The Art of Remote Ethnography: Monitoring Environments When You Can’t Be There

A Guide to Conducting Research in the Age of Covid-19: Part 9

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D./CEO

3-Minute Read

Since the onset of Covid-19, in-person qualitative research has been shelved in favor of digital or voice solutions. In-person ethnographic research has also been a victim of the coronavirus.

What is ethnography? Technically speaking, it is a discipline in the study of Anthropology—a qualitative inquiry where trained observers monitor in-situ an individual’s environment to understand, but not intrude upon, it. 

Think Jane Goodall. And thank Jane Goodall. Her work with chimpanzees and gorillas helped raise the public awareness of ethnography. And while her fieldwork has helped save thousands of primates, it has also helped many of our clients with new product development efforts.

Of course, our fieldwork is in people’s homes, offices or factories. The closest I’ve ever been to a gorilla is the Silverback at the San Diego Zoo. I’d like to keep it that way.

In one ethnographic study, we wandered around corporate offices (with permission and a company guide, of course) to observe the usage of “Big Iron”, networked multifunction copiers/printers (MFPs). While walking around numerous companies, we observed in more than a few instances that IT had jerry-rigged keyboards to the printer and placed them on upside down garbage cans as a makeshift surface. See below.

While not the initial focus of our research, this observation lead to the next version of our client’s MFPs including a keyboard and surface, adding margin to the product and filling an observed but unspoken need.

Those days are gone.

But ethnographic research has survived. Even flourished. Wait, what? That’s right. We can actually remotely observe respondents’ environments with their complete consent and cooperation. How? A variety of tools have cropped up to support remote ethnography. Among them: dscout, Collective, Overtheshoulder, Ethnographic Insights and others. But we give a special shout-out to our friends from Cork, Ireland, Indeemo—who have developed a very powerful remote ethnography tool that has been field tested. We’ve used it ourselves. It’s our fav. Why? It’s easy—for the participants, researchers and clients.

From the comfort of a Pinterest-like dashboard, you can remotely do the following:

  • Use flexible tasking strategies to support multiple types of inquiries: pre-task and pre-work, usage and satisfaction, and post tracking.
  • Conduct the study in respondents’ native language.
  • Have respondents post text, videos, screen shots or video recordings real-time and in the moment.
  • Interact with participants with questions, comments and push notifications.
  • Capture the customer experience and journey at every milestone.
  • Access automated video transcription, keyword analysis and coding tools to reduce analytical time.


As a body language master and qualitative moderator, I can tell you that in-person interviewing yields significantly more information than remote methods for those who can decipher the cues, but phone and video remain powerful alternatives for quickly collecting many types of data—especially now.

Visit our site for more information on conducting research in the era of Covid-19.

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