The rise of smartphones has given researchers a glimpse into the hitherto private lives of smartphone users through the pictures or videos that users have taken of themselves.

This, in turn, has given rise to Mobile Ethnography, a powerful tool used in conducting remote ethnographic research.

There needs to be some clarification about the principles and definition of Mobile Ethnography due to similar terms that seem to refer to or mean the same thing. To provide clarity, we put together this guide to understanding the concept of Mobile Ethnography.

What is Mobile Ethnography?

Mobile Ethnography is the process by which researchers recruit individuals who use smartphones. These respondents are now tasked with recording everyday activities, such as their behaviors and emotions concerning a specific research topic.

It is a non-invasive methodology that allows researchers to simultaneously monitor the everyday lives of different people in various locations.   

Mobile ethnography is a qualitative research method that employs technology to record, analyze and derive implications of real-time customer experience. Therefore it’s often applied in the context of service design.

Unlike traditional ethnography, where a researcher has to be present for observations, mobile ethnography uses the participant’s mobile device to collect user-centered information. This allows the participant to become active researchers and report experiences in real time. Mobile ethnography follows the principles of user-centered design.

Mobile ethnography is an innovative market research technique that combines traditional ethnography as we know it, which involves observing customers in their natural environment to clearly understand their actions, behavior, values, and beliefs. The growth of technology and increasing smartphone adoption presents an opportunity to conduct ethnography projects through a mobile device.

The advent of 4G and varying robust data packages, messaging apps, and the eruption of social networking have contributed to the adoption of Mobile Ethnography as a methodology.


Benefits & Risks to Mobile Ethnography

Mobile ethnography provides several advantages to in-person research for the following reasons:

Organic Data

The data derived from Mobile Ethnography is natural as the physical presence of the researcher, which would have inhibited natural behavior, is removed with this method.

As the smartphone is always with the users, there is an alignment with their schedules and familiarity with messaging with their phones, ensuring more natural responses.

Advanced Reach

Mobile devices continue to be spread with a vast and growing reach that traditional research can not achieve. Therefore the restriction brought on by the different locations is resolved with Mobile Ethnography because respondents can participate remotely through multiple touch points in their customer experience journey from any part of the world.  

Improved Engagement

Everyone constantly has their mobile phones with them, the same as consumers. Smartphones have become a constant in our everyday routine; from mindlessly scrolling through their phones or surfing the internet mindlessly, smartphones have become a daily practice. A report from  Statista shows 83% of the world’s population will be smartphone owners. This fosters more engagement as giving feedback and communicating with researchers is easier.  

Offers Flexibility 

The flexibility of providing feedback in your comfort zone at your own pace (depending on the research goal) allows for a richer capture of varying occurrences in your daily routine. 


One of the most significant advantages of mobile ethnography over traditional research methods is the absence of high costs. This allows focusing on more vital issues, like the number of respondents, the participant mix, etc. With the mobile phone, user experiences can be retrieved and analyzed from any location without the associated cost of logistics, accommodation, and welfare. 

Real-time Value

Mobile ethnography tools allow effective engagement in real-time as they are empowered to provide feedback and submit their results freely through their mobile phones. Researchers can now engage respondents in real-time as they are authorized to report their experiences freely using their mobile devices. On the hand, researchers can also give instructions, make changes and guide participants in effectively in real time. 

Despite the apparent benefits of Mobile Ethnography, there are also associated risks when compared with traditional ethnography:


The reliance on participants to self-administer the surveys can lead to omissions based on how the participants gauge the importance of the captured data.


Mobile ethnography is only as effective as the technology within its reach.

Low-Quality Data

Constant interruptions from other apps and tools installed on the participant’s phones can affect the completion rate and the quality of captured data.

Mobile Screen Display 

The way the survey is rendered on various mobile phones depends on, to a large extent, the  Mobile screen display. Some functions may not show correctly, there may be limited displays, and the need to zoom in and scroll excessively may affect the user experience and limit their form seeing all the options required. This can compromise the quality of data. 

Demographic Bias

Mobile solutions tend to sway toward a younger, tech-savvy populace. This can be limiting if your target is elderly or lower class. Finding respondents comfortable with digital tools within this demography might take much work.


How Do You Use Mobile Ethnography?

Mobile ethnography projects possess a significant amount of flexibility in how they are conducted and structured.

Mobile Ethnography apps use geo-fencing, where an app or software is pre-programmed to trigger an action. In this case, a survey pops up when a person visits a particular location or where a product or advertising is present. Other approaches involve qualifying the targeted participants, designing the various stages, and conducting follow-up research, all in a bid to understand the customer journey from start to finish entirely.

There are several use cases for mobile ethnography. 

Here are some examples:

Unboxing, Setup, and Installation Research

Assembling furniture and toys can sometimes be overwhelming, especially when the advert that inspired the purchase says that the product can be completed flawlessly in 30 mins. However, you are still struggling 2 hours later when you get home. Hence knowing and understanding how your customers feel about your product or process, their joys, or pinpoint is vital.

Mobile ethnography gathers in great detail the actions and real-life experiences, perceptions, and emotional responses they have about a process. It usually begins in the qualifying stages, from receiving the box or package, unboxing, reading the manual, installing the product, and finally using it.

The essence of observing all these steps is to improve the customer experience by fine-tuning these processes. Best of all, the process can create marketing content for your brand by unboxing videos that others can watch that may influence them to purchase.

Customer Journeys

It is also a tool for studying long-term customer journeys. This can be especially useful for products with a high purchase cost, which people qualify as investments. They must be sure before making any financial commitment. Some product categories are high involvement, such as cars, holidays, and financial services. So documented videos and images are needed to influence buying decisions.

Understanding Shopper Experience

For purchases we would often classify as spontaneous buying or shopping, the mobile shopper experience research can uncover the real reason for your desire to go on a shopping spree. Here, you can now see how your store layout, visual merchandising and product description, and overall store ambiance all work together to inspire your purchase.

UX Testing

Mobile Ethnography is a terrific way to track user experience and the usefulness or usability of your product. This is useful when you launch a new product, have your website go live, release a new app, etc. Mobile ethnography captures deep user experience, and quick resolution is achieved.

Understanding Consumer Groups

Marketers usually adopt product tags to depict an understanding of the demography/psychography of clients who are frequent product users. For instance, sodas and fizzy drinks are tagged to millennials.

Mobile ethnography collaborates or defines the accurate picture of your targeted customer and sees if they genuinely match your fictional persona.

Product Testing

Smartphones allow researchers to observe consumer interactions with a new product, from opening the box to set up to use in everyday life. They can keep the consumer’s emotions through those processes and identify any issues they might have and if they are using the product as intended. Ultimately, that feedback can help companies improve their products.


What Are The Key Features and Functions of Mobile Ethnography Platforms?


The platforms for mobile ethnography administration vary. However, some features are broadly included in most platforms that support mobile ethnography.

Image Capture

Mobile phone users and subsequent brand customers may take pictures of their activities to express their interests. It could be random images of adverts or products on your wish list. Sometimes these images are just forms of expression regarding their feelings about the product.

Video Capture

Videos are one of the ways consumers can capture events in their lives by filming their regular activities.

Audio Recording

Audio recordings can also be used as an alternative or to supplement images, and text, by voice recording their thoughts or feelings as they embark on different activities related to their research. For photos, participants can add voice to the pictures or a soundtrack. Mobile ethnography can also capture audio recordings of sounds related to the study.


With notes taking apps on their phones, consumers can use text or notes to enrich their captured images, audio, and videos. Notes can also be recorded on the go to capture activities as they occur.


Diaries are a way to capture memories and add comments and analysis of their actions—this help researchers to observe activities in their respondents’ lives through their words aptly describing their experiences.

Diaries are also ideal for longitudinal studies, especially for activities that evolve, like the birth of a baby and its growth to a toddler, teenager, and adulthood.

Mobile Screen Recording Function

This function captures all the actions a consumer carries out on their phone. Any online research, internet surfing, and the actual online purchase are all recorded with the screen record function.


Respondents can receive notifications and updates from their researchers while the survey is underway. With mobile ethnography apps, tasks can be assigned, questions asked, and more in real time.


The mobile ethnography platforms offer features that help with analysis to clarify results—searching and filtering options by demographics, tags, and other vital metrics.


Some platforms provide transcription of the audio or video parts of the data captured as a feature and can connect transcribed results to the original file.


Some mobile ethnography providers are linked with online qualitative communities or sample sources. This gives you access to the consumers with whom to conduct the research and the features and functionality to capture the data.


Social networking is now a part of our lives, as we are literally on our smartphones all day, every day.

This implies that the mobile is ideal for communicating in real time and sharing meaningful moments. Mobile ethnography apps that optimize our familiarity and comfort with social networking provide several advantages.

  • Angela Kayode-Sanni
  • on 9 min read


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