It’s easy to get distracted by the amount of data we gather in an ethnographic project. And in a situation where time and budget are of no concern that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact it is probably the right way to go. It leads to uncovering a wider range of possibilities and new, fresh ideas. But the reality of most business-focused projects is such that time and budget DO play a major role in how we execute the project and how we think about what it is we look for. We simply have to be selective. Consequently, it is extremely important to think through the research plan in detail. But detail requires an overarching framework. These five steps help keep things in line with client needs while keeping you open minded enough to gather information in a broad, anthropologically sound way.
DEFINE THE PROBLEM
What are the pain points a client has defined? What issues are we trying to better understand? Depending on the project, questions may be very tactical and specific or very strategic and broad. In either case, the first step is to clearly articulate what the overarching goal is.
RETHINK THE PROBLEM
Once you’ve defined the problem, it’s time to rethink it. Frequently, what we see as the problem is in fact a facet of something else. For example, when researching something like an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it may be understanding why people read different material in different contexts. It may be about displaying books for colleagues and friends as a means of gaining status. The point is that the problem we see may not be the problem at all and we need to think about possibilities before we enter the field.
DEFINE THE CONTEXTS
Where does an activity or practice take place? Defining the contexts we want to examine helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if we’re studying beer drinking, we need to articulate all the possible contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed.
DEFINE THE SAMPLE
Who are the people we want to talk with? What are the social and cultural circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural, social, professional and environmental systems, determining not only who will be the primary participants, but also the actors that shape the context.
MAKE A GAME PLAN
Put together a guide to help navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (remember, everything is data and it is easy to become overwhelmed without a plan). Having a series of key questions and observational points to explore is the first component. But don’t just think about the questions you will ask, but also include opportunities for observation, mapping, and participation.