5 Tips for the Part-Time Ethnographer

Learning To Relax

Advertisers, marketers and designers have long held the role of creating materials that reflect the lives of customers. Traditionally, this has relied on market research that is gathered in something of a vacuum, or reflects the beliefs and practices of the researcher more than the consumer.  People’s preferences all too often are neatly, if unimaginatively, packaged and handed off to a team tasked with creating new design applications, be the application a new product or a new brand platform.

Quantitative methods such as surveys demographics data provide wonderful snapshots of a large population but give little insight into what matters most to people and why it matters.  Usability tests and affinity diagrams provide information about the acceptability of new design concept and prototype, allowing designers to adapt and alter the message of a brand, campaign or product according to people’s stated preferences (which may or may not reflect their true beliefs).

From the qualitative side, focus groups and group interviews provide more qualitative feedback on product concepts,  messages and, to a lesser extent, explore unmet needs. The problem is that focus groups often reflect exaggerated responses and how important it is for humans to feel clever in front of perfect strangers. Additionally, these methods rely on people’s awareness and descriptive ability away from the context in which they would normally be thinking about a topic. In other words, they make things up, usually subconsciously but sometimes intentionally, in order to give an answer to a question. The result for design is mediocrity at its best and radically failed messaging at its worst.

Direct observation combined with interviewing (ethnography and ethnography-lite) is perhaps a more compelling method of coming to understand what people say, think and do.  It has certainly become a fixture in many organizations in recent years. And from a design standpoint it gives both researchers and designers a richer understanding of the issues, practices, and peculiarities of shoppers and the consumer, providing a more complete picture to work from when developing a brand or campaign. The problem is that while the depth of information uncovered is rich and insightful, it often stops short of any real observational depth that can be crafted into something truly meaningful. Surface-level findings are just that – surface level. If fieldwork is to be genuinely inspiring it needs to dig deep.  And researchers need to begin recognizing that their work is a creative, interpretive process.  That means that we needn’t fixate on getting the “right” answer, but that we get an interpretation of data that provides a “creative” answer.  Doing that means rethinking how we conduct research.  Here are 5 tips to making observational research relevant.

Start a conversation. When entering into fieldwork researchers tend to immediately jump into asking questions. The problem is that the abruptness and intrusiveness of these questions often changes behavior, resulting in semi-meaningful answers. To prevent this, begin with conversation and observation. Yes, that means allowing yourself time to get to know your participants as people. Let questions emerge as activities unfold. The simple fact is that we frequently don’t know what we should really be looking for until we’ve had time to immerse ourselves in the surroundings.  Simply put, relax and take your time rather than buffeting people with questions.

Look for patterns. Behavior does not happen in a vacuum.  People are individual organisms, yes, but they work within a social and cultural framework.  That means that activities and statements are always part of a larger pattern of meaning and practice.  Don’t take statements at face value.  Always look for patterns and connections between what people say, believe, and do.

Record information in their terms. Record what the participant says in their own terms rather than paraphrasing. Word choices, inflection, cadence, and non-verbal cues carry meaning that is lost when we try to simplify. Facial expressions and body language convey a great deal of information. Simplicity will come out of the analysis – don’t do it when you are gathering information.

EVERYTHING is data. Seemingly unimportant details are often the pieces that are the most important.  Environment and context have a huge influence on what people say and do.  Therefore, it is crucial when gathering information to include as much as possible in the interpretive process.  It may seem overwhelming, but everything is potential data for the analytical and creative mill.

Relax and embrace a range of perspectives. Research should not be a list of facts and observations if the goal is to generate insights and innovation.  Research is a creative and interpretive act, no matter how much we may try obscure that fact.  As such, research is most effective when a wide array of disciplines are engaged in fieldwork.  Turn off your “scientist” sign and include a range of perspectives both in data collection and in analysis.

Customer research is only as powerful as its outcome.  Generating volumes of consumer insights and observations means very little if those insights and observations can’t be readily translated into something tangible, be it a brand platform, an ad campaign, or a new product offering.   While fieldwork can and does yield powerful insights, it means little if we forget that we are in a creative field that works best when a wide range of skills and perspectives come together.  Both in the field and out.


By Gavin

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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