Setting the Record Straight: Synchronous Versus Asynchronous Mobile Ethnography


By Michelle Ellis, Moderator & Karen Lindley, Director, Online Qualitative, Gongos, Inc.

As the descriptive study of human society, based on data obtained primarily from fieldwork, ethnography dates back to the 1700s. Today, the meaning remains, but how we interact within human society is changing. Two-way interactions, once relegated to the field, are now often conducted online and via mobile. In particular, smart devices are allowing ethnographers to gather insights without the interference of the very behavior they are studying. Any manipulation-by-subject brought on by the “observer effect” is now gone.

Mobile Ethnography Has Been Misunderstood

It’s true—the smartphone has made its way to ethnography. Yet live mobile ethnography has largely been misunderstood. It’s time to demystify what live mobile ethnography really means—its promises and its challenges. To do this we must start by understanding the difference between “asynchronous” and “synchronous” methodologies. In simplistic terms, asynchronous involves a time lag, and synchronous occurs in real time, both in activity and interactivity.

Given this context, most qualitative experts agree that the majority of today’s mobile ethnography is asynchronous. In fact, having attended the 2013 QRCA Annual Conference, it is fair to say that the majority of mobile-ready research (online research communities, bulletin boards, video diaries) is currently asynchronous.

So, what does this mean in practical research terms?

During asynchronous moderating (asking and probing), a delay is inevitable. In this case, respondents take us on a shopping trip with their smartphone. They document the trip via their device for eventual upload. While this format captures in-the-moment activity, it does not enable in-the-moment moderating—hence, a missed opportunity to dig for insights in real time. In this scenario, it’s feasible that several days will pass before a true insight is gleaned.

On the other hand, with synchronous, a conversation occurs between moderator and respondent via his or her smart device—similar to a video call. The difference, however, is two-fold: 1) the conversation is recorded live; and 2) the moderator is operating from a more sophisticated back-end system similar to an online focus group platform—offering the same value to clients and colleagues who are able to observe and communicate privately through a closed circuit. It affords a more authentic experience in situations where traditional ethnography is frowned upon (i.e. resistance by store personnel), enabling teams of clients to be immersed in live research. Yet perhaps the most promising indicator of value is that when a moderator is probing a consumer in real time, we are no longer asking that consumer to rely on recall.

As with any new technology, synchronous live mobile ethnography comes with its limitations—such as platform stability, network coverage and smart device battery life. These factors are preempted when a tech-savvy team is in place to support the recruit and “fieldwork”. Yet, the value and its promise to enrich the story—and the authenticity of the behavior—far outweigh any limitations.

Changing the Conversation

Mobile is definitely changing the qualitative conversation in ways we have yet to experience and fully comprehend as an industry. Understanding the pros and cons in “asynchronous” and “synchronous” methodologies is certainly a step in the right direction.