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Siamack Salari on Market Research And Mobile Self-Ethnography

Mobile self-ethnography is clearly an area with massive potential - many of us document our daily lives in one way or other using our Smartphones.



Editor’s Note: Edward Appleton is doing a series of posts focused on the client-side view of mobile research, with an emphasis on use cases and best practices learned so far. This is the second in that series of posts that we’ll be publishing over the rest of the month. Part 1 can be found here.


By Edward Appleton

I first met Siamack Salari, CEO of Ethos Labs ( Visiting Research Fellow, School of Management, Kings College London, at a mobile research ronference in Amsterdam, 2012.

Ethos Labs specializes in mobile ethnographic research. It’s offering, encapsulated by the phrase “an ethnographer in your pocket”, is an interesting – not to say fascinating – play, for a number of reasons.

  • Firstly, Ethos isn’t a typical research outfit – staffed by ethnographers, agency planners and film makers, it takes a more diverse disciplinary approach to human understanding, building in perspectives from outside the strict social sciences arena. It also maintains close links with a number of eminent universities, including the LSE, Oxford Said Business School, and Kings College London, allowing it to bridge the divide between academia and the world of commerce.
  • Secondly, by utilizing mobile, it makes mass-ethnography – not in its pure form, as discussed below, but something close – a realistic option for researchers. The company’s pricing is eminently affordable, and is structured flexibly.  For example: companies across the globe can use the tool for a minimum of one month with up to 100 participants, unlimited content, and unlimited technical support for £1.500.
  • It’s also a DIY offering. Using Ethos’ App, companies, students, institutions can carry out their own research, with technical support at hand if needed. Disruptive or empowering, depending on your viewpoint.

Perhaps not the highest profile amongst the research companies working in the mobile space, it’s one that can boast clients such as Mondelez, Coca Cola and Mastercard, to name a few. As such, it’s a company to watch.




I caught up with Siamack late in 2013 to chat about his views on mobile self-ethnography.

How Powerful is Mobile as a tool for Self-Ethnography?

For Siamack, it’s important to state at the outset that mobile self-ethnography is totally different from original ethnographic approaches, which aim to observe people in their normal surroundings unobtrusively, in as naturalistic manner as possible.

Mobile self-ethnography automatically introduces a strong sense of self-awareness – to borrow from Behavioral Economics, asking people to report on themselves, film themselves, immediately taps into System 2 reactions – considered, overly rational, projected.
It’s a more straight forward methodology for simple tasks without requiring an in-depth understanding or analysis  – but in many senses, according to Siamack, “it’s a hugely flawed methodology. People who film themselves, report on themselves, are self-editing whether they like it or not”.

Analysis Approach

Overcoming this challenge requires a totally different approach from the project facilitators.

i) Constantly Attune and Refine the Questions

Any initial task and probe list needs to be modified as the project develops, according to the output, what you learn as you go along.

Siamack suggests that the real skill in executing a mobile self-ethnography is about “discovering the real questions you need to be asking” – an iterative process, far more fluid than many qualitative researchers are used to.

ii) Consider what’s not been said.

What people haven’t said is as important as what they have said, according to Salari.

It’s the task of the analyst, the ethnographer, to unpick a self-guided narrative – spot gaps, contradictions, inventions – and probe as to what that means

This leads to the second important guideline:

iii) Reflect on Intent, not just Content.

The intent behind what someone says, the “why”, is as important as the “what”.

To give an analogy: a newspaper article can be taken at face value as objectively true, well-researched, and giving a balanced perspective. However, to be able to properly evaluate the article, you need to understand the Editorial perspective, who the owner of the newspaper is, what their views are – and how that is likely to influence what a particular journalist is writing.

Overcoming this systematic bias to self-project requires devising an appropriate methodology for each particular task – the following worked well.




Case Study: Drinking and Eating Habits

The challenge: Ethos was hired by a well-known multinational drinks company, with an unnervingly open if simple brief: “capture all respondents eat and drink every day for a week”. A single-country study, with 10 – 12 participants, Ethos needed to address the concern that participants would “put on a show” – not reflect honestly and authentically their true habits.

The approach: Their solution was ingenious if simple: using what anthropologists refer to as a the “key informant effect”, they invited friends and family member of the participants to comment on the output.

The outcome: This technique proved immensely revealing – statements of surprise such as “since when have you been drinking water??” were invaluable to help the interpretation, separating a “persona” from the real person.

A second benefit of the approach was to throw up questions that neither the manufacturer nor the Agency had even thought of.

Mobile Self-Ethnography doesn’t Replace Ethnography

A core belief of the company that has worked for years in this space of mobile is that it should not be thought of as a cheaper, quicker way of doing ethnography.

The findings are likely to be immensely misleading because of the inherent biases involved

What Is Mobile Self-Ethnography Best Used for?

  • Innovation: Within the traditional MR space, it is often used by Client-side innovation teams, people looking to identify unmet needs
  • Touch-point Analyses: mobile capture experiences in-the-moment, and so is particularly useful to capture outdoor or ambient media that might otherwise easily be forgotten
  • Customer Decision Journey: any decision making process that goes through numerous phases is traditionally captured from memory, working back from the event. Mobile allows the accurate and sensitive recording of longitudinal journeys – say when you’re buying a car, or getting married. Mobile helps overcome memory issues – we record things that may be lower interest and that are easily forgotten.
  • Sensitive Behavioral Understanding: mobile self-recording often helps getting at the gnitty-gritty of behavior which is perhaps habituated or where decision are taken on reflex, impulsively. Why we drink what we drink when, for example – asking the question “why” only scratches the surface, but recording the context allows the moment to be captured in details, and allows a different kind of probing.

Ethos used a technique whereby participants are invited to go through all their entries and then say what surprises them the most, and then comment/explain.

They also found that allowing participants in a group to comment on each other’s content works well – highlighting the commonalities, what is counter-intuitive, in a way that allows participants to give their own reflective view on something that others felt was worth commenting on.

Emerging Usage Areas

Mobile self-ethnography helps in areas that many wouldn’t traditionally associate with Market Research, but are undoubtedly all about insights:

Medicine: patient-practitioner consultations are self-recorded and then shared with friends and relatives for a 3rd party evaluation of what was said. This is becoming widely used when the patients – often elderly – are no longer fully in charge of their mental capacities, and so have limited evaluative cognitive powers.

Veterinary: this emerging usage involves animal owners sending pictures of the injury before the vet is called out, which is often costly. This enables the vet to see to what extent he or she can actually help before setting off, or to what extent the situation has become irredeemable.

Component Manufacturers: often the makers of widgets, components don’t actually know how their products are used, what the end-applications are. Mobile self-ethnography changes that. Engineering companies, for example, are increasingly using the mobile self-reporting technique by asking their repair people to capture visually what problems, what defects occur and then to send that back to Head Office, who can then build on that knowledge in their development and marketing efforts.

Future Developments

Ethos is currently working with a partner to develop  a set of self-reporting tools that are designed for System 1 type thinking – capture the immediate, intuitive, unthinking.

No tasks are involved.

The product is currently under wraps, but should be ready for launch in Q1/Q2 2014. Watch this space

Summary/ Outlook

  • Mobile self-ethnography is clearly an area with massive potential – many of us document our daily lives in one way or other using our Smartphones. It can be used in Innovation processes, touch-point analyses, longitudinal customer journeys.
    A note of caution: it is an area full of potential biases, and requires great care when analyzing the evidence created – participant are their own observers, are selective, self-edit, project an image rather than reveal a simple truth. Self-ethnography is no replacement for true ethnography.
  • Adopting a DIY mind-set is likely to provide misleading results.
  • Techniques are required to uncover insights – using social components, being fluid in the design, re-shaping questions as a study progresses. We have to be prepared to discover much that wasn’t in the brief, but may be immensely important.
  • That being said, the flexibility and convenience of the tool means in its simplest form it can create insights in industry areas such as Medicine, Veterinary Science, Engineering that probably wouldn’t think “Market Research” a powerful tool


* Siamack Salari started conducting ethnographic research while working in planning at JWT in the early 90’s. He developed the world’s first ethnographic research app in 2009 and has since been working on variants for capturing longitudinal decision journeys and corporate idea management. He lectures Industrial design, MBA, and business students in Valenciennes, France, The University of Oxford SAID, Kings College London and the LSE, London. @siamacksalari on Twitter, [email protected]

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5 responses to “Siamack Salari on Market Research And Mobile Self-Ethnography

  1. Great article Ed, thank you. I feel it’s worthwhile clarifying the costs you mentioned. Does £1,500 simply cover use of the app but NOT recruitment of respondents, research design and analysis?? All of these inputs are what combine to deliver great research and, in the case of ethnography, can prove quite expensive (of time and money) to in-house researchers.

  2. Hi Edward. Great article. Came across it googling for reviews on mobile ethnography tools. We recently completed our first mobile ethnography and I wanted to share some details with your readers. Firstly there are lots of great tools out there now and the complexity and costs of each varies quite a lot. We looked at tools called Revelation, Ethos (now Journey HQ!), Recollective, Indeemo, Over The Shoulder and Vocpopme. Some are simple. Some complex. Prices varied from £1k to several thousands! In the finish we choose to go with Indeemo because it’s user experience for respondents is akin to Facebook (so easy to use) and the app allowed respondents to journal even when offline (which we discovered browser based diary tools do not do – worth watching out for this). The responses we got were amazing. video is mind blowing when it comes to observing real world behaviours and they are so powerful when inserted into your power points. Totally agree mobile ethnography is the way forward. Will be using some form of it as standard going forward to supplement depths and focus groups.
    Would like to give the Indeemo site a mention too as the team were such a pleasure to deal with. Thanks. Nora.

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