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.