Mobile Apps for Qualitative and Ethnographic Research: Benefits and Uses

I confess. I am married to my mobile devices, especially my smart phone.  My device goes with me everywhere, even to bed.  On the rare occasion when I misplace it, panic ensues.  Much of my life is memorialized on my smart phone and I trust my device to keep me entertained, organized, on-task, on-time and in-touch.  Because roughly 63% of rest of the world shares this dependence and love for their mobile phone, they are proving to be a great boon for qualitative and ethnographic research.  Mobile devices allow researchers to be privy to the intimate details of everyday lives of those who participate in our studies.  And it’s not just smart phones.  We researchers now leverage the multi-device, cross-platform life of B2C and B2B respondents.


Cross-platform mobile apps for qualitative and ethnographic research (or hybrid qualitative and ethnographic research) allow us to capture authentic, in-the-moment behaviors and insights.  Rather than relying on the memories of those we are researching by bringing them to a specific location for interviews, research is conducted in-context and in real time.  Data gathering is faster, more accurate, and in some cases, even better than ever before.


This article outlines some of the key benefits of mobile apps for qualitative and ethnographic research, and some of the more prominent uses.




Some of the benefits to using mobile apps in qualitative research are:



  • Wherever our study participants are, whatever they are doing and thinking, mobile apps are right there with them
  • There is no delay in reporting by the respondents and there is no memory degradation

Real-Time Data Collection

  • The opportunity to collect data real time by virtually “living with” consumers throughout their day or by collecting data at any point during their day 24/7


  • If researching laundry detergent, mobile apps allow researcher to gather data in-context from the moment the laundry basket is first addressed to the point that clothes are folded or hung-up and put away


  • Unlike live researchers, mobile apps are non-intrusive and thus unintended researcher bias associated with the very act of observation and interview is avoided

Rational and Emotional Insights

  • Rather than simply gathering rational/functional data about an experience, mobile apps allow the linking of emotions to an event or behavior as it is being experienced, such as joy, frustration or stress


  • A mobile device is personal and trusted, and is used in environments in which the consumer feels safe and secure which leads to more truthful or intimate sharing


  • The likelihood of losing data by capturing data and insights in real-time is reduced; mobile apps help researchers avoid the risk of participants forgetting, or worse, confabulating, which may occur when they answer questions later
  • Collecting data without the researcher present, thus not introducing any form of interviewer bias

Mobility and Speed

  • There are no time or geographic constraints when using mobile apps

Multiple Formats

  • Data can be captured in multiple formats, such as text, audio, video, and imagery





There are many mobile app uses in qualitative and ethnographic research including, but not limited to:

Non-Intrusive and Contextual Qualitative and Ethnographic

  • Ethnographic research
  • Qualitative interviews or group discussions
  • Day-in-the-life
  • Homework assignments
  • Diary studies



  • Mystery shopping
  • “Accompanied” shopping
  • Event specific research
  • UX/CX/customer journey



  • Product testing
  • Advertising testing




Here are some examples of using mobile apps for qualitative and ethnographic research.


Point of Decision – A consumer packaged goods brand wants to understand what people are thinking and feeling when they are considering a specific product purchase at a grocery store.

  • A purchase decision is often more emotional than rational and one way to gather meaningful insights is to ask shoppers to use video and audio to record their experience and thoughts, as they make their way through a grocery store, walk down aisles and reach for products on the shelf.

Longitudinal – A fitness company wants to understand how a customer thinks and feels when following a fitness program over a period of time, such as the first week, the first month or the first two months.

  • The customer who has agreed to follow a detailed fitness plan is asked to document in a digital journal how she is feeling each day, her consistency of working out and her physical results. Specific open- and closed-end questions are asked in addition to the participant writing for five minutes whatever comes to mind on the topic. This journaling occurs where the respondent is exercising to document and analyze in-the-moment emotions over time.

Geo-Based – A city wants to conduct a transportation study to understand what people do and decisions they make based on where they are geographically. Many mobile apps have a geo-tracking feature.

  • Participants are given an assignment to go to a location and perform a task.
  • Alternatively, participants are given a task and researchers track where they go and how long they stay before moving to the next location.

Experience– A college wants to understand the student experience at the school bookstore.

  • Students are asked to go buy books and film themselves walking through the bookstore, looking for the right book, and reporting on how they are feeling throughout the experience such as when they find the book or when they see the bookstore has not stocked the book they need.

Donation Prospecting – A non-profit wants to capture the emotion of a life lived differently than that of its donor base, in order to increase donations.

  • Recipients of a non-profit service are asked to visually relate their story by photographing a day in their life and uploading the images (along with an audio recording) of their daily surroundings and experiences, as well as and their reflections on their life and the non-profit service via text.





Our obsession and dependence on mobile devices is incredibly useful to brands that want a deep understanding of their customers.  Mobile apps are a terrific way to “live with” customers and potential customers to address questions such as who they are from a psychographic perspective; what are their need states; what are their underlying thoughts and behaviors; how they react to and interact with brands’ products, services, or communications; and why humans behave the way they do.





Kirsty Nunez is the President and Chief Research Strategist at Q2 Insights, Inc., a research and innovation consulting firm with offices in San Diego and New Orleans. If you would like to learn more about the use of mobile apps for Qualitative and Ethnographic Research, Kirsty can be reached at (760) 230-2950 ext. 1 or

This entry was posted in Qualitative and tagged on January 3, 2018 by Q2 Insights