The first time I drove across the United States, I couldn't help but be struck by how different each state and region feels. Even so, I saw that there were clear commonalities that tie together to make the U.S. a single nation. The closest I've come to gaining a grasp of what makes that nation tick has come from examining both the commonalities and differences between all its people and place. It's been the project of a lifetime to develop anything resembling a coherent and comprehensive of picture of just this one country.
Enter a caption (optional)
Over time, this personal journey to understand the United States led me to examine my professional career, identifying consumer insights for innovation—how can I do qualitative research that enables me to spend time to understand what really motivates people and that gives a more representative picture of the country?
Over the last couple of decades, ethnography and qualitative research have become distilled into short dips of a couple of hours into peoples' lives, often in popular research cities such as Chicago. This type of research relies primarily on self-report by the consumer rather than observation or behavioral analysis. This has made it increasingly difficult to ascertain the kinds of new insights about fundamental shifts in people's needs and motivations that make the work truly valuable.
To gain to new insights and opportunities, we need to think and approach research differently. Digital ethnography can fuel new ideas and research approaches, as my colleagues at antedote and I have seen in the years since we designed and built a mobile and online tool for studies from the ground up. Although digital ethnography has become an umbrella term for a great many online qualitative research tools, we use it specifically to mean a lengthy study (a week or two to several months) with consumers via computer and/or mobile phone, comprised of a blend of observation, live experience-alongs, interviews and user-generated content. Though these elements are common to it, each study has custom elements to it, premised on one big idea: using cutting-edge technology to restore some of the original intent and benefits of ethnography.
Interestingly, the longer we've worked with it, the more we've identified practices that enable digital ethnography to provide an ideal complement and enhancement to other qualitative and quantitative methods. One of the key guiding rules we've found is to gather research based on the strengths of the technology rather than trying to directly translate other research methods to digital.
These are some of the guiding principles we have identified and apply:Observe real behavior in its natural setting to get to deeper learning
Seeing life as it happens in the real world is the promise of ethnographic research. In commercial practice, it's often a brief two-hour interaction, most of it spent chatting in the respondent's living room. The question is, how can we get a true picture of respondents' lives and dig into their conscious and subconscious motivators in two hours? A digital ethnography, by contrast, makes it possible to accompany people when and where they live their lives: at the office, the bar, curled up on the couch with a glass of wine or on a hike. You can see where they really go and witness in-context interactions and even communicate with them in the moment and gather insights that are not available after the fact.
Create space for reflection and dialogue over time to enable greater involvement
Face-to-face research is entirely of the moment. While experienced researchers leave room for respondents to think and consider before they respond, there still isn't time for a respondent to really weigh a question, sleep on it, and come up with something profound. Digital tools allow both respondents and researchers to reflect on their dialogue, get beyond the most immediate answers, and head to a deeper level of understanding. This allows for the development of a relationship between researcher and respondent—the kind of relationship that encourages deeper, richer conversation and sharing.
Capture content that can be quickly shared globally
One challenge to getting qualitative research and insights to affect the parts of the business they are meant to is that the people who need to act on that work often don't get directly involved. It's enormously valuable to get decision-makers in the field—and can also be impractical or impossible. But if a leader can have access to digital ethnography to read and watch videos from participants all over the planet and even interact with them, many of the same benefits that come from meeting consumers face to face can be realized. There is also no limit to the number of people who can observe digital ethnography, while packing twenty-some execs into a twenty-something's apartment is absurd on its face. Giving access to the entire team also creates space for all of them to have input on the study and evolve it as we learn, rather than waiting for the output to raise their concerns. Everyone can move from passive to active involvement fast and without a lot of travel and conference calls.
Capture actual behavior by connecting with consumers' existing apps.
If Apple's recent World Wide Developers Conference is any indication, apps are now prevalent and increasingly connected to each other. Consumers voluntarily share large amounts of their lives, be it where they are going for a drink or eating dinner to their sleep and fitness patterns. It's becoming possible to understand and analyze social and behavioral data from tracking devices and apps within the context of observation and consumer interactions, creating a richer and more detailed picture than would otherwise be possible.
Make both quantitative and qualitative studies richer
In spite of all the benefits digital ethnography can deliver, it should be viewed not as a substitute for existing methods but as a new approach that can complement and enhance what has come before. In-home interviews deliver information that digital ethnography cannot—for example, it's often hard to find the one artifact in the house that encompasses an insight through consumer-shot videos alone.
Digital ethnography can, however, help you both profile 75 participants in a week and then select the best ten to study in person the next week, as we did for a media study earlier this year. You can then create ten individual conversation plans in order to probe deeper on topics and activities that each participant can tell you the most about. When you actually show up in person, you'll have two hours of incredibly rich conversation and observation, rather than trying to cover every conceivable topic in a short window of time. Similarly, digital ethnography can help to bring to life the people found in segments from quant studies in a more involving way than summaries alone. Based on topics that rose to significance over the course of a digital study, it can also set the stage for quant by legitimately blending qualitative and quantitative methods to create something richer.
An important new research method in its infancy
Though it was first promoted in the design and innovation research community years ago, we are only now starting to realize the full potential of digital ethnography. It would be a shame if it didn't continue to evolve to enable research activities that would have been impossible without it. Like any technology, it needs time to grow beyond its initial use cases. The mobile phone was invented to enable voice calls outside the office and home—and voice is now at most a small fraction of what we use phones for.
What's most exciting is that there is room for similar transformation within the digital ethnography. It's already become a dramatically more useful technique since smartphones became ubiquitous in the U.S. and Europe. Now, with developing markets doing likewise, it's exciting to think of the possibilities there. Just imagine what will be possible as we become able to link these studies to fitness bands, blend it with big data or even ride along with respondents for a day through their eyes via a wearable like Google Glass! I can't pretend to know all of the uses creative researchers will find for it in the coming years, but I also can't wait to see what we collectively discover, so long as we remember to treat digital ethnography as its own practice—and not just as ethnographies conducted online.
Anne Lacey is a founding partner at antedote, a strategic innovation and insight consultancy based in San Francisco. You can reach her at anne[at]antedote.com.