What are the Advantages (and Disadvantages) of Ethnography for Mobile Research?

Louise Principe
Jul 08, 2022

Various market research tools and techniques are used to study the consumer. Perceptions, attitudes, behaviors, motivations, and ideals are approached in different ways. However, most research techniques are based on explicit responses of the consumer to questions posed in a ‘laboratory situation’ or outside the environment where interactions with products or brands actually occur.

Faced with this, mobile ethnography proves to be an interesting market research method that allows access to real-time consumer behavior in which all relevant variables are present, allowing a much more accurate and in-depth analysis. It analyzes what the consumer does and not what they say they do, overcoming unreliable factors such as memory errors or the filter of what may be socially and culturally not considered appropriate.

The Impact of Mobile Research 

Today’s mobile technologies allow researchers to document behaviors in natural environments using different methods of mobile ethnography. Ever since the advent of smartphones and their continued rise since 2009, a surge of numerous mobile apps have been available to researchers for the execution of mobile qualitative research.

More respondents can be reached quicker, more frequently, and more efficiently. Immediate input is available to respondents and researchers alike, who can toss out questions or ask for feedback right away. Participants are then enabled with immediate response features, effectively recording their unadulterated in-the-moment insights.

Mobile apps offer the usual functions of sending notes, photos, videos, and audio recordings in an intuitive digital interface that allows for comfortable communication between researcher and participants while facilitating comparison and categorization of data. They may eventually end the time of folders and folders of documents. Now, you can carry all your research material in your pocket.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Mobile Ethnography


1. Improved Reach

Mobile devices continue to be ubiquitous with a growing reach that traditional research still struggles with. There is no longer that logistical restriction in the number of participants or geography encountered with conventional research. The use of mobile ethnography bridges the gap between researchers and remote respondents from anywhere in the world, making it easier to connect with respondents through multiple touchpoints in their consumer journey.

2. Better Engagement

Consumers have their mobile devices with them constantly. Whether scrolling on social media, taking a photo, or sending a text message, smartphones have become indispensable in our everyday routine.

According to database company Statista, 83% of the world’s population in 2022 are smartphone owners. We spend a significant amount of our time on mobile devices, with a seemingly unstoppable year-over-year growth in mobile searches indicating constant and high dependence on mobile devices. This innate comfort in using smartphones allows for more engaged respondents because of how easy it is to provide feedback and communicate with researchers.

3. Flexibility 

The majority of mobile ethnography research activities generally take around 3-4 hours in total to complete. Depending on the research goal, participants have a duration of a few days, weeks, and even up to months to complete the research. Thus, allowing the capture of a more ample range of situations and realities of daily life.

Supplemented by the continued growth of mobile apps, ethnographers are enabled by self-ethnography tools that empower them to conduct customizable and flexible market research studies on mobile.

4. Cost-Effective

One of the biggest advantages of ethnography over traditional offline research methods is that there are no heavy costs of travel, personal time, and equipment. It allows one to focus on the more important factors, such as the number and variety of participants. With a mobile phone, UX and CX can be conveniently studied from any location without the need to pay for a research facility, accommodations, transportation, and food.

5. Real-time Sentiment 

Mobile ethnography tools effectively engage respondents in real-time as they are empowered to report their experiences freely using their mobile devices. Using mobile, researchers can provide the necessary information and instructions to guide participants through activities. This means that you can engage them:

      • Before the Moment
        It can be valuable to know what respondents are thinking before they make a decision. For a qualitative researcher, it is just as important to understand what leads to a decision as it is to know the decision itself.
      • In the Moment
        The beauty of mobile ethnography is being present, even if not physically. You can hear the thoughts of the consumer right at the moment they are exposed to over a hundred visual stimuli in their natural environment, going about their usual activities. Capturing the unadulterated in-the-moment experiences of your consumers is priceless.
      • After the Moment
        Mobile caters to all types of research, even if it’s about gathering feedback after the fact that an activity or event happened. Thoughts and emotions can drastically change after the moment of action. The opportunity to engage or probe the respondent as they immerse in various stages of their buying journey is essential in uncovering authentic, unadulterated insights.


1. Limited Survey Length

Mobile research’s ‘real-time’ advantage could be a double-edged sword when conducting surveys. While mobile can be an effective survey tool, respondents tend to be quick and on the go when using their smartphones. This leads to long-form surveys running the risk of higher incomplete rates due to distractions from other applications, text messages, and other external influences – ultimately driving up costs and lowering the quality of data collected.

2. Mobile Screen Display 

Unlike other digital and in-person methods, the smaller screen of a smartphone doesn’t lend itself well to lengthy pull-down lists or attribute batteries. What respondents see on their displays may be limited when answering complex question designs, often requiring them to excessively scroll, pinch, or zoom on their devices. Inconveniences such as these hinder the respondent’s experience and cause them not to take the time to see all response options. As a result, data quality may be compromised.

3. Demographic Bias

Even though smartphones are commonplace nowadays, some respondents may be less inclined to participate in your study due to technological competency and adoption. Mobile solutions tend to skew towards the younger, affluent, and tech-savvy population segments. For this reason, if you plan to conduct mobile research on an elderly or lower-class sample, it may be difficult to find respondents that are comfortable with using digital platforms or have access to a smartphone.

4. Compatibility Issues 

Mobile apps must be configured to function across various operating systems to prevent a skewed sample. While iOS and Android dominate the market when it comes to smartphones, other mobile devices such as tablets may possess different operating systems (e.g., Linux, Ubuntu Touch, KaiOS) that could be incompatible with your chosen digital platform.

Explore Multiple Options for Conducting Mobile Ethnography With Civicom® Mobile Research 

With the right mobile tools and intuitive features, ethnography can be optimized to its fullest capability, which will drive your study to success. If you’re looking for a way to get a close look at your participants’ natural settings, routines, and key decision moments while eliminating expensive travels and in-home intrusions, Civicom’s Mobile Ethnography solutions are ideal options for various applications.

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