How to Use Digital Ethnography to Understand Real Product Use

Summary: Digital ethnography is observation research enabled by online tools rather than by in-person observation. It is a convenient way for participants to share how they interact with products and services in their natural environment.

5 minutes to read. By author Michaela Mora on February 19, 2020
Topics: Analysis Techniques, New Product Development, Qualitative Research, UX Research

How To Use Digital Ethnography To Understand Real Product Use

If you want to implement agile product development, digital ethnography may be one of the research methods you need to understand how customers use your product in real circumstances.

Beyond UX research, we can use this approach to gather insights needed in the exploratory phase that often precedes many of the quantitative research we do related to new product development, pricing research, and market segmentation.

Traditional Ethnography Vs. Digital Ethnography

Traditional ethnography is based on in-person observation of the users in their natural environment, but this may not always be feasible due to the nature of the usage occasions (e.g. sensitive, private situations), budget, timeline, and geographic reach.

Digital ethnography, on the other hand, is observation research enabled by online tools rather than by in-person observation.

As Jennifer Cuthill, from ClearWorks, explained it at her recent 2020 QRCA conference presentation – Digital and Human, Not Mutually Exclusive, it is “observational research that’s done through self-reported events or responses by people in your study that they then upload to a digital platform.”

How To Do Digital Ethnography

If you have used online bulletin boards in qualitative research, you will find similarities with this approach, except in a couple of things.

Instead of a discussion guide, digital ethnography uses a set of exercises with specific objectives in mind. These exercises are programmed into a digital platform and shared with all the participants, making sure they are accessible through different devices.

The difference with the traditional online bulletin boards seems to be mainly about when we give access to the exercises to participants and the absence of activity dependencies.

In projects involving digital ethnography done by Cuthill and her team:

  • All exercises are available at once. They are not scheduled on certain days as it is standard in online bulletin boards. In digital ethnography, participants do their exercises at their own pace. The goal is to capture certain occasions, but we don’t know what they are and when they will happen.
  • Activities are independent of each other. They don’t need to be connected to each other or sequenced in any way.

Why Do Digital Ethnography

Among the reasons for doing digital ethnography are:

  • It allows capturing behaviors at times when in-person observation may not be possible (e.g. odd hours into the night, very private spaces – bathroom, bedroom –, sensitive topics). According to Cuthill, “people are more comfortable baring their soul to the camera versus somebody who might be sitting in their home.”
  • We can reach many different types of participants (30 – 40) across geographies.
  • It allows observation over a longer period of time (7 – 10 days).
  • It can be a more cost-effective option than in-person observation, assuming you work with experienced recruiters and streamline the reporting process. Cost also depends on the number of participants and the platform used.

Tips for Creating Participant Exercises

For digital ethnography to be successful we need to create exercises that are engaging and have clear objectives in terms of the insights we are looking to gain.

The recommendations for creating good participant exercises include:

  • Start with easy warm-up top-of-mind questions that participants can answer without much effort. These questions help participants to build confidence using the platform and flag those who may need assistance.
  • Do not overload respondents with a lot of questions for each exercise. Participants will only answer a few of them. This means you may need to combine digital ethnography with other methods to meet all your research objectives (e.g. follow-up IDIs).
  • Be explicit in your instructions (e.g. ask for a video, ask for pictures, specify the length of the expected write-up, etc.) depending on how you are going to analyze and present the results.
  • Introduce moderators via video with the instructions. Give some examples of what’s expected without being too leading.
  • Ask follow-up probing questions after reviewing the answers.
  • Add daily diary questions to build engagement.
  • Allow enough time and flexibility for participants to complete the exercises (e.g. 10 days) and capture relevant occasions.

Privacy Concerns

In many digital ethnography exercises, researchers may ask participants to provide videos and pictures of their activities. However, there are implications for recruitment and compliance with exercises due to data privacy concerns, particularly given the GDPR and other data privacy laws being enacted.

Some ideas to tackle this issue were provided during the session’s discussion, including:

  • Making participants aware during the screening and recruitment process that videos and pictures would be requested.
  • Asking participants to sign an agreement about video and image release.
  • Asking participants not to include their faces in videos and images.
  • Blurring faces in images and video footage when included.

Participant Recruitment

Digital ethnography requires the support of highly involved recruiters. This is not the case of simply recruiting participants and moving on to the next project.

In well-run digital ethnography studies, recruiters play a bigger role in ensuring participant compliance.  

Recruiters need to:

  • Be familiar with the exercises and informed about completion rates.
  • Have a clear idea of how much time participants will have to invest in the exercises in order to manage expectations during recruitment to avoid mid-study drop-offs.
  • Have a plan to manage participation. Follow-up continuously with participants to make sure they complete the assigned tasks and answer the questions.
  • Over-recruit additional participants (4 – 6) to make sure the target sample size is met.

Consequently, recruiters should allocate additional cost and time to reflect the expanded requirements in digital ethnography.

Which Digital Platform to Use

Cuthill’s team chooses platforms based on the needs of the projects. They consider:

  • Types of exercises and questions the platform supports (e.g. diary/journal, ad/concept testing, community ideation, surveys/polls, live chats, discussion boards, etc.).
  • Types of responses it captures (e.g. text, video, pictures, screen capture, etc.).
  • Level of support offered.
  • User experience/design.
  • Devices supported.
  • Pricing and included features and services.


Reporting can be time-consuming and full of unpleasant surprises if we wait until the end to review the data coming in during the fieldwork.

Cuthill recommends monitoring the responses and starting to create theme summaries of the results and gather artifacts as they come in. This can save time and provide a valuable and deeper knowledge needed in reporting.

Deliverables may include a report, photos, video reels showcasing a theme in responses, and large format posters with photos and videos. These are used in workshops with teams that may not be involved in the research. As a result, these teams can be immersed in what the research team experienced while conducting digital ethnography.

In Conclusion

Digital ethnography offers an interesting and viable alternative to in-person observation when the latter is not feasible due to the research topic, cost, and timing concerns.

In order to be successful, we should:

  • Carefully design exercises that elicit the right insights.
  • Work with recruiters who can support the project to ensure compliance.
  • Start the analysis and gathering of reporting artifacts when the fieldwork starts.