Online ethnography for service design | Functionality

What is online ethnography?

Ethnography online, also known as digital ethnography or mobile ethnography, refers to a form of qualitative research that uses digital devices (laptop or smartphone) to collect information from respondents.

Its popularity as a qualitative research methodology has exploded in recent years given the advancement in audio-video capabilities of smartphones and the flexibility of the approach. COVID has also resulted in an accelerated shift to this methodology as it offers a viable substitute for traditional face-to-face interviews or focus groups that have largely not been possible due to social distancing rules.

As a result, more and more researchers have been exposed to the method lately and it has been adopted by everyone from qualitative researchers to UX designers to service designers.

Use cases range from health research (the approach is particularly appealing to those researching sensitive topics), multi-market studies (where researchers have been subject to travel restrictions) and for everything from from mapping the customer journey to analyzing the buying journey.

How it works?

The application consists of a software (dashboard capability) used by the researcher and an application (iOS or Android) used by the respondents. The researcher sets up a project made up of a set of tasks to be accomplished. You recruit and encourage respondents as usual, and they use the app to capture notes, photos, and videos over days or weeks.

This data appears on the dashboard in real time and moderators can interact with respondents through the dashboard. Indeemo apps are available in over 20 languages, including Chinese (Traditional and Simplified), Japanese, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Korean and Romanian.

What are the key features?

Here are some of the main features of the approach:

  • Intuitive UI / UX – The apps are easy to use for respondents of all ages, work offline, and represent a fun and engaging approach to quality research.
  • Authentic – Capturing data “in context” and “in the moment” offers much richer information than leaving respondents to rely exclusively on recall weeks later.
  • Multimedia data – Having real respondents sharing their experiences on video is much more powerful than relying on quotes on a PowerPoint slide.
  • Cost-effective approach – By reducing the need to rent offices in central locations (for focus groups) or to have to travel to meet people 1: 1, researchers can generate information from the comfort of their own homes, making it possible to generate information from the comfort of their own homes. ‘save time and money.
  • Complementary methodology – It can be used with other methodologies. For example, moderators can select the most interesting respondents from a pool and use them for follow-up IDIs.
  • Wide range of use cases – Customers use it for everything from understanding customer experience and mapping customer journeys to using it for generative, exploratory and empathetic research, such as contextual interviews.

Online ethnography and service design

A key criterion for those working in service design is to put users at the center of design activities. Online ethnography focuses on the experience of people in their context, which is a crucial factor why the approach is so appealing to service designers. The flexibility of the approach means that it can be used at all stages of the design process, from ideation to UX research to prototyping. Particularly compelling is the ability of service designs to essentially ‘look over the shoulder’ or ‘put themselves in the shoes’ of users.

When it comes to online ethnography and service design, mobile ethnography can save researchers considerable research time while simultaneously improving the quality of your qualitative research. It facilitates asynchronous search so that researchers can obtain data over an extended period of time. Finally, the resulting data is classified, which facilitates the production of reports.


Where many researchers are limited due to time or budget constraints, online ethnography removes these barriers allowing for the asynchronous collection of data from a much larger research pool.

Much of the post-research work is now automated, making tagging and analysis easier. While it is always useful to undertake on-site research, this powerful, innovative approach can greatly improve your research every step of the way.

Alan Gleeson is the Marketing Director of Indeedo, the leading ethnography online application.

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