Taking Clients Along for the Ride

In the last few years, ethnography has shifted from a novel and often misunderstood methodology to a do-it-or-die necessity in many marketers’ and product designers’ tool kits. The idea of ethnography has a logical appeal for business clients; market intelligence born from the homes and hearts of customers. It’s an ethnographer’s job to talk to and observe people, as they go about their daily routines, using sociology and anthropology methods for data collection and analysis – giving clients true-to-life, informed insights and a firsthand understanding of their customers.

Perhaps naively, many ethnographers assumed that we would work in a vacuum when they learned their trade. We’d go into the field – people’s homes, workplaces, and leisure areas – and then report to clients what we learned. However, we soon realize that some clients take us literally when we state ethnography will bring them into their customers’ homes. They aren’t always satisfied with just overseeing the project or telling us what they want to learn and why. This is a great opportunity for clients to see customers using their products in real situations and a chance to get to know the customers personally. But it presents ethnographers with certain challenges. 

Involvement Risks

Ethnographers tread delicately. Every time we perform fieldwork we need to become instant friends with participants. We need them comfortable enough to behave “normally” while we point a camera at them, and to feel that they can tell us anything – even if they’re just talking about peanut butter. The field is spontaneous and sensitive, and anything can happen. That means making sure we and our clients do all we can to ensure that the field remains as natural as possible.

Clients have varying levels of fieldwork experience. Some are qualitative market researchers with a little in-context interviewing under their belts, and others don’t have much first-hand knowledge of qualitative research or the human sciences. Consequently, clients might interfere with the interview process, misinterpret the data, or overlook important but subtle information. However, ethnographers can take steps to mitigate these concerns.

1. Explore Motives

Understand why clients need to go into the field and what their expectations are of the project. DO they want direct exposure to generate ideas, ease issues of trust/competency/legality, train their in-house ethnographer, or simply be more engaged in the process? For the sake of both the research and the client-ethnographer relationship, articulating these issues is essential.

It’s paramount that clients communicate goals for a smooth operation. On one occasion, a busy client of ours wanted to see his products used in context, so he attended two field visits early in the project. Knowing his reason and planned number of outings, we ensured they’d include use of his products. Everything went well, and his observations were eye-opening. Because he didn’t have time to invest in more fieldwork, we sent him a video document every time someone used his products during the project.

2. Establish Boundaries

Before fieldwork, ethnographers must communicate the research boundaries and client role. Clients should recognize that ethnographers’ expertise consists of more than an ability to build rapport with strangers; their skills are rooted in a keen understanding of social theory and methodological rigor, and entail years of training.

Ethnographers have a process and particular mindset that directs the interview, interaction, and interpretation, so guiding client input before starting a project will help prevent everyone from asking leading questions or biasing conversations. Limits ensure quality work and allow clients to make the most of a field visit.

It also permits them to function within a frame of hierarchical authority, lessening their need to be project leader. In other words, clients understand that the context reduces or removes a layer of authority. It lets them focus on learning and executing predetermined tasks, instead of feeling compelled to handle everything. They can filter information through a training perspective while taking a holistic approach.

3. Allocate Responsibilities

Providing clients an indispensable role in the projects, such as videotaping an interview, helps them feel more like team members and less like visitors. It also raises comfort levels of everyone involved. Assigning tasks s also a practical necessity: Clients can replace research assistants in the field. Two researchers plus a client can threaten and crowd a participant, who just wants to demonstrate the best way to clean a bathroom countertop.

4. Encourage Reciprocation

It’s important to know clients well and be thoughtful about their flexibility, political realities, and character traits. Unfortunately, there often isn’t enough time to do so in-depth. Clients might arrive a half-hour earl for an afternoon interview and leave that evening, never to go into the field again. In this case, an ethnographer can only outline some expectations and techniques – through phone and e-mail conversations beforehand, and on the spot (frequently while sitting on cushy hotel-lobby chairs).

When clients have more time to invest in the ethnography, there are two parts to building a solid team and guaranteeing productive fieldwork (despite their lack of experience.) Clients must be willing to adapt to new or unfamiliar methodologies – techniques for data gathering and interpretation – regardless of their backgrounds (e.g. design, business strategy, engineering). And ethnographers must appreciate and incorporate clients’ theoretical and practical contributions. Success requires devoting time and energy to discovering the capabilities of all the team members – ethnographer and client alike.

Each team member can learn to apply findings across a range of activities. After all, a key to business achievement is using seemingly disconnected information to build new products, brands, and business models. Learning how best to conduct research and understanding individual roles in the field ultimately helps the client use the gathered information most effectively.

Protection and Collaboration

As ethnography becomes a staple of market research, we just might see marketers and product designers make an exodus to the field – with or without us. Ethnographers need to prepare for the possible outcomes. They should do so by not only preventing research from being disturbed, but also by harnessing clients’ intelligence and know-how – using their involvement as a springboard for more effective and actionable ethnography. In the future, most marketing decisions and product innovations will be based on real-world experiences with ordinary people.

Advertisements

Doing Microethnography

Microethnography is a powerful method of research for studying practices in dynamic social systems where interactions reproduce unexplored or poorly understood conditions. It is a powerful intervention for discovering, making visible, or getting at what is happening as it happens in the interactions. Analyzing moment-to-moment interactions enables a better understanding of practices and expectations in order to create spaces to transform meaning and activities that maintain the status quo. But what is it and how does it differ from traditional ethnography?

First, microethnography is NOT simply a small group of in-depth interviews. While the sample is generally small and the timelines compressed, there are process behind doing it well and producing something useful for the client,. Microethnography is the study of a smaller experience or a slice of everyday reality. Microethnography is the process of data collection, content analysis, and comparative analysis of everyday situations for the purpose of formulating insights. It is tight, focused and targeted.

Like traditional ethnography, microethnographic research that attends to big social issues through careful examination of “small” communicative behaviors, tying them back to specific business and design needs. The research and/or research teams study the audible and visible details of human interaction and activity, as these occur naturally within specific contexts or institutions. Microanalysis may be coupled with statistical data to form a more complete understanding of the question at hand, but microethnography always employs ethnographic methods such as informant interviews and participant observations, all in an effort to better understand practices and problems.

Microethnographic methods provide qualitative, observational, cross-cultural, and ethnographic data, giving researchers the potential to 1) examine consumers, users, etc. across their community contexts, explicitly addressing class, power, and cultural structures of that community and 2) explain disproportional uses and buying patterns among subgroups.

While it also takes observation and environment in to account, microethnography focuses largely on how people use language and other forms of communication to negotiate consent with attention given to social, cultural, and political processes. Informed by critical discourse analysis, it emphasizes how the uses of language simultaneously shape local social interactions and reproduce patterns of social relations in society. The central difference between microethnography and in-depth interviewing ultimately is the analytical process and the phases that make up the research itself.

Data collection and analysis for microethnography typically takes place in six stages:

  • Stage One: Data Collection for the Primary Record – This consists largely of passive observation in the settings/contexts in which an activity occurs. It is meant to give a grounding in the activities occurring with objects, people and brands to create not only data points, but the right questions.
  • Stage Two: Reconstructive Data Analysis of the Primary Record – This consists of rough, unstructured, brief interviews and information gleaned for intercepted conversation. Initial meaning reconstruction, horizon analysis, and validity reconstruction take place at this stage through the review of transcripts and videotape.
  • Stage Three: Dialogical Data Generation – During this phase the research relies on a mix of in-depth interviews and feedback interviews with participants. A series of hypotheses are in place and pinpointed concepts are addressed with the participants.
  • Stage Four: Reconstructive Data Analysis of the Interviews – Once interviews are conducted, a second phase of meaning reconstruction and stage horizon analysis are conducted to uncover contradictions and pattern of practice and meaning. Out of this process, specific design and business needs are aligned.
  • Stage Five: High-level Coding – At this stage linguistic and behavioral matches are made. Out of this analysis, the multidisciplinary team begins to create new product or branding concepts and build out how they would actually function and gain traction with customers or users.
  • Stage Six: Final Reconstructive Analysis – This is the stage when we put new concepts and old to use. During this phase, new design or branding ideas are presented to participants, who work directly with the research and design team to generate co-created ideas and concepts.

Video as a Replacement to the Ethnographer

Video is one of the most important and effective ways of communicating research findings. As such, video is often used to convey participant stories and communicate ethnographic findings. Increasingly, video has become a substitute for note taking and in some case, it has essentially been billed as a cheap, quick alternative to fieldwork.

But it isn’t a replacement for fieldwork and the trained ethnographer, regardless of what some might say. Claiming that it can do what fieldwork can do is akin to saying that hotplates can replace all other modes of cooking – in some instances that’s true, but not when you’re talking about cooking a meal for multiple people on a daily basis. Of course the analogy isn’t perfect here, but it hopefully conveys the point that while video ethnography is part of the tool kit in qualitative research, claiming it can replace ethnographic fieldwork is misleading and, well, often flat wrong.  Video is a tool. As with any tool, knowing when and how to use it is pivotal to its success. And while anyone can use a hammer, in the hands of a professional carpenter, the results will probably be superior to those of the average person.

So what do I mean when talking about video ethnography. Video ethnography is the recording of the stream of activity of subjects in their natural setting, in order to experience, interpret, and represent culture and society. At least, that is what it has meant.  Unlike ethnographic film, it cannot be used independently of other ethnographic methods, but rather as part of the process of creation and representation of societal, cultural, and individual knowledge.  Uses of video in ethnography include the recording of certain processes and activities, visual note-taking, and ethnographic diary-keeping. Video is not a replacement for fieldwork or the fieldworker. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, assuming that putting a camcorder in the hands of a participant and thinking they will capture everything needed for analysis assumes that the participant isn’t self-selecting. People record what they want, not what you need – context is often overlooked, unpleasant or uncomfortable situations are omitted, and the subjects of the video are driven by the participant’s biases. Second, using participant video as a substitute for the ethnographer on the ground means that the right questions to ask rarely emerge. It is like the story of the three blind men and the elephant. We end up with only the tail and base or analysis and recommendation on a small portion of the observed rather than the whole.  So, without accompanying fieldwork the video is of limited value and may yield conclusion that are misleading of flat out dangerous.

Video ethnography involves:

  • Observation, including extensive filming of practitioners
  • Allowing practitioners to view the video recorded material and reflexively discuss their practice
  • Building the capacity for the ongoing and critical appraisal of practice

Video-ethnographic methods seek to foreground practitioner knowledge, expertise, and insight into the dynamics of their own work processes. This is achieved by first talking with practitioners about their beliefs, structures, work and organizational processes, and by seeking an articulation of the social, professional, environmental, and organizational contingencies that both enable and constrain their practice. By allowing practitioners to discuss their practices in response to video footage researchers gain insight into areas of practice that may be benefit from redesign. Video ethnography is contingent on the researcher gaining the trust of practitioners, on becoming familiar with the site and on being trusted to be present at time and in places where critical conducts are undertaken. And that combined, collaborative structure of the research design is what produces real insight.

Despite the new rhetoric of empathy and inclusiveness, of involving the user and understanding people’s needs, the person pointing the camera still occupies a position of authority in relation to the subject. This is no less real just because it is concealed beneath a soft blanket of warm feeling. Whether the camera is held by the practitioner or the subject/researcher, the fact remains that even in an increasingly video-centric world, the camera is still an intrusion, altering the situation.  This is why we occasionally turn the camera off – seeing the changes that emerge when recording is off is as important as what we capture on film. So eliminating the researcher from the field equation means relying on a medium that is fraught with unresolved issues as subjects of the video negotiate power and meaning. In other words, if the camera is all you have to go on, especially if there isn’t even an ethnographer using it, there will people an enormous number of misleading statements and representations.

So what am I suggesting? It’s rather simple. Anyone saying they can produce ethnographic research and analysis without the use of an ethnographer in the field is selling a bill of goods.  It is cheap and fast, but yields information that is decidedly limited. As a tool in the larger project it has become indispensable, but as a replacement it is lacking.  In an era of budget cuts and the ever-present need to get insights quickly, it is tempting to look at something like video ethnography as it is often being billed (i.e. putting cameras in the hands of participants and leaving it largely at that) as a viable alternative to more complete research. But sometimes cheap and fast simply don’t make the grade.  For a marketer or designer, the question becomes, are the upfront savings worth getting your product or message wrong?

Ethnographers vs. Moderators: Know What You Are Buying

The other day I was speaking with someone about ethnography and was informed by the person in question that she too was a “moderator.” She, of course, practiced ethnography, such as it is, and informed me she had been “moderating ethnographies” for years.  Yes, it made my skin crawl. Not because someone was crossing disciplinary boundaries, but because the choice of words told that ethnography was indeed the last thing she practiced, but had no doubt sold her self-defined ethnographic prowess into many a company. And unfortunately, this is precisely what continues to water down and cheapen the methodology and its use in business settings.

Let me state that I am not a moderator, I am an ethnographer and an anthropologist. And while both moderators and ethnographers speak to people, they are hardly one and the same.  On the surface it no doubt seems like I’m splitting hairs, but this isn’t just a simple matter of differing opinions or semantic variation, it is at the heart of how practitioners execute their work and how they practice ethnography.

A moderator is defined as a presenter, or host.  A moderator is a person or organization responsible for running an event.  A moderator is a person given special powers to enforce the rules of a collective event, be it a focus group, a forum, a blog, etc.  Moderation is the process of eliminating or lessening extremes. It is used to ensure normality throughout the medium on which it is being conducted. In other words, moderators assume control and direct. They maintain power and tease out information that is essentially qualitative hypothesis testing. Understand, I have no problem with moderation and moderators, but the practice of moderation is anything but ethnographic.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method aimed to learn and understand cultural phenomena which reflect the knowledge and system of meanings guiding the life of a cultural group.  Data collection methods are meant to capture the social meanings and ordinary activities of people in naturally occurring settings that are commonly referred to as “the field.” The goal is to collect data in such a way that the researcher does not impose any of their own bias on the data. Multiple methods of data collection may be employed to facilitate a relationship that allows for a more personal and in-depth portrait of the informants and their community. These can include participant observation, field notes, interviews, and surveys.  In order to accomplish a neutral observation a great deal of reflexivity on the part of the researcher is required. Reflexivity asks us to explore the ways in which a researcher’s involvement with a particular study influences, acts upon and informs such research.  The goal is to minimize the power structure and allow people, our participants, to inform and guide the researcher according to what matters most to them, be it spoken or unspoken. In other words, we are not moderating, we are learning and exploring.

So why does any of this matter? It matters because when a client chooses to do ethnographic research, they need to know that they are getting what they paid for – people who understand the theoretical models governing cultural behavior and the training to tease out information and opportunities that traditional methods do not yield.  Ethnography’s strength comes from the ability to work fluidly with participants as opposed to moderating a setting or social interaction. The researcher who refers to him or herself as a moderator of ethnography, through his or her choice of words, is indicating how they will do fieldwork, how they will interpret findings and how they subconsciously see their role in the field. And again, while there is nothing wrong with “moderating”, selling it as ethnography or assuming that the word “moderator” is synonymous with “ethnographer” is like saying that because I can do basic money management I can now call myself an accountant. Or because I own a copy of The Lotus Sutra I am an expert in Buddhism. Or because I can change my oil I am a mechanic.  You get the point.  Not only is it a disservice to the discipline, it is a disservice to the client.

Simply put, if you’re going to hire an ethnographer, it isn’t enough to ask what markets they will work in or how big the sample population will be. If you’re going to spend the money, the time and the effort ask the obvious question: “What do you call yourself.” Then get them to articulate not only their methods, but the rationale behind them. It’s your money. Be sure you are paying for what you have commissioned.

Excerpt from Quirk’s Article: Recruiting

From an article I just published in Quirk’s on recruiting by the researchers:

http://www.quirks.com/articles/2011/20110926-1.aspx

The gist is fundamentally simple — recruiting isn’t something you hand off, it’s part of the process.

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. We frequently recruit based on demographics and occasionally psychographics that are derived from segmentation studies provided by the client. There is nothing wrong with segmentation studies or using them as a basis for grounding your participant base but it is important to recognize that individuals do not work as solo performers. Their actions, beliefs, practices, etc., are all shaped by the settings and situations in which they interact with others.

Theoretical sampling often seeks maximum variation rather than a representative slice of reality. In other words, anthropologists are interested in the systematic study of the contexts surrounding a particular consumer product or business practice. If researchers find meaning in the contexts that surround what people do, then why would the individual person be the unit of measurement around which to build a sampling design?

Ethnography takes place within a natural setting where relevant events and behaviors are occurring. Regardless of the methodology being used, this basic precept of the ethnographer holds true. That means the sample is more than a fixed set of people, it is defined by a range of activities. For example, if you are interested in studying how people use beer, it makes sense to think about all the settings in which beer is consumed, purchased and used – parks, picnics, bars, restaurants, parking lots and a host of other locations. If you understand the possible ranges of context, you can recruit against a wider range of possible interactions and gather richer insights.

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. We tend to reduce people to their parts rather than thinking about them in a broader context. Endless attitudinal statements, with scales for “agree” and “disagree,” are constructed and by the very nature of the question structure have severe limits. Most conventional research consists of predetermined questions and parameters that force research subjects into narrow channels of response. And these are often as much a bias of the researcher as a reflection of the consumer’s worldview. The very nature of posing a direct question immediately primes the respondent to seek the “right” answer. Recruiters, tasked with providing bodies for a study, understandably fill the quotas derived from segmentation schemes that may have extremely limited practical validity.

Why does this matter? Because people take on different roles throughout the day and under different conditions. Furthermore, who we are is shaped by our interactions with others. In contrast, ethnographic research routinely reveals that customers are more alike than different at the source of their behavior. And where the differences lie, they are far more profound and surprising than the answers segmentation will reveal. It uncovers how the entire human experience translates into the act of being a customer for a particular brand, product or service. It moves beyond attributes. It provides a clear view of cultural and behavioral categories based on the social, cultural and psychological needs and barriers driving customer feelings and thoughts. And because it looks through the lens of a holistic system structure, it yields a more realistic understanding of the customer than traditional methods. It produces insights and understandings that can be more predictive of the possibilities of the future than demographic, attitudinal or psychographic data. That means better recruiting and better research.

Get dirty 

Be willing and able to recognize potential participants while you are actually doing the work. Take advantage of the setting and use it to recruit. We often overlook the situations we find ourselves in, missing opportunities to gather a wider range of experiences and perspectives. The plane, the party, the person in the shoe store – they are all opportunities to strike up a conversation and find participants.

But why do it? There are a several reasons. First, context shapes behavior and conversation. The nature of the interaction we initiate in one setting will produce a different kind of interaction than we may experience in another venue. That means that once the participant is recruited and the setting changes, we may uncover potential differences between what they say or do in one context to another. Contradictions are where some of the most powerful insights usually occur. Which leads to the second point: Recruiting in the field begins the data collection process and helps to develop a theory behind what you’re seeing earlier in the research. It is an opportunity to start formulating questions and ideas based on firsthand interaction rather than waiting until you meet a participant for the first time.

Third, recruiting in the field often leads to a greater rapport. Rather than being a stranger who shows up at your doorstep one afternoon, the participant already has a sense of relationship, provided you’ve taken the time to strike up a solid conversation. Participants recruited in this way have a different set of expectations and take on a role that breaks free of the researcher/participant paradigm because this sort of recruitment changes the power dynamic, moving the nature of the interaction from a transaction to one of genuine sharing.

Why Recruit In The Field?

We often turn to recruiters go find our participants.  A screener is built, a company hired and two weeks later we show up on someone’s doorstep with camera in hand. Of course this is a practical reality of timeframes and budgets, but it means losing opportunities to expand and improve the research we do.  Recruiting in the field is and should always be an element of how we execute our work.  Be willing and able to recognize potential participants while you are actually doing the work. Take advantage of the setting and use it to recruit. We often overlook the situations we find ourselves in, missing opportunities to gather a wider range of experiences and perspectives. The plane, the party, the person in the shoe store, they are all opportunities to strike up a conversation and find participants. But why do it? There are a several reasons.

First, context shapes behavior and conversation. The nature of the interaction we initiate in one setting will produce a different kind of interaction than we may experience in another venue. That means that once the participant is recruited and the setting changes, we may uncover potential differences between what they say or do in one context to another. Contradictions are where some of the most powerful insights usually occur. Which leads to the second point.

Recruiting in the field it begins the data collection process and helps to develop and theory behind what you’re seeing earlier in the research. It is an opportunity to start formulating questions and ideas based on first-hand interaction rather than waiting until you meet a participant for the first time. 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.  We tend to reduce people to their parts rather than thinking about them in a broader context.

Third, recruiting in the field often leads to a greater rapport. Rather than being a stranger who shows up at your doorstep one afternoon, the participant already has a sense of relationship, provided you’ve taken the time to strike up a solid conversation. Participants recruited in this way have a different set of expectations and take on a role that breaks free of the researcher/participant paradigm because this sort of recruitment changes the power dynamic, moving the nature of the interaction from a transaction to one of genuine sharing.

3 Things to ALWAYS consider in your fieldwork

There are always too many things to think about in the field. So the key to making it work out is to categorize and develop a model before you go out.  This model will, of course, be different for everyone but these are three buckets that usually help people ground their research.

NORMS

Cultural norms guide good marketing, design, and development. As an example, cultures shape how people understand what is “food.” While it is seen as strange to eat bugs in the West, they are a major source of protein in many parts of the world.  Ethnography looks to uncover these norms and how they shape what we say, do, and believe. Uncovering how people internalize these cultural norms gives us insight to what “makes sense” and allows us to design brands that will resonate rather than confuse or offend.

PROCESSES

How people get things done is another significant point of investigation for an ethnographer, showing us how cultural roles, beliefs about what is correct, and the order in which events take place shape interaction with place, and tool or a brand. For example, shopping is frequently done by someone other than the consumer and involves a series of steps and interactions.  Uncovering these processes lets us design and message to people at the right points in their journey.

MEANING

People have to make sense of the world around them and assign meaning to their shared lives. Rituals, morality, cosmology, even how we choose to clean our teeth are all endowed with meaning.  For example, knowing that you wear black to a funeral stems from associations we have between that color and death. Ethnography uncovers not only the meaning people assign to the world, but how that meaning comes about.

 

_g_