Blog Post

3 Shortcomings of Mobile Ethnography

I've been reading more and more about mobile ethnography. Since everyone seems to own a smart phone these days, why not just have people "research themselves" and send us the information? After all, surely some relevant selfies will show us the true unmet needs of our consumers, right?

I suppose if a company has done NO research on their consumers at all, there might be SOME value in this. On the flip side, a company that has a deep and intense understanding of their consumer might be able to gain some very specific, incremental information by going this route.

But for the 80-90% of companies that don't fall into one of the above categories, is this a valid tool? I have spent hundreds of hours in consumers' homes, listening, watching and interviewing people on a wide variety of topics. Some of these encounters have been quite innocuous (e.g. gardening tools) and others have been extremely personal (e.g. bathroom usage). Regardless of the topic, there are some shared techniques that are required to be effective, that are hard to pull off using only technology. Three key issues are below.

1. You can’t gain trust with the respondent.  - This happens through in-person, conversation. When you make the consumer feel like an expert they will open up and share thoughts with you that they would not do otherwise. This doesn't happen immediately, it takes time. Trust is critical regardless of the study topic.

2. You can’t guide the discussion when you're not there. - You can provide a questionnaire or instructions before you engage with a consumer, but the best interactions flow organically to a natural place. Often, the best learning surfaces mid-discussion when you hear or observe something that is unexpected.

3. You’re limited to what they choose to tell / show you. - The whole reason to do a contextual interview is to see with your own eyes that which the consumer would never think is relevant. They may upload a great photo. But often what is just out of the frame is that which could provide you with an opportunity to gain breakthrough learning.

Technology is wonderful and has certainly opened up doors for consumer understanding that were not available just a decade ago. However, it is critical that we use these techniques in support of  sound research, not instead of it. We've all seen research that falls short because we simply asked consumers what it is they want or need. Mobile ethnography runs the risk of falling into this same trap.

Jerry McColgin, Founder and President


When problems are difficult, we work harder.  When problems are impossible, we call Jerry.

Jerry's built a career on his ability to overcome the biggest, hairiest challenges they could throw at him.  Most of it comes naturally, but his B.S. in industrial engineering from Purdue University and MBA from Ashland University have helped him to apply his gifts to business.

Jerry's first successes came during his 14 years working for Whirlpool corporation.  He started on the floor of a manufacturing plant in Clyde, Ohio, and worked his way up to corporate headquarters in Benton Harbor, Michigan.  His most impressive achievement during his stint at Whirlpool was leading a cross-functional global team in the development of refrigerators to be built around the world.  With all odds against them, the project came in under-budget, ahead of schedule, and exceeded all expectations.  In other words: he did good.

During his time at Whirlpool, Jerry realized he could help other companies achieve massive successes using the same techniques and processes he had learned in his work.  That's when he started his first company, McColgin Consulting.  Since then, Jerry has started 3 businesses, founded the Greater Indy Innovation Roundtable and Indiana Innovation Awards and generated tens of millions of dollars of revenue for the dozens of clients for whom he's worked.

Contact Jerry by email or on Linked In.