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Ethnography Essentials

There are challenges that come with an ethnography study, especially in new product development. For example, they involve a smaller sample size, which means more observations may be required to get a representative sample of behaviors across a cross section of the target.


By Brian Fletcher:

In new product development, how do companies determine what the consumer truly wants and needs?

Without a clear picture of how the target lives, interacts with others, uses the category and/or the products in it, it is impossible to allocate resources toward the product development process. There is nothing more frustrating than coming up with solutions to the wrong problems—but such scenarios are difficult to avoid without good, solid information about what category and/or product users want and need. More and more, product developers rely on ethnography to study people’s behavior in their actual environment to generate insights about their needs. It could be a new product or if the product is not available, a competitor’s product.

There are several steps to accomplishing a successful ethnography study. Here are key pieces of advice for starting your own:

  • Understand the objectives. As with any project, the objectives should be clear and agreed to among the Team. Clear objectives for observing consumers will help the Team identify the areas they want to mine, pain points that are important and what may not fall into the scope of the project.
  • Know your target. It is important to clearly define the target before observing users. The biggest mistake the Team can make is observing/talking to the wrong consumer as it could provide direction that is at odds with how the target consumer behaves.
  • Homework could be helpful. While the methodology designed to watch consumers function in their actual habitat, it is sometimes helpful to have them do some pre-work to make the time with them more productive. Having them shop for certain products, for example, can help get them to the point you want to observe or even video tape a behavior that may be infrequent that you can then view together will make the findings richer and more efficient.

Limit the amount of attendees. Be mindful in considering how many observers will attend. Quite often, all key stakeholders want to attend. However, the more observers there are, the more unnatural the environment and the more uncomfortable the participant is likely to feel. That has the potential to result in a less impactful research project, so be prepared to make choices in terms of who will attend which interviews and help the rest of the team understand why it’s so important.

  • Keep an eye on the time. Schedule enough time to allow participants to understand the objective, get comfortable with the people in attendance and begin to act naturally. Trying to mold that behavior into too short of a timeframe is, well, unnatural – contradicting the main point of the methodology.
  • Keep questions to a minimum. If the objective is to observe behavior, the Team should do just that. Interrupting activity both interrupts the flow of an otherwise natural behavior and has the effect of making consumers think more about what they are doing and how they are doing it. This could actually get them to change their natural rhythm. Save questions until the end and ask about behavior observed.
  • Logistics are key. You’ll want to:
    • Allow enough travel time from one location to the next.
    • Have a schedule, directions and maps handy for all observers; send electronically beforehand and have hard-copies on hand.
    • During in-homes, be sure to find out if there will be any circumstances that would be helpful for attendees to know (e.g., large dogs in the house?)
    • During in-homes, always ensure that at least one adult will be home.
    • Let consumers know how many will be in attendance so they can be prepared when they open the door.
    • Additionally, it is less threatening if there is a mix of genders in attendance at the interviews. If that is not possible, it is important to communicate it ahead of time to the consumer.

There are challenges that come with an ethnography study, especially in new product development. For example, they involve a smaller sample size, which means more observations may be required to get a representative sample of behaviors across a cross section of the target.. And, of course, there are the normal human quirks to account for, such as people who are running late and cancellations. Given the limited number in the study, those obstacles can be particularly challenging.

However, when the product Team is looking to understand actual, not claimed behavior or there is a need to see how consumers live and interact with each other and with categories/products, this technique will help you understand your consumer like never before.

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2 responses to “Ethnography Essentials

  1. Brian, I really appreciate the insightful post. I totally agree, especially with the simple, yet important point of understanding the objectives so you know what to observe. I’d add though that researchers have to balance these objectives with a slightly broader observational lens, because some times, the most valuable nuggets of insight in ethnography come from the unexpected. In any case, great write up!

  2. Hi, thanks for the tips!
    We use eye tracking for ethnography these days!
    Eye tracking glasses allow us to see people’s unconscious (and conscious) behaviours as they do things, without distraction from the experimenter. A retrospective interview cna uncover so much information that is not available with normal ethnography techniques.
    Have you tried eye tracking?

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Brian Fletcher

Brian Fletcher

Vice President, Insights in Marketing