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5 Ways to conduct better auto-ethnography research

Tom Woodnutt

Tom Woodnutt

Feeling Mutual

Tom Woodnutt is a planner and qualitative researcher with over 16 years in the industry. He works at the intersection of digital, insight and strategy. Tom has helped many agencies learn how to design research that is more inspiring for both clients and participants. He has also been digital skills trainer for the AQR (Association of Qualitative Researchers). 

A good insight is like a fridge, according to Jeremy Bullmore. When you open it, a light comes on. The more vividly qualitative researchers can communicate insights, the more enlightening they will be. This is one of the main reasons why auto-ethnographic methods can be so powerful. Asking people to record their lives and behaviour in a natural context, can help researchers to uncover insights and then articulate them more evocatively. In so doing, the power of that insight is intensified.

For those who don’t know, “auto-ethnography” is a term used to describe the qual research method in which participants are set tasks and asked to record their behaviour ‘in the moment’ as it unfolds. They can use text, image or video as feedback. This approach helps tackle some of the critiques levelled at face-to-face research, namely, that people struggle to remember what they actually do in real life.

Here are five tips for designing and running effective auto-ethnography studies.

1) Find interesting insights in mundane practices

To paraphrase famous ethnographers Arnould and Wallendorf (1994, "Market-Oriented Ethnography: Interpretation Building and Marketing Strategy Formulation"), by asking people to record everyday practices, you can find out things about their patterns of behaviour that they can’t articulate. For example, you can ask them to video themselves while they carry out a task and commentate on the activity. This could be used to explore anything from how they search for content on TV, to how they brush their teeth or make a cup of tea. The footage you get back provides a useful, real-world basis for further questioning.

2) Ask people to review cultural artefacts they’ve collected

The objects that find their way into our possession say a lot about who we are. How do we prioritise what makes it under the fridge magnet? What does our choice of pictures on the wall or the books we have on display say about us? Getting people to take photos of the things around them can be a useful way to start more poignant conversations with them.

3) Frame questions creatively to inspire more forthcoming answers

The ethnographer Steve Portigal recommends setting challenges such as “thinking aloud” and “showing and telling” (check out this video of Steve Portigal on “Interviewing Users: Uncovering Compelling Insights"). For example, you might say “show me how to make the ultimate sandwich” to explore the need-states that condiment brands should consider. Giving people a nudge in the right direction helps them relax and be more open and articulate. This technique gets better insights and better footage for communicating them.

4) Use role play exercises to help people project into a moment

You can ask people to play a role to help them articulate what happens in a given situation. For example, you might say “talk me through a typical conversation with customer services” (Glasnapp, 2010 “Ethnography in Industry: Methods overview”). By tapping into people’s imagination, you can unlock assumptions and feelings that would otherwise remain dormant and inaccessible to their conscious brain.

5) Follow your instinct about where the emotion lies

I do not believe that qual researchers should see themselves as distant, observing scientists. They should instead embrace their role as active listeners and conversationalists. This means following your instinct about where the most emotive insights will come from. Use your hunches to design exercises. For example, if you think the barrier to buying a car from a showroom might be the salesperson, why not get a customer to visit the showroom and then record a no-holds-barred critique of the experience (as if they were a demanding manager).

Follow these five tips and your online auto-ethnography research will be even more insightful and compelling.


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