Why Ethnography Matters to Businesses

Ethnography is more than a variety of methods, it is a way of approaching knowledge and understanding the world. This isn’t just a poetic turn of phrase. Ethnography is about looking at the world as a complex system and understanding what elements you can affect.

Uncovering how people internalize…cultural norms gives us insight to what “makes sense.” In other words, ethnography uncovers not only what people do, but why they do it. If you want to understand your product, service or whatever, then you need to think about how it fits into the bigger picture of people’s lives.

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

Making Anthropology Work

In general, companies hire ethnographers (anthropologist, sociologists, etc.) for a simple reason: to uncover new ways to achieve competitive advantage and make more money. This translates, most often, into research to understanding new product opportunities, brand positioning, or salient marketing messages. Unfortunately, our clients often have no idea what to do with the research. The fault lies with ethnographers, not the client, and can be overcome if we apply ourselves just a bit. And to be fair, the shortcomings in communication are not limited to ethnographers, a lot of academic disciplines that cross over into business have the same issues.

When clients complain about the research experiences they typically fall into two broad camps. When you hear the phrases “It’s too academic” or “I don’t know what to do with it”, the right thing to do is tell the client you will revisit the research and translate it into something they can use.  Better still, make sure they never feel that way.  Not only does it safe the researcher countless hours of added work, it helps ensure a returning client who sees the value of well-done ethnography and advocates for its use.

The researcher, research team, creative team, client, and everyone invested in the project need to work toward turning information into something they can act upon. When the time comes to sit down with the client and explain what you learned, the ethnographer must be prepared to also explain what to do with it next.

The Professor

So what does it mean when a client says, “It’s too academic.”?
 It means that they didn’t hire you to teach a class about anthropological theory and method.  It means that they need more than interesting bits of human behavior.  It means they don’t want to sit through a 100 page Power Point presentation before getting to the heart of the matter.  They are in business and have neither the time nor the interest of a scholar or student.  Of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t do the work or fail to set up the points you are trying to make, but it does mean that you be cognizant of the  fact that the audience hired you to improve their business and products, not teach a course on anthropological methods.

And to be fair, meetings are a constant (often annoying) reality for executives and people charged with deciding where a company is going and how it will get there.  They have little or no time to waste.  The people with the luxury of sitting through a lengthy presentation rarely have a significant amount of authority in the decision-making process, and they rarely hold the purse strings.  This isn’t to say that those two hours of research findings we present aren’t meaningful, but rather that presentations need to be tailored to the needs of the people buying your service (research) and product (recommendations). For the business community, the product is not knowledge, but intelligence.  In other words, the product is knowledge that is actionable and useful.

The solution is simple and deceptively obvious: Tell them what you plan to tell them, tell it to them, then tell them what to do with it.  This final point can’t be stressed enough.  A corporate presentation or report is neither a textbook nor a well-crafted movie (though well-crafted film can be used to illustrate key points in a very powerful way) and the people buying your services aren’t generally interested in a stunning climax at the end.  You can and should still tell a story, but the story needs to be simple and direct – an abridged version, so to speak.  Start by quickly and succinctly telling them why they are at the presentation, why what they are about to see and hear matters, and what the main points they need to pay attention to are.  The people you need to influence will stick around and pay attention to what you tell them if your presentation begins, for example, by telling the client “You have thought people liked your taste of your beer. But the truth is they drink it because it tastes funky and that gives them street credibility.”  Spending fifteen minutes explaining the concepts of social theory will simply put them to sleep.

OK, But What Do We Do With This Now?

The other frequently heard phrase after presenting research findings is “So, what am I supposed to do with it.”
 It isn’t enough to sum up your work into a form that can be quickly grasped, it needs to be something they can act upon, with clear direction and recommendations.  Video footage of a woman demonstrating how to play a drinking game may be interesting and entertaining, but that doesn’t mean the client knows why it is significant or how to use it. People need very concrete bridges between findings, insights and application.  The information you put out there is of little strategic or tactical value if a client can’t apply it. The value for clients in hiring anthropologists and ethnographers goes beyond the cultural lens we use to look at the world.  The value lies also in the holistic view of the world we are trained to take in and the way we connect seemingly unrelated (or seemingly unimportant) information into innovative approaches to a business problem. Businesses employ anthropologists in an attempt to understand the ways in which culture both shapes and reflects how people interact with, use, and conceptualize products, services, and brands.  Our seemingly-skewed way of looking at the world is unique and results in unique solutions that we must articulate.  If we don’t articulate these unique solutions, they will be lost and the client will be, understandably, less than pleased with the final results of the research.

The job doesn’t end when you’re finished collecting data.  Nor does it end with analyzing and interpreting that data.  It ends when the information you have collected can be turned into something actionable by the client, be it a new ad campaign, a new brand platform, or a new type of hammer.  It ends when the information goes from being knowledge to intelligence.


By Gavin

Story Telling And Power

A life as led is inseparable from a life as told. It’s not about “how it was,” but how it is interpreted and reinterpreted, told and retold. Narrative – “story telling” – is a particular mode of thinking, the mode that relates to the concrete and particular as opposed to the abstract and general. Stories make brands real.

Stories serve a number of cultural, social and psychological functions that can and should be used in positioning you brand. The choice of words and subjects in a story convey to the creator and the listener what meaning a brand has beyond the surface. For example, a sporting goods store like Cabela’s may symbolize father/son bonding, a sense of shared identity around which a they can distinguish themselves from the rest of the family, a repository for cultural ideals like fair play and what it means to be a man. While none of these directly reflect the products being sold, they are the underlying currents that draw people to a store, to buy gear, and to get their children involved in little league. These aspects of what a brand is emerge in the telling of a story.

But from a business perspective, why bother? Defining what the brand means to the customer allows the marketing and creative teams to speak to people on a much deeper level. Simply, increased brand relevance and market share.

Wired for Symbolism

Stories are conveyed through language, which is by definition a symbolic system. The key to successful engagement is to move from structural aspects of a story to the symbolic, uncovering systems of meaning that resonate with potential customers and compel them to action. Conceptualizing your brand through narrative ties the signifying components to a powerful symbolic system.

These symbolic dimensions that emerge in the narrative add value to products by fulfilling culturally constructed concepts (quality, status, age, belonging, etc.). A brand is a signal that triggers a field of meanings in the consumer’s mind. These meanings are conveyed directly and inferentially through stories. By harnessing the symbolic power behind these meanings, strong brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer.

As each narrative unfolds, it is contextualized by the purposes of the interviewer in terms of the research and of the participant in terms of self-presentation. The story may not represent reality from an external perspective, but is an attempt on the part of the teller to reduce information into something meaningful for the outsider.

The use of a narrative inquiry and the development of case stories offer multiple perspectives in understanding a practice, social group, etc. This process gives meaning to tan audience; it yields history, myth and function. No single story provides a full understanding of the meaning of an event, activity, etc., but it provides pieces for a total picture of a concept. Repeated patterns of behavior and repeated storylines are important in uncovering the meaning of your brand. Patterns lead to those experiencing them incorporating the stories, and as a result the brand, into the fabric of their lives. We don’t tend to remember a sequence of numbers when we read them. We do remember the simplest of stories.

Loyalty and commitment to a brand comes into existence when humans give meaning to it – they control the brand, we do not. Any time a brand is identified, given a name, or designed to represent a known storyline it is separated from the undefined world around it. The sense of brand commitment is strongly enhanced the stories handed down over time and being portrayed part of the collective myth.  Doubt it?  Look at the lines outside the Apple Store the day the iPad 2 was released.

Creating a Mental Framework

The first step in building a story-based strategy is recognizing that descriptive and symbolic systems that are conveyed through stories serve different but equally important functions in developing a brand identity. Descriptive aspects of a brand come out through stories and provide a narrative frame. The goal in a narrative frame is to provide as much information as possible to a creative team or marketing team so they can incorporate subtle triggers into messaging and the overarching brand experience. Narratives give meaning to the world, both for the individual telling the story and the social network consuming it.

The audience, the shopper and the consumer, is drawn into the story created. They sense what the characters experienced – the audience is meant to relive the experience, insofar as that is possible, rather than interpret it. The emotional impact of seeing and hearing such lush descriptions provided through story telling sparks interest and long-term associations with the brand. They do more than remember you, they come to associate your brand with themselves.

Ownership is a key element to a story gaining ground. Feeling directly invested in the story and the people in an environment allows people to feel a personal connection. With ownership comes the need to share your experience and the desire for collaboration in the retelling of the story. Shoppers who are encouraged to interact with others in a non-transactional way, creating new configurations of the story collectively and dynamically, are more inclined to interpret themselves as part of the storyline. The contextualization of these actions by location provides a deep and varied “space.” This has implication well beyond how we tell or clients to sell their products.  It gives us a new tool to understand what matters to people and uncover those triggers that have a major, often unconscious, affect on their buying decisions.

The power of the emotionally influential, culturally relevant, dramatic story in the beginning of the retail branding process can mean the difference between seeing innovation and failure. The narrative serves as a launching pad for brand devotion. Bore the shopper and there is almost no chance of affecting change and growing revenue. Story telling makes points clear in what might otherwise be murky waters. In Gary Witherspoon’s book Language and Art in the Navajo Universe (1977) he wrote, “The greatest value of learning the language of another people does not come from being able to interview informants without interpreters or from providing native terms in ethnographic writings; it comes from being able to understand what natives say and how they say it when they are conversing with each other.”  This holds true equally for the people who buy our products or shop our stores.  People are often thinking about things other than the goods they need to procure when shopping.  They are thinking and living out the experiences of motherhood, play, obligation, etc.  In other words, people are part of a complex system of meaning and behavior. Learning the communicative norms and processes of the individual groups allows us to better grasp and define our audiences, adapting our methods of presentation to be understandable and meaningful.  That translates into meaningful insights, rather than superficial anecdotes, and more strategically relevant information.

Well So What!?!

Take the Sam Adams brand as an example. The authenticity of brand is not a set of traditions in the standard sense.  They talk, of course, about the product and the flavor, but they reach beyond that to explain the story behind the beer. They humanize and historicize the company and its people, turning beer into a way of life rather than an object. Marketing becomes less about selling a product than it does about ongoing engagement between the people buying the products and the producers themselves. Rather than being a purely transactional engagement, the consumer and the company, the brand, become part of a shared interaction. In breaking down the Us/Other interaction the company becomes a member of the population rather than an external force with whom people interact only at the cash register. Those sorts of findings can have a powerful impact on how we interpret what we see and hear. And that can change everything about how we understand and talk to people.


By Gavin

Global Culture and the Importance of Mobile Design

It’s widely recognized that brands and products can succeed or fail on the realization of their relative impacts on target audiences. It isn’t enough to build campaigns and strategies based on the newest technology. Without a plan based on real-life uses, needs and beliefs, businesses fail.  In an increasingly complex shopping ecosystem, where the lines between retail space and virtual space blur and use of time is dictated by the shopper rather than the availability of the retailer, understanding subtleties in meaning and behavior is of paramount importance.  In the mobile sector, especially when thinking in terms of globalization and emerging markets, getting it “right” means digging deeper than what demographic and statistical information provide and looking at how mobile devices are and will be used in context.

Case in point, the explosive growth of mobile-phone ownership in the developing world is partly the result of a vibrant recycling, the arrival of cheap phones and a general increase in per capita income. It is also growing rapidly, in part, to the efforts of forward-thinking retailers and developers. For example, anthropologists working for Nokia spend increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the so-called “bottom of the pyramid” might want from a phone. In addition to handset innovation and apps geared to the improving daily life (such as designs with multiple phone books), people are increasingly looking to use mobile devices to shop. So what? The important element is what they are shopping for and how they use their devices, much of which can be transferred from a setting like India to a fast-paced market like New York. It isn’t enough to find the best deal, you also need to calculate the easiest route there, whether or not you can also pick up a new pair of jeans along the way and whether or not this still allows you time to meet your friends for that after dinner cocktail.

Another point. Only 7% of the population of India regularly access the internet from a PC. But brutal price wars mean that 507 million Indians own mobile phones (Indian operators such as Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications sign up as many as 20 million new subscribers a month). That’s 507 million people who see your products and retail setting as potential status brands. It may be hard to believe, but Pabst Blue Ribbon is a premium brand in China, garnering around $40 for a bottle. It’s all in the positioning and the ease with which the shopper can find and access your brand. It is now possible for a person in Bangalore to order hand-crafted chocolate from San Francisco on his mobile phone, or to find the best deal on a new pair of Nikes within 5 miles from his home.

In other developing countries, too, there are many more mobile phones than traditional internet connections. There are 610 million internet users in Brazil, Russia, India, China and Indonesia (the so-called BRICI countries), but 1.8 billion mobile-phone connections, according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). And each of these economic giants has different expectations about language, product status and shopping. Getting your mobile strategy right can mean millions.

Whether in the US, Europe or developing markets around the world the possibilities are tremendous. Farmers in remote areas will find a manufacturer’s products and customized advice on crop planting using their cell phone. Your favorite cup of coffee will find your iPad as you move from a meeting in Paris to one in Shanghai.  Your Nook will “talk” to the store you’re in and automatically download content to keep the children occupied as you try on a new pair of shoes.

In order for the mobile phone to reach its full potential, we’re going to need to understand what people really need from their mobile devices and how these tools will integrate with the overall shopping experience.


By Gavin

So who the hell needs another ethnography blog? Well, everyone.

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. Many researchers who feel at ease interviewing people in a “natural” setting claims to be doing ethnography but this is often not the case.  Trained ethnographers do more than talk with people – they rely on a set of analytical tools that take experience and specialized training.

This blog, yet another in the sea of shining blogs, is one anthropologist’s perspective on the role of ethnography and the social sciences in the context of business and design.  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. This blog is my take on design and business issues out there that anthropology can add value to. It is about throwing out insights and ramblings that will help change the way businesses look at problems and define solutions.

So enjoy (or hate, should you feel so inclined).