Qualitatively Speaking: Ethnography Goes Digital

December 23, 2010

Qualitatively Speaking: Ethnography Goes Digital

Published in Quirks Marketing Research Review
Research | December 2010

By Gail Ritacco, Product Ventures VP Consumer and Market Research

As the vice president of strategy and insights for a design agency, I am continually evaluating the most effective way to inform and focus our design process. With the many research tools available for product and package design, I have found that digital ethnography-which involves product users blogging about their experiences - provides a time-efficient and cost-effective way for clients to be an anonymous and integral part of consumer research. 

A popular definition of ethnography is found in Hammersley and Atkinson (1995:1): “In its most characteristic form it involves the ethnographer participating, overtly or covertly, in people’s lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions - in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of the research.” 

There are times when in-person contextual observation provides a firsthand understanding of the interactions of people, places and things. The subjects forget that they are being observed and consequently the behavior captured can be very honest and truly representative. Ethnographic observation can take place over time and allows the observer a window into the context of use.

In-person ethnographies are also a better venue for consumer exposure to raw ideas or stimuli. However, in-person ethnographies at times have their limitations. Covert observation is usually confined to places where the observer is unseen, typically in places that are not in-home or where many products and packages are being used. If the observation is overt and in-person, there is a risk that the subject will alter behavior or the habitat based on the artificial nature of the interview.

Additionally, the interviewer will be present only for a stated period of time per day or a designated number of days per week. Unless there are unobtrusive video recordings, the observer cannot be there at each usage occasion.

Detailed chronicles

When executed by trained observers and interviewers, digital ethnographies maintain some of the advantages of in-person ethnographies and even overcome some of the disadvantages. They provide continuous and extremely detailed chronicles of consumer use through online daily diaries that document a user’s experience with a brand or category, without having to actually move into the consumer’s home. 

Participants are recruited based on their usage of a category or brand. Screening is disguised so the subject is not aware of what part of their day or routine will be of interest. Activities are scripted so that bloggers proceed with their daily routine as usual. The only difference is that the participants are creating their online diary, as well as documenting certain events with photos and uploaded videos. Once the behavior is captured, there is additional opportunity to probe what was reported and observed.

Given the anonymity of the online portal, consumers are comfortable openly and honestly detailing their daily interactions. They do not feel observed, they do not feel the need to “clean up” their surroundings - as they might in the presence of an in-person observer - or stage environments or use products and packages only as directed. Rather, they do what they would normally do, since they are truly alone or with the people with whom they usually are when they experience the product or package.

Consumers are able to upload photos and videos, so researchers can watch what happens, including workarounds, and listen to what is said, revealing the articulated and unarticulated consumer wants and needs. Researchers can translate the conversation and observed workarounds into product and package opportunities. Digital ethnographies are also able to maintain the longitudinal nature of traditional ethnographic observation and conversation by engaging consumers over an extended period of time versus the typical in-person interview, which is finite.

Since digital ethnographies are online, the number of viewers of the photos, videos and conversation is unlimited. All project team members are invited to log in to the blog site at their own pace. Based on what they observe, team members can submit their questions and probes to the interviewer, who will query the respondent as appropriate.

Once the interviewer is satisfied that the observation is pure and honest, s/he can probe articulated pain points, observed and stated satisfiers as well as observed but unarticulated pain points. In this way digital ethnographies satisfy the Hammersley and Atkinson (1995:1) definition of ethnography. They provide the window into “people’s lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions - in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of the research.”

Time and a place for both

There is a time and place within the design process for both in-person as well as digital ethnographies, depending on the brand objectives. While digital ethnographies enable anonymous “anywhere, anytime, with anyone” observation, in-person ethnographies could prove a better window into the interaction of people, places and things as well as a venue for consumer exposure to raw ideas or stimuli.

The good news with digital ethnographies is that it is relatively inexpensive to reach out to many participants in multiple locations. With the pervasive speed of technology adoption, connecting with the world via the Internet is easier than ever. And, as we engage in research in the digital age, ethnographic capabilities will no doubt grow even more sophisticated and refined as we seek to perfect and improve upon traditional methodologies.


Gail Ritacco is vice president strategy and insights at Product Ventures, a Fairfield, Conn., brand strategy and design firm.

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