Mobile Specific Qualitative Research

Eagle Stone and Snow

As I have mentioned before, I am involved in writing a book on mobile market research, with Navin Williams and Sue York. As part of that process we will be posting elements of our thinking and snippets of the book to NewMR in order to crowd-source improvements. Here is one such snippet, it is the first page of a chapter on mobile qualitative research. We would love to hear your thoughts.

Mobile Specific Qualitative Research
This chapter looks at qualitative market research techniques that have been created by, or heavily impacted by, the arrival and utilisation of mobile devices. A separate chapter looks at how mobile devices are being incorporated into other, more traditional, forms of qualitative research (for example, in online focus groups and discussions, or in connection with face-to-face qualitative approaches).

Topics covered in this chapter include:

  • Mobile ethnography: where participants captures slices of their lives, or the lives of people around them, as an input to an ethnographic analysis.
  • Mobile diaries: where participants record their activity in relation to a specific topic, for example during the purchase of a mortgage, or whilst on a journey.
  • Triggered recording: where participants record their interactions with some external factor, for example, every time they see and advert for a particular category.
  • Qualitative tracking: This approach uses passive tracking, i.e. the phone uses its features and sensors to record where the participants go, what they do, etc; without any moment-to-moment intervention from the participants. These traces are then reviewed by the researcher as an input to their qualitative analysis.

To some extent, some of these approaches show a degree of overlap. For example, in mobile ethnography, mobile diaries, and triggered recording a participant might be asked to create a message when a specific event happens, they might be asked to take a photo or record a video, or to record how they feel. The difference tends to be the balance between the activities, the reason for the research, and how the research will be analysed. For example, in a mobile diary project the participants’ descriptions may be the key deliverable, in an ethnography it is the analysis and write-up that is the key element of the project.

Several of these mobile qualitative approaches use data collection methods that are similar to mobile quantitative techniques. For example, qualitative mobile diaries might be used to follow 20 participants, capturing their thoughts and experiences in relation to some activity, such as every time they have a drink during the day, capturing open-ended comments and images. A quantitative mobile diary study might be based on 400 participants and be based on the answers to closed questions, captured every time the participants drink something. Similarly, qualitative tracking might look at twelve people for several days, and the analysis might include sitting with the participants and reviewing the trace information to build a rich picture what has happened. A quantitative project might be based on 600 people and the analysis based on using software to find patterns in the data, e.g. sequences of actions, or typical routes.

This chapter reviews each of these approaches, providing practical advice, case studies, and methodological notes.


  1. I would love to hear from people with case studies they would like to share, either in the book or on our mobile resources page.
  2. Is mobile specific qualitative research a suitable term for this collection of approaches?
  3. Would you add any techniques to this list?
  4. Would you change the names of any of these four approaches?
  5. Do the first three really constitute three different approaches, or would they be better rolled into a single item?

One thought on “Mobile Specific Qualitative Research

  1. Hi Ray, Firstly, I’d like to add Dub to the list of mobile technology vendors. Our insight community platform is available as a mobile and web app and is currently deployed in support of desktop/mobile studies and mobile only ones. We have a client, WhatIF, that have had fantastic results using our mobile technology to gain a better understanding of mobile behaviours in Asia. I can connect you with them if you require first-hand insights and learnings.

    I see mobile diaries and mobile ethnography as one of the same thing given they attempt to capture everyday occurrences in as natural a way as possible, without the intrusion of a moderator.

    An area that we’ve seen mobile used it to gain an understanding of how people organise their lives on their mobiles. Participants are often asked to capture screenshots of their devices when they are using apps and storing/saving/organising information. Not sure where you’d put this in your list, but for researchers working with mobile handset and software clients, it’s a great way to get an insight into usage without having passive tracking.

    Hope this helps.


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