Doing Rapid Ethnography

The hallmark of ethnographic research is field work done in natural settings, where it can yield a broad picture and provide a more complete context of activity. But, ethnography can, at times, scare our clients.  Because of this depth, it is often seen as slow, expensive and inclined to produce more information than can easily be translated into action.  And to be fair, that assessment can be true.  However, an ethnographic approach need not always be so.

Due to budget constraints and time demands, a “ rapid” approach to ethnography can be both more practical and still yield findings and insights that can produce highly actionable results.  Is it always appropriate? No, but it is often better than no research and may actually be more beneficial depending on the goals of the research. In a rapid ethnography model, researchers can lessen time demands taking short focused studies to rapidly gain understanding of the brand, the product and the actions/meanings surrounding them. The trick is remembering design the processes around tighter focus, interactivity with participants and collaborative data analysis, not only with the researchers but members of the client team.

First, focus can be more difficult to achieve than we think.  A central tenet of good ethnography is that you don’t go into the field with your answers running – you’re goal is to learn about context and then determine how a product fits into the system.  So focusing too early can mean loading the front end of a project with too many preconceived notions. So focus in the sense we’re talking about here means having research teams identify the general area of interest and identifying specific questions that need to be answered by the fieldwork.  This means identifying the “why” behind the questions rather than simply recreating a context-based survey.

This means developing both a concise field guide (things to look for) and a field book (consistent, shared mode of documentation) before the fieldwork begins that are specific enough to target and isolate key behaviors and activities, but open enough to let the participant serve as the guide.  Constructing the field guide and field book in this way will help direct what research teams attend to during the data collection process and how they frame the field analysis. This is also a good place to consider using liminal members of a group and/or outliers. Because they are on the periphery of the subject in question, they often have ken insights on what others are doing and why they’re doing it.  Sometimes the best insights come from those least inclined to interact with a product or brand.

Another consideration in conducting a successful rapid ethnography is for researchers to use multiple techniques to increase the likelihood of discovering new concepts, interesting behavior, etc.  As an example, using art work or writing in the process can yield symbolic associations that wouldn’t necessarily come out immediately in the context of traditional ethnography.  Asking people to create and construct changes the nature of the inquiry and produces results that can then be compared against both the interview and the observations.  It is another way of quickly triangulating data. Other techniques might include resource flow documentation, defining activity valleys and peaks, or using cross-participant interviews (participants interview each other).

The third point to stress is using collaborative analytical methods.  Computer assisted analysis is always an option, but requires added expense and can be time consuming to learn  However, there are alternatives to ATLASti and other such tools.  Simply having a secure networking site where field notes, insights and observations can be shared between team members at the end of the day is extremely helpful.  Of course, the risk is that people might start jumping to conclusions too soon, but that can be mitigated through dialog. The point is that this allows researchers to collaboratively understand the ever-expanding field data and modify or refine the research in real time.  Another technique is to use metaphor and concept mapping in a shared system to help researchers align the underlying meanings of what they’re finding in the field rather than waiting until the end of the fieldwork to tease out insights. The creative side, insights-driven side of the research is essentially done in tandem with the fieldwork.

Is rapid ethnography always an ideal approach?  Certainly not. But it is a useful tool when budgets and time are limited.  And increasingly, it is simply part of the tool kit we have.

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