Online Ethnography for Service Design

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What is Online Ethnography?

Online Ethnography, also known as digital ethnography or mobile ethnography, refers to a form of qualitative research that relies on digital devices (laptop or Smartphone) to capture insights from respondents.

Its popularity as a qualitative research methodology has exploded in recent years given the advances in audio-video capability 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 to traditional in-person interviews or focus groups which have largely not been possible due to social distancing rules.

As a result, more researchers have been exposed to the method of late and it has been embraced 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 research (where researchers have been subject to travel restrictions) and for everything from customer journey mapping to path to purchase analysis.

How does it Work?

The application consists of software (dashboard capability) used by the researcher and an app (iOS or Android) used by respondents. The researcher sets up a project consisting of a range of tasks that need to be accomplished. You recruit and incentivise respondents as normal, and they use the App to capture notes, photos and videos over the course of several days or weeks.

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

What are the Key Features?

The following represent some of the key features of the approach:

  • Intuitive UI/ UX – The Apps are easy to use for respondents of all ages, work offline and represent a fun engaging approach to qual research.
  • Authentic - Capturing data “in context” and “in the moment” offers much richer insights than having respondents rely exclusively on recall weeks later.
  • Multimedia Data - Having real respondents share their experiences in 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 having to travel to meet people 1:1, researchers can generate insights from the comfort of their home saving cost and time.
  • Complimentary Methodology - It can be used alongside 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 - Clients use it for everything from understanding customer experience, to mapping customer journeys through to using it for generative, exploratory and empathic research e.g. Contextual Interviews.

Online Ethnography and Service Design

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

When it comes to Online Ethnography and Service Design, mobile ethnography can save researchers significant amounts of time researching while simultaneously improving the quality of your qualitative research. It facilitates asynchronous research so researchers can obtain data over an extended duration. Finally, the resultant data is categorised, making it easy to report on.


Where many researchers are restrained due to time or budgetary pressures, online ethnography removes those obstacles enabling asynchronous gathering of data from a much larger research pool.

A lot of the post research work is now automated making it easier for tagging and analysing. While there is still merit in undertaking some onsite research, this powerful innovative approach can greatly enhance your research at every point.

Alan Gleeson is the Chief Marketing Officer of Indeemo, the leading online ethnography application.