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Mobile Diaries Versus Mobile Ethnographies

By Joanna Jones

Since COVID-19 restrictions have largely shut down in-person qualitative research, including common methodologies such as focus groups, in-depth interviews, UX research, and in-home/store ethnographies, the market research industry has quickly pivoted to doing the majority of our research using digital and online methods. This is a fortunate development – that we have so many tools at our disposal that allow us to still accurately capture people’s sentiments and behavior – but it also leaves a lot of questions about methodologies and tools that are the best fit for research studies.

Recently, a research colleague and I were chatting, and the question of mobile diaries versus mobile ethnographies came up in our conversation. We realized, through our chat, that the distinction isn’t actually that clear, and if it’s confusing to us two, who are seasoned researchers, certainly it must be confusing to others, as well. In response to that conversation, I thought I should write a blog to discuss the two methodologies and break down their differences, similarities, and when to use which one.

What are mobile ethnographies?

First off, let’s start with mobile ethnographies. Here at InterQ, we use mobile ethnographies quite frequently – they’re one of our favorite tools to employ when we’re trying to capture how people use apps or websites to shop, real-time experiences that people have using a product or service, or longitudinal studies, where we’re tracking an experience over time (such as driving and needing to frequently charge an electric vehicle).

A mobile ethnography is an app that users download. We onboard our participants, and we partner with a vendor that has an extremely intuitive platform for users. Then, our users are sent questions throughout the course of the study to respond to. Typically, studies last 5-7 days, and respondents will be sent anywhere from 3-5 questions a day on their mobile ethnography app. They respond with short video responses (within the app they simply record their selfie-video response), written notes, pictures, or screen-recordings of their phone (great for seeing how they use a website or app!). This tool thus allows us to capture real-time feedback from respondents over a period of time, and it’s incredibly useful. Following the mobile ethnography study, we then interview participants in an in-depth interview. This allows us to go through their responses in more detail and ask further questions about what they shared with us on the mobile ethnography app. Combined, it’s a brilliant way to get both in-the-moment feedback, as well as have a deeper conversation about peoples’ experiences and impressions.

Examples of studies using a mobile ethnography app platform

We’ve used mobile ethnographies in studies ranging from people’s experiences while flying on airlines, all the way to how people respond to email marketing campaigns. To illustrate how useful the mobile ethnography platforms are, I’ll give a quick recap of the airline study we did. (This study was presented at CES in 2020 by Delta’s CEO, so we’re allowed to share the details of it.)

For the airline project, Delta wanted to understand at which points people feel the most stress while flying. We equipped 40 passengers with the mobile ethnography app, and we sent them Fitbits to wear, so we could track their heartrates (elevated heartrate is a biometric indicator of stress). Respondents answered approximately 10 questions over the course of their flight day on their app. We received illuminating videos of exactly how their flight was going, where they were feeling stress, and how they were feeling, in the moment. We then paired these responses with their uploaded Fitbit data and were able to corroborate points of stress with where they were in their flying journey. At the end of the study, we debriefed with them in an in-depth interview.

The methodology of pairing mobile ethnographies with passengers’ flying experiences gave Delta incredibly rich feedback that they wouldn’t have been able to get from a survey or focus group. Why? Because it was completely based on real-time feedback and was done in-the-moment. The insights that Delta learned from the study spurned new innovations to help them decrease passenger stress while flying.

This is just one example of how useful mobile ethnographies can be in market research. Now let’s compare mobile ethnographies to mobile diaries.

What are mobile diaries?

Mobile diaries have evolved in the past few years, and many platforms are now very similar to mobile ethnography platforms. Mobile diaries also allow users to record and capture in-the-moment feedback through video responses, pictures, and uploads, but they often include a website log-in desktop component. Whereas mobile ethnography platforms are typically just that – mobile apps for use when people are on-the-go or recording impressions over a period of time – mobile diaries typically include a website where users can log in to post their responses, respond to research questions, participate in forum discussions with a researcher and other participants, and respond to daily surveys or polls. Additionally, mobile diaries are often delivered in more of a survey format – with multiple choice questions or simple open-ended response options that limit characters. For really large studies, with hundreds of participants, this allows researchers to quantitatively collect data based on the survey responses.

An additional common setup in mobile diaries is to use a three-step process to collect information: 1. A pre-survey that helps establish a baseline of users, 2. A check-in feature that allows users to upload (or type in on a desktop) their experiences and answer questions, and 3. A post-study exit survey that records any changes in impressions or attitudes people may have.

So: Which is better? A mobile ethnography or a mobile diary?

Both mobile ethnographies and mobile diaries are ideal methodologies any time a brand is trying to learn about behavior and impressions – as they’re happening. If your research question includes the following, then mobile ethnographies or mobile diaries are an ideal tool:

  • How do people experience a brand or product?
  • How do they react to marketing campaigns?
  • How do they use an app, especially over a period of time?
  • Where, during a journey or over a period of time, do people get frustrated?

Which one to choose will depend on the specifics of your study. Choose a mobile diary if you want to include quantitative survey data, prefer that people answer some (or all) questions on a computer (versus a phone), and if you have a lot of multiple- choice questions.

If you want to understand how people use an app or website (on a phone), respond to experiences over time (such as charging a car, flying, or physically shop), then mobile ethnographies have the most robust app tools.

However, often the choice of whether to do a mobile ethnography or a mobile diary study is researcher-dependent. Some researchers prefer one over the other, depending on their past experiences and the vendors they use. If you’re unsure, talk through what you’re trying to learn and what type of deliverable you’re looking for with your research vendor, and they’ll be able to recommend the best fit.

Whether you choose a mobile ethnography or mobile diary study, be assured that you’ll be getting extremely rich insights that capture behavior and impressions, in real-time.

Interested in mobile diaries or mobile ethnography studies? Request a proposal today >