Mobile ethnography enables new human encounters, far from Instagram moments

In the past two years, the COVID pandemic has caused a shift in the distribution between in-person research and digital, remote research. Mobile ethnography, which has been part of our toolkit for a decade, has become the primary tool for engaging with humans in a time of social distance. This increased use during the pandemic has led to new learnings which counter the assumption that data acquired digitally is distorted due to peoples’ tendency to artificially stage themselves on digital platforms, like Instagram or Facebook.

Mobile ethnography holds value far beyond being the ‘second best’ solution where a physical encounter is not an option. As an approach to human encounters, it enables a new type of intimacy between researcher and participant, characterised by honesty and authenticity.

What is mobile ethnography?

Mobile ethnography is qualitative, digital research conducted via participants’ smartphones, with emphasis on uncovering behaviour rather than just attitudes, without the researcher’s physical presence. Based on tasks we share with participants; they document their dynamic lives in continually changing online and offline settings using photos and videos as input. The visual data we collect as a result enables us to imagine and communicate the participants’ own experience from a distance.

Some participants feel even safer behind their screen, and find it easier to share their vulnerability, leading to more honest and authentic representations of their reality.

A digital encounter far from Instagram moments

Now you may be thinking: isn’t the data collected from people documenting their own behaviour biased from the participants’ effort to digitally stage themselves in the best way possible? Of course, data is biased, just as it is in any other type of research. But from our experiences in the previous years with mobile ethnography, we have discovered that the digital format democratises the relationship between researcher and participant: whereas it can be intimidating to have a stranger enter your home in person, with defined questions, and a full view into your private space, the digital format allows the participant to dictate what is visible and invisible. This setup enables a more equal relation between researcher and participant, in which what to share is a matter of trust and choice. Some participants feel even safer behind their screen, and find it easier to share their vulnerability, leading to more honest and authentic representations of their reality.

Five ways mobile ethnography brings value

If you are interested in obtaining a deeper understanding of your existing or potential new customers, mobile ethnography has some obvious strengths. The strengths as we see them can be understood as the five following:  

1) On-the-go: Great for capturing on-the-go or on-location behaviour. Using smartphones on both ends, our researchers can be wherever the participant is and ask them to document the behaviour in context through non-intrusive technology.

2) Sensitive topics: Valuable in researching topics that are experienced as sensitive or even taboo, since the less invasive format makes participants more willing to share intimate aspects of their lives than in a face-to-face encounter.

3) Practice, not ideals: By encouraging participants to document what they do with pictures and videos, rather than describing what they think, we get a look behind the often overly idealistic statements given when asked directly.  

4) Scalability: The digital format of mobile ethnography means almost universal and global reach nowadays, making it ideal for multi-market research — or studies in low population density areas.  

5) Repetition: It’s great for longitudinal studies or tracking, since the digital format is easy to copy without losing comparability whilst still allowing for qualitative nuances.

Digital tools for digital natives?

Mobile ethnography is adaptable so almost anyone can take part — not just the young and tech-savvy. It’s on us as researchers to create a digital setup that ensures inclusivity. We meet people on their turf and terms by adjusting our tools and platforms to engage participants across age and digital competencies.

In September 2020, IS IT A BIRD conducted an independent qualitative study to explore the experience of ageing in Scandinavia. Due to the pandemic, we were forced to engage digitally with our target group of seniors over 60. For this research we went along with each person’s individual preference regarding research platforms. And as result we got more lively and intimate interactions. Mobile ethnography truly brought us valuable interactions, far beyond what is picture perfect, far beyond the Instagram ideal.  

If you're interested in finding out what potentials mobile ethnography holds for your business, reach out to  

This is the first blog post in a series where we will show and discuss our arsenal of engaging remote fieldwork methods from which we stay human-centric even from a distance.