Optimizing Your Digital Diaries and Mobile Ethnographies


We’ve seen them called digital diaries, mobile ethnographies, virtual tag-a-longs, and various combinations thereof. The core is the same – you want to follow and talk to people in their daily lives, through various activities that shed light on their day-to-day, their behaviors, their surroundings, and how they make decisions.

Digital ethnography can be a wonderful lens into people’s lives and surroundings, allowing them to record pictures and video, document their activities, and share their worlds through their phones, tablets, and computers.

Here are some things to think about as you use technology to capture consumers’ worlds and surroundings.



In our estimation, the coolest part of digital ethnography is the range of tools you can use to piece together the consumer narrative. Video, audio, imagery, text conversation with a moderator, mini surveys/polls – all of these can be integrated into one study through these platforms.

Think about how you can pair different types of data collection to build a more holistic consumer story. Image uploads can capture and highlight what participants were exposed to throughout the day. Push notifications to surveys can lead to journey maps of how they responded and what they were doing over that time. Video testimonials can bring all that to life and shed light on why participants made those choices.

Be creative with how you collect and combine data. Create exercises that participants can engage in and report back on. This is a methodology that can be truly fun for everyone involved – and that “fun factor” can inspire a level of engagement that surfaces unprecedent insights.

Of course, with that level of depth and well-roundedness comes the time commitment of wading through all the feedback you get! Expect the analysis stage of these diaries to take far more time than the fieldwork – there’s a lot to get through, and it merits thoughtful reflection and analysis to extract the meaning.



Participants let their walls down and can get pretty casual and personal in mobile diaries. Unlike in a focus group where they simply tell us about their lives (perhaps with the assistance of a collage), in mobile ethnographies people get to invite us in and actually show us their lives. And they do.

Use these sessions to really dig deep and explore. What does their environment look like? How are they interacting with it? What do videos tell us about their personalities and world views? How do people express themselves when they’re not in a static environment like a facility? All of this can shed light on who consumers are, what matters to them, and how that impacts the decisions they make.



Precisely because participants let their walls down in this methodology, it’s important to set some boundaries here and be really, really clear about how you plan to use what they upload.

We sat through a presentation earlier this year that displayed video, where a fast food fan recorded herself enthusiastically talking through a full mouth of burrito.

It was funny and it was charming, but it also left a lot of us wondering: “Did this woman expect that video to be shown to a room full of 200 researchers at a conference where we could all whip out our phones and film the screen?” Maybe. But probably not. And it felt a little invasive watching her chew in closeup, on a big screen.

Make sure you have explicit permission for all your potential use cases of those personal moments.



Admittedly, this is a tricky one during COVID-19. Right now, a digital diary is likely to surface inherently unusual results. People aren’t out and about (or at least, shouldn’t be). Life precisely isn’t normal. But maybe that’s exactly what you want to understand – how people are going about life and decisions in this unusual time.

When you want to capture the environment surrounding decision making, and how it influences choices. Right now (during COVID-19), this methodology remains very relevant for brands that can operate in an all-digital/no retail environment: we still need to understand what people are doing, how they interact with the world, and how they make decisions (from their homes).

This methodology is also great for taking what you know (e.g. from survey or other behavioral data) and surfacing the “why” and “what it looks like” in a creative and holistic way.

If you’re looking to capture what’s normal in a context where people typically leave the house, right now probably isn’t the time for this methodology. And tread carefully in inviting essential business workers who actually are still leaving home. You’re observing their day-to-day life, after all. You don’t want to be insensitive to their present reality.  


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