6 tips for doing a digital ethnography

Ethnographic study

Ethnography is a research method that explores the culture of specific groups of people and individuals. It typically requires the researcher to shadow their research subject with minimal interference in order to provide an in-depth, honest and detailed representation of the subject’s behavior. For UX researchers and designers, this can be an incredible tool to empathize with and further understand your user group. However, ethnographies can be challenging given limited time and budgets.

By using a tool like dscout, a mobile research app, you can perform a mobile ethnographic study remotely. In dscout, researchers create a set of questions for participants to answer on their mobile devices, and participants are required to answer these questions using the app. While traditional ethnographic studies require the researcher to be on-site performing fieldwork, a mobile ethnography allows the researcher to engage with participants without being in the same geographical location.

However, there are risks and challenges that come with mobile ethnographies. Here are some ways to mitigate these risks and get better insights from your mobile study:

1. Craft your questions carefully

Participants will be submitting answers and entries by answering your questions on an app. Make sure your questions explore the context of their behavior – from environment, emotion, motivation, time and previous experiences. These are all important facets that may be more naturally captured on-site than remotely.

2. Keep the questions open-ended

Similar to a user interview, making your questions as open ended as possible while still giving your participants enough context will enable them to provide you with as much information as possible on their actions and thoughts.

3. Allow for a variety of mediums

The unique advantage of mobile ethnography using an app is that participants are able to use their phone as a tool to present their experiences to the researcher. Researchers can capture data and observations that may not be available to you in an on-site ethnography. By allowing participants to submit their answers in a variety of mediums such as audio, video and photos, you’ll open the door to better context on their submissions and have great artifacts on hand (like instant video transcription!) for presenting your research.

4. Don’t rely solely on the mobile research

Relying on the mobile research alone can be dangerous, as you’re working with entirely self reported data through a single device. Time permitting, a debrief interview with your participant is a great way to go over the entries submitted throughout the mobile ethnography and receive better insight. It can also aid in verifying the details of entries if there are uncertainties or inconsistencies. Sometimes, the opportunity to reflect and look back on the entries will give the participant a chance to bring up new thoughts and ideas that may not have come out during the initial exercise.

5. Use the communication channels within the app

Apps like dscout allow the researchers to speak to the participants through its messaging feature. This can be a great way to create a dialogue with your participants, send prompts and ask them questions. It also allows participants to reach out for help and support as needed.

6. Be wary of increasing your sample size

With the use of a mobile ethnography, researchers are empowered to have many subjects performing in a study at the same time. Although it may be tempting to increase your sample size, be wary of how many participants you’re engaging. Ensure you have enough resources and time to dedicate to each participant. Your goal should be to receive the same amount of depth as you would with an on-site ethnography.

Mobile ethnography can be a powerful tool in a researcher’s arsenal. The key opportunity is to use the mobile aspect of it as a way to enhance your research. It has its shortcomings and may not be able to deliver the richness of a typical on-site ethnography, but can be incredibly impactful when used effectively.