall, R&D; Insight believes digitally-based ethnography has its time and place. It is extremely convenient, contextual and can serve as an excellent source of initial fielding. However, at the end of the day, old-fashioned human exchange – discussion involving the opportunity for probing and two-way exchange, likely can’t be replaced. What do you think?

*Following are sample images for context, actual study-specific data is confidential.