Ethnography is a subset of social research
techniques derived within anthropology. It has primarily been the domain
of academicians and involves comprehensive and often long term data
collection from within the subjects' natural environment.
In recent years, marketing research has placed growing importance on ethnography and
ethnographic techniques. It is not surprising.
Ethnography is a powerful set of techniques that
allows companies to obtain a snapshot of people's lives, their
experiences, their relationships, the processes they use, their tools
and materials, and their triumphs and their disasters. Ethnography
also captures the subject's inner thoughts and feelings, their emotions;
their values and the rules that guide them.
Central to ethnography is
When an innovation team is ready to learn new
things they might not have thought about before, ethnography is a good
tool. Rather than relying on existing mental models,
ethnographers use their interactions with subjects to discover new views
and ways of thinking. This is about theory building rather than
hypothesis testing. Creating new views provide the foundation for
higher levels of innovation. However, creating new views requires
adopting an open-minded approach.
What Ethnographic Techniques can be Used?
Essentially, ethnography is a set of qualitative, open-ended approaches that
provide an in-depth study of subjects (consumers or customers) in their natural
environment within context of a specific process, situation, occasion, product
or service. It’s more than just another qualitative study.
We typically use a combination of techniques and triangulate to truly describe
"What's going on in the subjects world." This provides a comprehensive
understanding regarding the topic of interest. Some of techniques include:
When Do We Use an Ethnographic Approach?
Ethnography is most suited for use as an exploratory tool when looking for new
insights into consumer or customer experiences, their perceptions and their
behaviors. We recommend that it be used to develop new ways of thinking about a
market, a consumer/customer process, or a product or service area.
The insights developed and resulting new ways of thinking informs strategy
development, technology direction, product and service innovation, advertising,
and marketing communication.
Ethnography is now being incorporated into the front end new product development
process of many companies, where the insights gained through the research are
used generate new concepts and populate their innovation pipeline.
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What Can I Learn Using Ethnography?
Ethnography allows us not only to to hear what
people say they do, but to see their real behaviors, and then probe
deeply to understand what drives their behaviors. All within context of
the specific products, services, or situations that are central to the
"What people do is often very different from what
they say they do."
Conventional qualitative research provides only a partial picture.
Innovare offers a more holistic ethnographic approach. Consider the following
simple example of what you hear in a focus group with consumers compared to what
you see in the field.
In a focus group, when asked about their experiences using disposals when
diapering their sons, the fathers agreed that - “It's pretty easy – we
take off the dirty diaper, use some wipes, toss it all into the diaper pail,
then grab a new diaper and put it on."
Using an ethnographic approach the field researcher observed, "a father
diapering his 6 month old son on top of a changing table. The just removed dirty
diaper, is in his right hand. He's holding on to the energetic infant with
his left hand. Dad reaches over to throw the dirty diaper in the pail –
but it's out of his reach and the top is closed. Taking a chance, he lets
go of the infant, rushes to the pail opening it and dropping in the disposable
and comes back to the infant." No problem?
The ethnographic approach provided substantially greater information an
potential insights. It is more complete and contextually based. Ease
and safety rise to the surface as important factors to consider and a focus for
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On-Site Depth Interviews:
The ethnographer uses many techniques to gather the information. A
key for any study is the in-depth interview. These typically take
an hour or two often before and/or after various assignments or field
activities. We use a highly open-ended interview approach where the
subjects tell of their experiences and and tell us stories.
Story telling is a powerful communication technique. It is our natural way
we interact and provide information to one another. It's also great tool
for ethnography and for innovation. Telling stories came be a very
comforting for the subject and build rapport.
The story telling aspect of ethnography helps bring the data to life. It
helps the subject reveal what's going on in their lives. Stories also
helps create a deep understanding about the topic of interest throughout the
innovation team and their organization. Having a deeper understanding
enables innovators to imagine better solutions in products and services as well
as how to make the emotional connections that drives business success.
Listening and Probing
People who are new to conducting in-depth interviews often just talk too
much. The art of the interview calls for good listening. The
skilled interviewer first introduces a topic and lets the subject talk.
They listen while the subject takes the discussion to where they feel is
important. It's not a random walk and the interviewer provides
guidance on the topics and probes when greater depth is needed to get at
“what is going on here.” For example, when participants use
expressions from the lexicon of their experience, such as “good days”
and “bad days,” the interviewer asks for more detail. Perhaps a simple
probing question. Tell me what a “good” day is like for you. This
leaves the response open to the experiences and categories of the
participant inviting the participant to frame and explore his or her own
views of a good day.
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This is literally being the fly on the wall. For example, sitting in public
elementary school classrooms in various regions and communities. Watching changes in the level of student engagement
associated with different instructional approaches and materials. Or
perhaps, observing a
variety of metal workers and welders operating in differing application
environments to uncover opportunities to enhance personal safety and work
The key is to be open for the unexpected event, the unconscious
behaviors that take place, the unintended consequences, and the natural
work-arounds that subjects create to overcome problems in their
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Photo Essays, Video, and Subject Diaries:
Photography allows the researcher to provide visual examples that
reinforce the subject’s story. This brings a high level of
connectedness between the client team and the research findings.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, consider the impact of bringing a video record of “a day in the subject’s life” into the
innovation team, to senior management, or throughout your marketing and sales teams.
It strengthens organizational understanding
about the consumer's or your customer's experiences, perceptions, values and needs.
Video ethnography adds another dimension to the research. It is a highly
efficient discovery and communication device and a key tool for the ethnographic
What could be more direct than having the subject capture their story?
At times we have
subjects create their own record such as through pre-interview
Before the interview we provide the subject with a camera or a diary. They are instructed to capture what they find important
regarding the topics of interest. They keep an on-going log of their experiences and impressions for a period of time.
This technique provides a rich set of data useful to stimulate
thoughtful discussion during subsequent depth interviews.
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