Designing remote ethnography

Stripe Partners
8 min readMay 14, 2020

Remote ethnography are two words you might not expect to see side by side. Typically ethnographic research involves travelling to a field site and meeting participants in person. But contrary to expectations, fully remote ethnography is not only possible but also presents new affordances: in essence, less space and fewer time constraints, and more opportunity to embed in people’s lives.

Our philosophy is to embrace the new reality — rather than trying to conduct an ersatz of in-person research online, we welcome the new paradigm. However, successful remote research starts with an honest look at how to leverage the opportunities, while mitigating against the limitations.

In this post we’ll outline 7 principles for getting the most from remote ethnography:

Make the most of time

Make the most of space

Meet people in their context

Prime participants to avoid disrupting rapport

Use exercises and activities to go wider and deeper

Plan carefully to make the most of flexibility

Set the rules of engagement for observers

Finally we’ll reflect on what’s still missing from remote encounters — a shared, embodied experience.

1. Make the most of time

Rather than depending on a “set piece” interview, we can design approaches that allow for multiple engagements with the participants across a longer duration (up to weeks).

Interacting with participants over several occasions paints a more nuanced picture of their attitudes and behaviours; one that is less determined by the contingencies of the moment.

It is also more fruitful to diversify the interactions, thus allowing for the gathering of multiple perspectives and “oblique” observations, which will surface the differences between what people say and what they do.

A typical remote research journey with a participant will comprise 3–5 interactions spanning over 1–4 weeks. They might include:

  • Pre-task exercises / diaries
  • Short introduction call to “break the ice” or other types of brief audio exchange (not every interaction has to be on video!)
  • Lengthier video call
  • Virtual shadowing (i.e. video call observing the participant performing a task, usually on their computer or phone)
  • Closing interview where we revisit some conversations or artefacts produced beforehand
Overview of the different interactions with a participant from a remote research project, April 2020

2. Make the most of space

When planning fieldwork, we’re used to selecting a number of “locations”, weighing their potential interest and representativity vs how complex and costly doing the research will be. Those concerns are irrelevant in a remote world.

This allows for recruiting the most interesting participants irrespective of where they are located. It can be leveraged in several ways:

  • Include participants from less populated areas (2nd or 3rd tier cities, countryside)
  • Cover a broader geographical scope (e.g. a UK study could have participants from a dozen locations; a European study from any number of countries)
  • When appropriate, largely disregard the locality as a recruitment criteria

3. Meet people in their context

As opposed to having a stranger coming into the home and having an in-depth conversation over 3–4 hours, it’s possible to meet people where they are in the moment when they are doing or experiencing something relevant to the study.

Integrating into people’s lives over a longer period of time brings business ethnography closer to its anthropological roots, affording opportunities for more organic observation and participation. In this sense the term “remote research” feels like a misnomer, an alternative framing could be “embedded research”.

Consider the contexts that will be most relevant and the tools that will allow the most spontaneous exploration. As we’ve written before, we use familiar messaging apps such as WhatsApp for diary studies because they enable more intuitive sharing, invite more expressive contributions, and provide a more intimate setting. Interactions are far more fluid in apps that are already embedded in participants’ everyday practices than in an app downloaded and used exclusively for the research study.

Similarly when it comes to interviews, consider the best approach for the topic. For a recent study on how people use cloud based tools at work, desktop video calls proved the ideal medium to use. Participants engaged from their laptops or desktop computers, in a work-like context, and video calls themselves are a typical feature of their work life. Shadowing how a participant uses their tools through screen sharing also felt far less intrusive than having a researcher looming over their shoulder in person.

On the other hand, for another study exploring devices in the home, we’ve found it’s more fitting to engage with participants on shorter video calls on their phones that allow them to move around and show us aspects of their home over the call, while also helping to set a casual, friendlier tone than on a desktop.

4. Prime participants to avoid disrupting rapport

In some ways remote research lends itself better to developing rapport than in person research. There is no initial awkwardness at the front door, working out whether to keep shoes on or off, the gentle adjustment from engaging as host/guest to participant/researcher. Whether it’s chatting over text, sharing photos and video or having a conversation over a call, participants can be more comfortable in this format than they are in person when they can feel they are being put on the spot.

Tech difficulties are the most common disruptor of rapport. Even when minor things go wrong, participants often get flustered and resolving issues can derail conversations.

Mitigate this by using apps and tools participants are already familiar with. It also helps to run through the tools you plan to use as part of the research screening process to iron out any issues in advance. Make sure to set expectations upfront e.g. will we talk over a video or voice call?

In interviews, switch between different modes of interaction to sustain rapport, as video calls can be quite tiring. While, as other researchers have noted (Lo Iacono et al., 2016), video is an important tool for building rapport and picking up on non-verbal cues, it’s not essential to stay on video throughout an interview. Just as it would feel odd to stare intently into someone’s eyes for an hour or more in person, a remote interview benefits from the shifts in focus afforded by using a mix of voice, video and screen sharing.

5. Use exercises and activities to go wider and deeper

The remote research field of observation is narrow, stemming from the fact that interactions are mediated through screens, whose inherent properties (2D, mainly fixed, narrow field of view) cause information loss. It requires additional effort to engineer the production of meaningful signs. In practice, this is done mainly through exercises and activities.

We have conducted many different exercises and activities remotely. Without entering into the detail of each, they share some characteristics:

1. They are an opportunity to “zoom out” and surface the context in which participants are immersed. This can be:

  • Exploring the social dimension (e.g. draw relationship trees, social network maps)
  • Exploring the spatial dimension (e.g. draw maps of a neighborhood or of the home — see below examples of mapping from previous projects)

2. They can also be an opportunity to “zoom in” and support conversations on specific items of interest (e.g. photograph devices, cultural probes)

3. They are performative and as such provide an opportunity for the participants to reflect on some of their behaviours (e.g. filming a task in the moment, or re-enacted)

4. They produce artefacts which help make the research tangible — something particularly important as there are less opportunities to directly document participants’ context (see below an example of taxonomy from a previous project on digital assistants, 2018)

Using exercises in the course of a remote interview also provides an opportunity to dive deeper into a particular topic and surface people’s mental models. We’ve found that we can transition exercises we typically do with paper, pens and cards in person to tools like Trello and Miro in remote contexts. These bring the added benefit of providing an opportunity to switch the mode of interaction.

6. Plan carefully to make the most of flexibility

As should be already apparent, remote research takes just as much if not more time to plan as face to face fieldwork.

The research itself can be more time efficient than in person research, with less time needed to get from place to place. It can also be easier to fit in encounters with more participants in one day.

However, planning for multiple interactions over a longer period of time with multiple participants can also make juggling schedules a challenge. Make the most of the flexibility of remote research while still setting clear parameters around scheduling to allow enough time to absorb and reflect on learning along the way.

7. Set the rules of engagement for observers

Compared to face to face encounters, it can be easier for stakeholders to join research sessions carried out remotely. They don’t need to commit to days away from their work and team to join in. However, it’s important to set clear expectations amongst stakeholders — having people drop in and out of calls can be very disruptive.

Start every research encounter with introductions to everyone involved and explain their role to the participant. On calls, after introductions it makes sense for stakeholders to mute and turn off video, helping to foster a more intimate setting.

Maintaining energy is harder on calls than it is in person. Researchers need to put extra effort into keeping participants engaged. Giving observers tasks such as taking notes, collating additional questions in a back channel, will help keep observers focused and make space for the researcher to focus on the conversation.

A little less improvisation, a little less connection

Overall, doing research remotely means more freedom to play with time, space and context, at the expense of more efforts planning and designing interactions.

However while it opens up new opportunities to get to know participants in their world, it reduces the elements of spontaneity and embodied connection which make in person fieldwork special and often yield the most surprising insights. As Simon argues in his forthcoming book, The Power of Not Thinking, we use our brains and our bodies to make sense of the world. Remote ethnography can be deeply rewarding but it’s still important to acknowledge what’s missing when we take away the experience of our bodies together in a place.

// Cath Richardson and Cyril Maury

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Stripe Partners

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