Remembering Ethnography

If you want to innovate, you have to look beyond the problem at the world in which that problem exists. Ethnography is about looking at the world as a complex system and understanding what elements you can affect.  If you want to understand the opportunities for your product or service, then you need to think about how it fits into the bigger picture of people’s lives. Ethnography 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 ethnography provides a wide range of answers that, if analyzed properly, go well beyond the tactical, the sensational, and the superficial. A true ethnography includes a rigorous process of data collection and analysis using the scientific method, which insures that findings are based on a careful examination of the data and not a focus on the most dramatic video clips or quotes. The risk in marketing and new product development is very real: misinterpret what people need, say and do and your idea will fail, costing you not only lost revenue but also lost brand standing. What do ethnographers do differently than other kinds of market researchers who study what other people’s lives are like?

Ethnography is a real-world look at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic. It evaluates what people actually say and do through observation and interviewing techniques. It uncovers not only what people do but why they do it. Ethnography does not assume that people are lying during an interview, but that their perceptions and ideals may not correspond to the realities of their daily life.  People often “weed out” information that they believe is extraneous, may be embarrassing or that they simply forgot.  The skilled ethnographer samples the “context” surrounding the topic at hand; paying attention to human behavior from many angles and uncovering opportunities that might otherwise be overlooked.

  • Ethnography is always inductive. This means that our approach to research is exploratory and does not start with a hypothesis. An inductive approach takes best advantage of ethnography’s spontaneity and its potential for discovery, for finding those hidden discoveries that we, our participants and our clients, have never thought of before. Ethnography links the little details of life to larger cultural patterns, treating the consumer, the shopper and the passerby as part of a complex adaptive system. So layouts of retail space, front yards, and food storage are not seen as ephemeral but are linked to big issues of world view, consumption and social organization.
  • Everything is data. The furniture, how people decorate, what they throw away, what people say and what people don’t say, it is all data. There’s substance in every inch of someone’s home, in every movement, in every glance.
  • Useful ethnography is more than observing or conducting a good interview. It is much more than that, and it has to be  grounded in some knowledge of what to look at, what to observe, and what to record.  Just coming home with a stack of videotape about, say, how breakfast is done in a culture is not ethnography. Good ethnography lies in the analysis and the ability to work collaboratively with other researchers (qualitative and quantitative), marketers and business development teams to create new ways of solving problems and understanding your business.
  • Finally, ethnography is one link in a process.  It is not a panacea and should be used as part of a larger discovery and innovation process.  Work may begin with explorative ethnography, but ideas need to eventually be built, tested and quantified.

What this all means is that ethnography aims to tease out the whole story behind a product, activity or service. The benefit of ethnography’s holism is a multi-dimensional understanding of consumers that lends to genuine innovation. Having this holistic understanding ultimately helps reduce risk even as it sparks radical new ideas for design, marketing and business development.  And that leads to a better bottom line.


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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