Anthropology, Ethnography and Insights

Someone recently asked me,”When working with a retailer or brand, how do you conduct your research?” It’s a simple but extremely important question.  We do a mix of ethnographic field work, Proxemics studies, biological analysis and dramaturgical analysis, all of which sounds very technical and jargony. The point is to, well, make a point. Ethnography is simple one of a number of tools and good qualitative work that is rooted in an anthropological perspective should make that clear.

Over the past decade, ethnography has been embraced by the business community. But the term “ethnography” has been used fairly loosely and expectations about the work and final outcomes vary as much as the people calling themselves ethnographers. As I have written before, anthropology provides a real-world way of looking at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic. What this means is that anthropology provides a wide range of answers that, if analyzed properly, go well beyond the tactical, the sensational, and the superficial. The point is that we think about shopping in its totality.  If you want to sell more beer, you have to look at how people understand social and private drinking, how they provision their homes, how they think about the “appropriate” place to buy a product. Once those cultural, behavioral and biological/cognitive elements are teased out, we build prototypes, test them, break them and build them again. Or at least, we should.


Putting Insights to Use: Making the Complex Simple

The lines between retail spaces and the web are increasingly blurred. The days are gone when a retailer could count on the simple fact that people need things and a place to get them.  Shopping has become many things and retail spaces increasingly satisfy needs other than simple procurement of goods – they are places of entertainment, they are places to teach social values, they are places to construct the notion of family, etc. In other words, multi-channel complexity and media fragmentation increases need for brand consistency like never before.  That means doing in-depth research to find the right answers to a client’s business issues. But it also means making sense of insights and proving direction.

Much of it has been learning to take very complex stuff and explaining what to do with it.  I think a lot of ethnographers and anthropologists entering a business environment produce deep, rich information but they don’t always translate it into actionable results.  Anthropologists are relatively new to the business world and simply weren’t trained to think about solving business solutions or applying what they learned in the way businesses need.  I learned early on that if you can’t articulate how to use it, it isn’t an insight.  I also learned to provide realistic timeline and be willing to experiment.  We often get hung up on things that make sense in academic settings but have little relevance to someone who has to generate innovative ideas and uses for them.  Research is a creative act, not a matter of fixating on methods and numbers.  Researchers are often fearful of their results being questioned and that often results in being overlooked.

Laying Out Fieldwork in Under 10 Steps

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

This is the heart of the process. Meaningful insights and moments of “truth” are slow to get at. Low-hanging fruit will be easy to spot, but the goal should be to find those deeper practices and meanings. Because everything is data, from attitudes to mannerisms to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible. Take notes, draw maps and sketches, take photographs, shoot video, and collect audio – the smallest piece of information may have the greatest impact

Hands down, analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding part of research. A trained ethnographer will do more than report anecdotes. A trained ethnographer will bring a deep understanding of cultural understanding and social theory to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and starts to pull together the web of significances and practices that get to the underlying structures of why people do what they do. Analysis should always work within a framework grounded in the social sciences. Analysis takes time, but the results will include modes of behavior, models of practice, experience frameworks, design principles, and cultural patterns. Once the data has been analyzed and crafted into something meaningful, the research team should be able to provide a rich story with a clear set of “aha” findings.

The findings and insights generated through ethnography should be shared not only with direct stakeholders, but across an organization because of their depth. Ethnography usually produces insights that can influence a wide range of people throughout an organization. Because of the complexity and the richness of ethnography, these stories can influence, inspire, engage, and change the way people think about a problem.

Finally, it isn’t enough to simply hand off results. As compelling as we may find our insights, that doesn’t always translate into someone seeing immediately how to apply them. Once insights and findings are shared, an ethnographer needs to work with others to craft those findings into action plans, product ideas, etc.

Retail and Anthropology

Someone asked me the other day how anthropology fits into retail. Since it was a cocktail party I needed to be brief. And I think that brevity is sometimes our best friend.  In short, we help retailers understand that shopping is about more than simply finding “things”.

Retail is growing increasingly complex. 70% of purchases are done on a whim. Anthropology is an inductive process that’s all about understanding the meaning behind our actions and our ways of interacting with the world. We try to look retail through that lens.  Shopping is entertainment, it’s a teaching moment, it’s a way of establishing social bonds. Anthropology provides a real-world look at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic, in this case the retail stage. It evaluates what people say, what they do and why they do it. Research has typically looked at individual shopper motivations. But people never really shop alone – they carry their culture and experiences with them. So, if you want to understand how and why people use, say, a clothing retailer you have to start by asking what kind of experience are they subconsciously looking for. What kind of interaction with the staff do they really want and expect?  What kind of image are they trying to project at different points throughout the day and how does that shape their decision to use on retailer over another?

Our work gets to those powerful, underlying drivers that really matter to people. If you understand how elements of behavior and worldview fit together in a system, you can develop complete strategies that convert shoppers into buyers and buyers into advocates. And I think that is the ultimate goal. It isn’t enough to hook people in the store, even if you leave them happy. Anthropological work is designed to engage people in the storyline of the retailer or brand. The goal is to produce a type of conversion that is devotional, almost religious, getting people not only to visit your store repeatedly, but to sing the praises of a brand to everyone they know, creating more devotees.

Symbolism of Color and Web Design

When thinking about how the study of symbols and signs can factor into interface design (whether for the traditional web or a mobile environment) two questions come to mind.  First, up to which level of a semiotic sign – iconic, index, and symbolic sign – should symbolic meaning be dealt with in eBranding?  Second, how are aspects of color and texture as a semiotic signs related to the purposes of 1) increased brand awareness, 2) enhanced brand loyalty, and 3) cause to purchase/commit?

I’m characterizing the different modes of reference of color application through Pierce’s model distinguishing iconic, index and symbolic signs.  Especially iconic and indexical signs seem to structure representation in a new way from the design. The sign may refer as an icon, an index, or a symbol to its object (X). Color may represent icon index, and symbol by the viewer’s interpretation. So, color of the webpage may function as an iconic sign when it refers to another thing with a similar color or texture.  Tan may, for example, refer to limestone even though there is no real limestone imagery used.

An indexical unit draws attention by being existent and not similar as does the iconic item. The cultural and social background of the person interpreting the site’s images and colors the third level of “symbol”.  This means symbols are more subject to variation in response and reaction than icons, icons more so than indexes. Returning to the use of tan, it may reflect a sense of the exotic by tying it to underlying associations with the desert and the Western construction of mythical representations of the Middle East. The point is that color is more than we think and can be remarkably powerful in helping establish connections with the user. It is a symbol and symbols have tremendous value.

Signs do not function separately, but form multilayered references.  The complexity of a sign is increased because the references are not stable or fixed qualities of the product.  Since references of the sign can be interpreted differently at different times and contexts, it means they display greater variability when not grounded in iconic and indexical messages.

So how do we use this when developing a site? Execution means integration, resemblance, and metaphor:

  • Colors can integrate, that is they create a visual unity of the elements shown.
  • Color can make objects and scenes resemble very closely what they look like in reality.
  • Through symbolic metaphors, colors, images, and textures address themselves to the imaginary and imply comparisons.  Identity is transferred from one object to another (i.e. website to prospective consumer).

Art, Video and Client Acceptance

When we conduct qualitative research it is inevitable that we have clients who choose to dismiss what we have to say.  More accurately, there are people within the organization that have, for a host of reasons, made the decision, consciously and subconsciously, to find any excuse possible to reject the finding.  The question is what to do about it.  That means reflecting on what the objections to the work are and the underlying case being used to dismiss the findings. Unfortunately, I think a large part of it stems from the fact that we, unlike a computer program used to crunch data, are the instruments of investigation, analysis and reporting.  The researcher frequently takes on the role of omnipotent, unseen author and expert – and that can be disconcerting to the person on the receiving end of the research. The text, sound clip, or video narrative is filtered through the researcher’s eyes; eyes that are, if trained properly in the tenets of the anthropological discipline, self-reflexive and committed to the honest and ethical treatment of the information gathered.  And in this lie the subtle politics of power and the subject/researcher relationship.

Our words alone, for right or wrong, frequently lack credibility in the minds of business executives and designers who are intent on validating their work or personal views.  What we have to say can be ignored in the light of “common sense” experience held by the business and design teams.  Conversely, while the statements of participants have credibility, their thoughts are often seen as disjointed, irrelevant, or dismissible as singular anecdotal moments.  By constructing stories, both parties (researcher and participant) gain credibility and influence.  The narrator/editor gains the status of author and guide, moving from being perceived as irrelevant to the business situation to a position of authority.  The participant is given greater significance in that he or she is understood as representational of a wider range of meaning, cultural patterns, and behavior.  The participant or participants used in a final work convey a coherent message that can, when the “story” is told well by the author/editor, be implemented by members of the audience.  Video in particular serves to provide specific direction while enticing the audience to tread into deeper waters, thus sparking greater innovation.

In conducting fieldwork, we as anthropologists are asked to share the concrete experiences of the participants’ environment, shared behavior, language, social relations, etc.  In sharing that rich and complex world, new ideas and deeper understanding emerge on the part of the client.  We as the experts see, hear, write, and film what are the most important aspects of the field experience and distill them into something that can be used by the various members of the business, development, and design teams.  And because video is such a potentially influential tool, showing the drama of daily life, the dramatic and artistic side of the story can create waves in the business community that the traditional, omnipotent style of presentation cannot.  Presentation styles, choices of material and stories, lighting, viewing angles, organization, etc. all work to structure the portrayal of a culture or population in ways particular to the ethnographer or team of ethnographers and in ways the client can relate to.  There is an inherent story-like character to all ethnographic accounts of the field.  This is doubly so when research is presented in the video format because of limitations of the lens and the limited timeframe of most cinematic pieces; the convention of film is to present information to an array of senses in a relatively short amount of time.  This does not imply that the videos we create are fictions or that the goal is simply to dazzle the audience.  It simply means that ignoring the story-like nature of the video results in dry, dull work that does little to impact the attitudes, expectations, and development directions of our clients.

The goal is ultimately to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness.  It serves to evoke a participatory feeling in the viewers and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world, as well as their processes. There is an artistic element to good research and its presentation. Without the art of ethnography, though it may sound counterintuitive, the findings are easier to dismiss. The story is central to the success of any ethnographic project.

Writing Case Studies, Not White Papers

When we were in college, particularly those of us who came out of the social sciences, we tended to write volumes when given the task of reporting. I recall regularly churning out 50 pages or more every week at times.  For better or for worse, many researchers, ethnographers in particular, have come to think of themselves as descriptive interpreters, which often leads to rich but dense texts.  Our role has been to translate cultural practices and allow those people who consume our work determine what, if anything, should be done.  We tell a story and provide information that is deep and expansive. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can, however, get in the way of writing short pieces meant to sell or skills and engage readers with little time or patience.  When it comes to case studies, nine times out of ten the reader is looking for information that is quite literal and instructional.  Ambiguity and/or involved anecdotal descriptions are usually rejected in favor of what is more concrete. Rather than looking for a white paper, they are looking for simplicity and proof that the research had applicable results.

White papers are detailed, often lengthy descriptions of methods, variables, problems, outcomes. They are meant to expose the reasoning and rationale behind a position, a problem or a generalized topic. The point is, they are designed to be consumed with a higher degree of reflection on the part of the reader. Case studies, in contrast, are (or should be) direct and brief. They should convince the client to seek more information and take the next step, namely, engagement with the author or company that produced them.  The case studies most potential clients want need to be short, simple, to the point and entertaining. So, other than being brief, what makes for a good case study?

It starts with understanding why we’re writing what we’re writing. It needs to entertain and be thought provoking, but it also serves a purpose for the author. Good content isn’t just fun to read. It should set in motion a sequence of visitor thoughts and actions that ultimately lead to a sale. Case studies are meant to get business, not just enlighten or entertain. The people reading the case study assume you’re writing them to drive business. If you don’t hook them, they assume you’re incompetent or you’re wasting their time. Case studies are the shiny-shiny of authorship.

Before you begin writing, organize your information around two basic principle: what was the business pain and what were the results. reveal real business pain

We often spend more time than is necessary on the way we went about finding a solution rather than thinking through why a solution was needed in the first place. Or, we don’t link the process to the outcomes.  Shorter is better and remembering that everything needs to relate to the Why and So What will help focus the story.

If the objective is to showcase your organization’s ability to generate awareness, revenue or innovation, it needs to equate capabilities with results.  Once the two fundamental points are defined, the story being told needs to be broken out into three simple elements:

  1. Issue
  2. Solution
  3. Results

A well-written case study should:

  1. Build suspense and be provocative: State the problem in terms that make the readers stop in their tracks and want to know what is to come. Simply stating problem in dry, mechanical terms doesn’t attract the reader. Set the stage with language that makes people want to see an outcome – an outcome they can’t predict.
  2. Solve a specific business problem (company X needed to know Y): Tell the reader what needed to be done, how you solved their specific problem and why your process was different from (and better than) your competition. Simply saying something along the lines of “we used an ethnographic approach to uncover insights…” won’t engage and it won’t set you apart.
  3. Solve a generalizable business problem (make money or save money): Once you tell the reader the specific problem you solved, tell them what ultimately matters most; how you made the client money or helped them save money. If the results can be quantified, all the better. The point here is that we often actually manage to overlook this part.  We give examples of outcomes that are often interesting and inspiring, but we fail to tie them back to the money.
  4. Have a satisfying conclusion: Resolve the tension that the story built at the beginning of the case study.  Don’t simply leave the reader with numbers, give them a sense of emotional resolution.
So, as an example:

What does a company do when it’s flagship product isn’t making the money it once did despite huge advertising budgets? It figures out how to talk about what it makes and sells in ways that have never been considered before. It embraces new markets. But to do that, it needs to define those markets in ways their competitors hadn’t. It needs to rethink who it is. 

As part of a brand repositioning and product development initiative, [the client] needed to develop a better understanding of how [lite beer] was understood and used in context by Latinos. They needed on-the-ground, experience-rich information. The response was an in-depth ethnographic project spanning multiple geographic areas and seasons. This wasn’t just interviews – it meant attending rodeos, picnics, BYOB restaurants, bars and birthday parties to gather insights about symbolism, rituals and uses of the product.

The research steered the client down a completely new road of product positioning, saving them millions by developing a campaign strategy and messaging system that were in line with what consumers do, not just what they say they do.  Unlike their competitors, [the client] were able to use the insights uncovered to identify entirely new channels for sales and promotions. Ultimately, sales saw a 6% increase in the first year of the new campaign.
Not a bad end result. Sometimes doing research right leads to big things. 

This is hardly ideal and its quality could no doubt be argued. But it does tell the story. And for someone simply trying to narrow the field from thousands of vendors to just a few in the space of an afternoon, it is considerably easier to read than a full-blown white paper. And that is more likely to help you make a sale.