How to study mobile behaviour - an ethnographic perspective

by Isabel Santafe on 1 October 2011

Many studies approach the adoption of mobile devices from a quantitative angle, quoting poll results to identify trends in people�s behaviour with their phones. For example, Brandbank 2010 mCommerce study reports that 85% of smartphone users have used their devices in the process of shopping, with 36% of them having used their smartphones to find more information about a product.

Studying mobile behaviour is an important part of our on-going research at Webcredible. Our aim is tocapture a rich picture of how people behave on the move and inform the design of new apps and mobile user experiences in general. If 85% of users are using their devices in the process of shopping, what's the experience like? What are they really using, for how long, and when? What else is happening around them when they interact with their phones on the go and how does this affect their interactions?Which activities performed through smartphones have (or haven't) become part of our daily routines? What are the barriers that stop us?

In order to answer these and other questions we designed a study of mobile shopping behaviour from an ethnographic perspective, studying real users in real situations. This posed the extra challenge of observing people on the move. Smartphones aren't always used in a static way, and the context of mobility can't be reproduced in a lab setting. Interviews alone wouldn't give us a reliable account of people's behaviour and activity patterns when on the go.

We solved this issue by applying different forms of qualitative data collection. We studied the context of mobility by periodically and systematically observing and taking notes of people�s behaviours on the go. In addition to this, we set up a diary study where participants were asked to record any shopping-related activity that they were carrying out with their smartphones at any time of the day. At the end of the study, we also interviewed participants to probe their use of smartphones in more details.

1. Studying the context � Recording observations of people "on the move"

Mobile devices, websites and apps should be designed to be used in a mobility context. Although it's challenging to capture the changing context of using a mobile phone on the go, these context changes are central to actions and experiences. Mobility can't be reproduced in a lab. A deep understanding of how technology is used and of how media is consumed in such a context is then necessary in order to inform designs that work well "on the move".

Seeking this understanding, we set up a "live" study of the context of mobility. It's challenging as a researcher to focus on something as mundane as people in transit. We're all used to taking the train, the tube or the bus every day and sit there perhaps reading a paper, going through our email or just toying with our phones. In order to create a space for critical reflection and to explore new possibilities we had totake a step back and de-familiarise ourselves with our everyday commuting practices, observing them through the lens of a stranger.

Methodological observation of behaviour and ethnographic description are the preferred methods for data collection at this stage, as they offer the chance to step aside and become a spectator of our own naturalised experiences, questioning the assumptions inherent in everyday practices and objects.

Some of our insights about mobility

Through this on-going stage, we periodically identified and reflected on key behaviours of people in transit. Here's a few of the behaviours we observed (a full analysis will be available in our official 'retail on the go' report coming soon):

  • A powerful motivation for using smartphones is the need for civil inattention, i.e. to appear engaged with something while travelling, waiting, or in situations when we are forced to be together with others while on our own.
  • Activities undertaken on the go are often interrupted and performed in short spurs, sometimes while also doing something else.
  • The time between stops is, in a subjective way, both the commuter's unit of time on the tube and also the length of their attention span when consuming content or performing a task on their phones.

2. Exploring attitudes and identifying current trends using diary studies and semi-structured interviews

This second phase of the study aimed to identify key trends in mobile shopping behaviour. We wanted to explore how people engage in shopping related activities using their smartphones. In order to do this, we designed a diary study in which our participants (all of them owners and users of smartphones as primary mobile phones) were instructed to keep a record of any "shopping-related" activities for a period of around 3 weeks.

For detailed instructions of what to consider when setting up a diary study you can read our Diary study guide: how to get the best results from diary study research.

The following list of activities was used as a guide for the participant of what could be included in their diaries:

  • Searching for store location
  • Searching for nearest retailer that stocks a specific product and compare prices (for example using barcode scanning)
  • Reading product reviews and search for product information before visiting a store or even once in the store
  • Using their smartphones to scan QR codes in print ads etc, maybe to receive discounts or more information about products and promotions
  • Receiving mobile coupons and promotions on their phones to redeem in store.
  • Checking stock and reserve for in-store pick up.
  • Tracking the delivery of goods ordered online
  • Looking at style books for outfit combinations
  • Doing their weekly grocery shopping and other regular shopping
  • Buying any goods or services (excluding apps, music, videos and ebooks)

Participants were given the choice of recording their diaries either in a notebook or in electronic format. All of them chose the latter, agreeing to post their entries as often as possible so we could keep track of their progress

One-to-one, in depth semi-structured interviews were scheduled with all participants at the end of the diary-keeping period with the aim to clarify diary entries and explore participants� behaviours in more depth.

Finally, diaries and interview transcripts were coded and analysed looking for patterns and common threads between participants.

Some challenges we encountered

It is important to note that there were some difficulties that we faced at this point, including:

  • Some of the diary entries were very short and telegraphic because participants were on the go while completing the diary, often emailing us through their smartphones
  • Because many shopping-related activities that we wanted to record were very much embedded into participants' routines and were very short, some didn't even notice them and didn't remember to report about them.
  • Some participants included actions carried out from their desktop as well. Although we suspected this we didn't find out for sure until we interviewed them.
  • A few participants may have done what they thought we wanted them to do, not behaving in their "normal" way. For example, they may have decided to make more purchases using their smartphone only because they were taking part in our study.

And finally, some of our findings

Here are some of the insights we learnt from our participants (a full analysis will be available in our official 'retail on the go' report coming soon):

  • Participants wanted to see some products in a big screen or, even better, in store before buying them, but some participants used their phone to buy something online soon after they saw it in a store!
  • Smartphones were used for "having a little browse" anytime participants felt too lazy to go downstairs and switch on the computer, but they still used their computer to carry out "important" tasks such as purchasing something very expensive.
  • As with most things designed, participants took "ownership" of their apps and used them in a way that makes more sense to them: we talked to people that use Foursquare just to read the reviews instead of checking in, or Twitter to find cheap flights.
  • Many participants were keen to use apps that replace human interaction, such as paying a their bill via the Pizza Express app instead of waiting for the waiter to come back with a card machine
  • People struggled a bit to find the right apps among all those installed on their phones, or at least to find them fast enough to use them on the go. Some of them devised interesting strategies to classify and remember them.


A study of mobile behaviour is best carried out as close to the mobile context as possible. By using a mixture of observation, recording and interviewing techniques, we were able to paint a complete picture of how smartphones are used in relation to shopping. Although each technique on its own has a few drawbacks, combining them all together allows us to triangulate and validate results.

A full 'retail on the go' report, which will fully analyse our results and provide best practice guidelines for brands will be published soon.

Follow us on Twitter to make sure you are one of the first to receive it!

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