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How To Perform virtual Ethnography; the new era of research

Is Virtual Research Going To Stick Around After Covid? And How Do We Adapt?

By Matt Mueller

During the pandemic, business did not just come to a halt for most companies. But it certainly did change how they did business, whether in the food service industry trying to figure out how to get people meals without customers stepping foot into a restaurant or a contractor that does home remodeling trying to figure out how to remodel someone’s home safely. The pandemic caused more uncertainty and added so many questions on what were the right pivots for a company to meet their customer needs.

Virtual Interview

With the shifting landscapes of almost every business, the need for customer research grew during the pandemic. Many started taking surveys to capture the pulse of customers to see how they felt about the pandemic and how it health crisis changed their behaviors. Big questions were uncovered in the grocery industry about how customers felt going to the grocery store. Did they go to the store less than they did before the pandemic? Do they still visit multiple stores in a week or did they narrow down to one store to reduce the risk of exposure? Are they doing more online shopping for groceries? And will they continue to do that in the future or go back to their old habits? 


Though these are all great questions, are we getting accurate information from a survey that people are answering from their computer screen with a digital prompt? Absolutely, the information from these surveys gives us something directional, but by no means should we be putting our business decisions on a survey alone. A survey is great to get an understanding of how people feel in the moment. But does it tell me what direction they are moving to in the future? Imagine getting the results of a covid behavior survey that tells you customers are no longer visiting stores and they don’t think they will ever go back. With this information, it would probably be wise to shutter all of our stores and move to an online store business model. That is if we are to believe what people say is true.

Why Ethnography?

We are asking a lot from respondents to compare the present moment to the past and are definitely asking way too much thinking they will know what they will do in the future. To measure future behaviors and comparisons is where ethnography can help. Whereas a survey is very one-dimensional; I ask a question, and you respond, and that’s it. Ethnography is 5-dimensional. I ask questions, you answer them with: words, grunts, body language, eye contact, and meaningful pauses. Each element adds layers of data to one simple question that paints the whole picture of how you are feeling. It gives clues if you mean what you are saying or if you just want that to be real. Like asking you how would you describe your eating habits and saying “I am a very healthy eater…uh, eh__h…All we eat is organic and natural.” A stutter with a pause in the middle of those two sentences could mean that you didn’t even know what a healthy eater was and were going to the recesses of your imagination to paint that picture. This could allow for some probing questions to dig deeper into what you mean, or to go on a field trip to your cabinets to see what you are really eating.

I interviewed a respondent at the height of the pandemic about their newfound shopping habits that were derived from the pandemic. They use to shop at 3 grocery stores a week to pick up a family’s requests for food and they now have narrowed it down to one store, one time a week to pick everything up. I asked the question, do they see themselves ever going back to the old way of going to multiple stores in a week. The response was direct and immediate. “No!”, a long pause, without any interjection from mem and then “but it is hard for us to predict everything we need for the whole week. We don’t know what we are going to be in the mood for dinner five days from now.” With a follow-up question, “how do you think you will handle that then?” volleyed back a response that “I guess we will just go to the store a couple of times a week for fresh ingredients like meat and veggies.” So, in other words, you’re going to go back to the routine of shopping about three times a week. Which is the trend that we are seeing come back now. 

Ethnography is 5-dimensional. I ask questions, you answer them with: words, grunts, body language, eye contact, and meaningful pauses. Each element adds layers of data to one simple question that paints the whole picture of how you are feeling.

The Entrance Of Virtual Ethnography

Ethnography allows us to dig deep. The only downside is most ethnography needs to be done in person. With covid safety parameters and the cost of traveling to do one-on-one interviews, ethnography could be a challenge for many companies. But with ever-expanding capabilities with technology and the growing comfort of virtual meetings. Ethnography may have just become easier than ever! 


Ethnography has been practiced in virtual settings over the last couple of years during the pandemic as mear necessity. We needed to get the research done; business did not stop and the need for research only increased. As time has passed and the safety protocols widened, we can re-enter the homes of consumers and walk stores with them shoulder to shoulder. But do we need to? Or was the work that we did during the pandemic in front of a computer screen speaking to and watching our respondents on a video call just as insightful?


I think we are on the edge of a new era on how to do the research. We have been trained in methodologies that have been beautifully documented since the 1800s. And though it is foundationally profound there is most definitely room to evolve our methods. Virtual ethnography, I believe is here to stay. In my short 2 year experience in virtual ethnography, I have learned some important lessons for effective virtual sessions that will ensure that you are getting the best bang for your buck. 

Virtual Ethnography Best Practices

Virtual Ethno is a great tool that will uncover insights that are just as good as going out into the field. We have the capabilities to do this now, so why not use it to our advantage. There will be a learning curve, one that if you or your team are not dedicated to overcoming, will have you scrapping this idea in a couple of weeks and you’ll be back to packing an overnight bag to get back in the field. So first, before anything else, commit to learning this new method and know that in just a little bit of time you’ll get it! There are three foundational pillars of virtual ethnography that have helped me find insights that were just as good as being in the room with my respondents.   

  1. Planning is always important in ethnography, no matter what. Good in, good out! You never want to go into an interview without preparation and when preparing for virtual interviews it’s three times as important. First, think about what your objective is; what do you need to learn? Second, what are some of the major questions you will want to get answered? Lastly, this is where you’ll need to get creative, what activities will you plan to get those answers? 

That’s right think in the form of activities, rather than thinking solely on questions. Because you’re not there in person, you will be hamstrung to find the activity in the moment. You need to make sure this is planned out for it to go smoothly rather than impede the process. If you want to know how someone uses a dipping sauce. Have an activity planned for them to show you the most creative thing they have done with dipping sauce? Plan out the activity, so they have all of the ingredients ready to go. Write out the instructions and explain to respondents ahead of time, so they are not tripping over the instructions in the moment. Get really creative in your activities, it will quickly create a bond between you and the respondent and will get them more engaged. And who doesn’t like an engaging interview?  


  • Preparation is a very tactical tip. But one that is critical to your success. What is different about preparing for a virtual interview versus an in-person interview is that you need to prepare both you and the respondent to get the most out of your time. 
    1. What equipment do you need to observe? 
    2. What equipment do you need to document?
    3. What equipment does your respondent need?

From project to project and person to person the answers to these questions will change. The best advice that I can give you here is to build a checklist of the most common hiccups that you encounter to make sure that you are preparing your respondents for a smooth interview.


  • Resilience is the key to your success in executing great virtual ethnography. Know that everything is not going to go right. And honestly, it doesn’t need to! Going virtual, someone is bound to forget to press the record button and someone is going to have wifi issues. Be the “glass is half full” person and think about what did you learn from the “bad” experiences. Was it that you need a post-it note in the middle of your screen to press record? Or that you need to tell your respondents to go to the best spot in their house for WiFi? Or did you learn who not to recruit? There is always something to learn.

Expect that sometimes things will go wrong and give yourself a Plan B. If you know that internet connection might be a challenge, what can you do to make the most of it. It could be to have a second time already scheduled as a backup. Or maybe the plan can be to use the chat feature rather than video. The more you prepare yourself and your respondent the more productive your session will be. 

For more ethnographic research and innovation, tips follow me on LinkedIn or visit InnoLead for more ethnographic tips.

Innovator Matt Mueller

Matt Mueller

Thanks for reading! My goal is to provide an insightful, simplified, point of view on innovation, CX and insights to help you create positive change in everything you do. 

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