Can Mobile Visual Anthropology Help Researchers Better Understand Consumers?

By the Editors

Mobile phones offer researchers critical features: the ability to gather visual information through photos and video recordings. These features can help researchers develop a much more nuanced understanding of context and customer behavior. The practice of mobile visual ethnography—using pictures and videos to gather important context clues about consumer behavior—is growing.

What is Ethnography and How Has It Adapted to New Technology?
The term ethnography comes from the field of anthropology. It refers to the practice of researchers spending significant amounts of time in the field observing their subjects in order to gather information about everyday behaviors, culture and norms. Over time, ethnography has evolved into a research method with a place in the field of market research. However, conducting field-based ethnographic studies by sending a researcher to observe a consumer in their home or another context isn’t always practical. It can be expensive, time-consuming, and awkward for study participants to be observed in this way.

The development of mobile devices has added new dimensions to the possibilities of ethnographic research. Even when a researcher cannot be on site, video and images can be used to capture contextual information about your survey participants. From providing critical additional data to making it easier to conduct qualitative research, visual mobile ethnography is opening up new avenues of research for brands and agencies.

Five Best Practices for Mobile Video Ethnography
It’s unfortunate that many brands are unfamiliar with mobile video ethnography. What is it, how should these studies be structured, and under what context is the approach best used? In general, there are five best practices and considerations which can help brands navigate this emerging market research technique:

  • Provide an affordable alternative to focus groups and onsite research. One of the primary advantages of mobile visual ethnography is that it provides a viable alternative to focus groups and onsite research. Both of these research modalities offer deeper insights than a simple survey. However, they can require a significant investment of time, research, and travel which not every project warrants. Mobile video ethnography, however, is a flexible and affordable alternative which can expand your research options.
  • Eliminate potential awkwardness and allow for more natural actions. When participants are in a focus group or are trying to go about their day while being observed by a researcher, it’s hard to act natural. However, people today are rarely without their phones. Many people will be more comfortable recording a simple video on their smartphone than spending extended periods of time with a stranger.
  • Capture in-situ. Another advantage of mobile video ethnography is that it allows researchers to see participants in situ. For example, if you’re conducting research on how a participant makes a decision about purchasing detergent in a store and she’s filming, you’ll be able to observe a variety of different factors. What was the store environment like? Was there specific advertising, promotions or other factors in play? What did the shelf layout and organization look like? Ensure that when you are providing instructions to your participants, you give them clear guidance on what context they should use for their work.
  • Recognize potential bias. One important factor to recognize is that there is a possible sampling bias when you conduct this type of study. Not every potential participant has access to a smartphone, the data plan or bandwidth to take and upload video, or the lifestyle flexibility to be able to support this. Mobile phone usage is on the rise, and the proliferation of open WiFi connections is reducing the relevance of this issue—yet for now, at least, it still must be taken into consideration when developing your sampling frame and determining if these factors will limit your potential results in a meaningful way.
  • Strategically structure your questionnaires for maximum insight. As you think about how to structure your questionnaire, consider ways you can maximize the value of video. Ask open-ended questions which invite participants to really focus and showcase their insights. Incorporate an element of “show and tell” by asking participants to share their perceptions of the environment they’re in. Be cognizant of the fact that other people may be around as they’re recording, and advise them to avoid filming individuals who are not part of the study whenever possible.

Mobile visual ethnography provide researchers with travel, budget and time limitations the ability to be “right there” with participants. However, it’s important to take into consideration whether this approach is the right research modality for your project and be systematic in your research design to ensure the best possible results. Contact us today to learn more!