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Making mobile unobtrusive

The Peter Dann webinar, in which he talked 'mobile ethnography', prompted the audience to debate whether we need to tighten up how we label the methods we use.

From the outset, Peter Dann’s webinar ‘How ethnographic is mobile
ethnography?’ certainly caught my attention, not only with its title
but also with its highly amusing introductions. (Google images of
Ken Parker who chaired the session and you’ll get the picture!)

Plus, of course, mobile remains a ubiquitous topic. A quick search of my inbox on ‘mobile’ reveals promises of ‘true mobile ethnography’, how to use ‘mobile digital qual to hack the snack aisle’ and ‘how the mobile revolution impacts your research’. So this perhaps slightly provocative title ensured a few of us here tuned in to the webinar.

Mobile for me has always been synonymous with in-the-moment research and tapping into people’s real-time routines or customer journeys more effectively. The borrowing of ethnographic techniques in research can sometimes be dressed up as ‘ethnography’ but Peter argued that ‘mobile ethnography’ often isn’t ethnographic research — and certainly isn’t ethnography. Even when participants are recording their emotions and behaviours during the journey we as researchers can still influence the feedback with questions, tasks and observer effect.

Peter highlighted developments in mobile (e.g. JourneyHQ) aimed at attempting to minimise the potential for a ‘staged’ feel to using mobile and for modified participant behaviour. Participants are encouraged to categorise any activity or thought in the least obtrusive way possible, removing the researcher from the equation. Peter described an automotive case study where sifting through data filed by participants in the ‘other’ and ‘random thoughts’ categories, using the mobile app, provided some of the most powerful insights.

The session concluded with the view that some of the tools for in the moment/mobile research can still be quite intrusive, such as vlogging, mobile diaries and task-based apps whereas others — for example life-logging, ‘ethnographic’ apps and fixed camera — can be described as more ethnographic.

The webinar gave us food for thought on whether we need to tighten up on how we describe or label the methods we use. It also reminded us of the constant challenge posed by researcher/technique bias and the need to continue to explore how best to minimise it.

 

Adam Blunt
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2016