How to Unlock the Power of Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research is a powerful part of the design and innovation process. This human-centered immersion technique of observing people in their natural setting (in home, at the office, at the airport, in a store…) is best leveraged at the front end of engagements to discover unmet or unknown needs. These discoveries then serve as the inspiration and guiding light for ideation and solution development, so we know our innovations will solve real problems for real people.

Done correctly, ethnographic research changes our perspective.  It helps us, and by extension our clients, see things on other peoples’ terms, not on our own.  Doing so helps us unearth opportunities that weren’t previously visible.

The key to successful ethnographic research begins by clearly defining the space we want to learn about and around… and then giving up control.  The whole idea is that we let go of biases and preconceived notions to see the world from someone else’s perspective. Giving up control is easily stated, but not simply accomplished. How do you do it?

The first way to give up control is to get on the consumers’ turf, where they are most comfortable.  Going into the homes and offices of people (not focus group rooms or research facilities) helps put customers at ease, making them more inclined to share the personal – the pains, the priorities, the delights, the tensions. It also allows us to observe their world in context, enabling richer conversational explorations, beyond what is simply stated. It affords us the opportunity to understand how things are really used and how products and services actually work within the personal and environmental contexts of each customer. Someone once said, “If you want to know how a lion hunts, don’t go to the zoo. Go to the jungle.”

Another way to give up control is in the discussion itself.  As much as possible, we want to let the people we are talking to lead the discussion.  Traditional market research tends to favor specific questions targeted on the research objective, which puts the researcher in control. Ethnographic research asks broader, more ambiguous questions, of which are almost always followed-up with “Why.” The questions are designed to allow people to interpret and answer based on their context and values, rather than ours.  Very often it brings us to unexpected places that we wouldn’t have gotten to with a more direct line of questioning.

Finally, ethnographic research can only be successful if those practicing it relinquish the need to look for specific answers or validate preconceived notions.  The goal of ethnographic research is to build empathy and a rich understanding of the people for which we are building products and services.  Being freed from having the bias of a direction or theory to prove or disprove allows us to observe and just listen to their stories openly, making it more likely that we’ll see and hear things that open up worlds of possibility.

The power of ethnographic research can only be released if those practicing it are open to giving up control – going out to where their subjects are most comfortable, letting those people take the lead in setting the direction and ensuring the researcher’s mind is free of preconceived notions.  Doing so can reveal unexpected insights that, once weaved together, can form the basis of undiscovered opportunities that can pave the way for truly meaningful designs and innovations.

See how Bose, Colgate-Palmolive, Oster and Thermo Scientific observed the behaviors of consumers to create meaningful products in our blog “These Companies Designed Things People Want”.

Cortney Rowan

Posted By: 

Cortney Rowan

Director, Strategy