What is ethnography and how does it aid customer understanding?

20th Oct 2008

Despite often being perceived as a bit of a black art, ethnography can provide unparalleled insight into any given experience from your customers’ point of view. So what is it and how is it different from 'normal' research?

By Simon Pulman-Jones, GfK NOP

Ethnography may differ from what is traditionally regarded as 'normal' research, but it is far from the dark art that it is sometimes perceived as. Indeed, it's high time to dispel some of the myths that have sprung up around ethnography so that organisations can understand its true nature.

The first myth to dispel is that ethnography is not a method; it is a research approach that uses a wide selection of methods:

"Ethnography does not aim to study people, but instead observes people in order to examine every day experiences, situations, environments, activities, relations, interactions and processes in very rich detail."

Simon Pulman-Jones, GfK NOP

  • Secondary and semiotic analyses - understanding the systems behind all the things that you ‘just know’.
  • Informal observation – used as a ‘first pass’ research tool, to generate questions, focus issues or confirm choice of venue or target audience.
  • Formal observation – expert researchers in the natural, day-to-day setting, observing what people do, how they interact, the kinds of things they use, etc.
  • Interviews – in-context, narrative interviews, which try to elicit the participant’s view of the world.
  • Self-documentation – where the participant is given the tools and structure, and then records their own critical and open-ended self-reporting, logging the things that they see as most important to the question, rather than being led in any way.
  • Groups & events.

It does not aim to study people, but instead uses the techniques above to observe people in order to examine every day experiences, situations, environments, activities, relations, interactions and processes in very rich detail.

How is ethnography different to ‘normal’ research?

Although ethnography encompasses a whole range of techniques, they all share two common principles:

    1. They are always ‘in context’. The ethnographer doesn’t bring the research subjects or participants into an artificial environment, such as interviewing facilities. They carry out the research in the participant’s own home, office, regular shopping places – the day-to-day places in which the participant would naturally carry out the activity under survey. This eliminates any unusual influence on the participant due to unnatural surroundings, leading to a more natural and unforced, and therefore accurate, research experience.

    2. The participants are seen as the experts. Ethnographic data gathering is often determinedly open-ended, using both theoretical and practical tools, to let what anthropologists call the 'native point of view' emerge.

Despite often being perceived as a bit of a black art, ethnography is rooted in the disciplined treatment of data. By far the most important part of ‘doing ethnography’ is the rigorous analysis of all the data gathered and interpretation of key data patterns. The participants are experts on their own experiences and the ethnographers are experts at translating those experiences into a descriptive and analytic account that clarifies business issues and reveals the cultural basis for consumer experiences. The goal is to produce a consistent body of data that can have utility beyond the study’s original scope.

Why use ethnography?

The commercial benefits of using ethnography are that it provides:

  • A clear understanding of any given experience from your customers’ point of view and entirely true-to-life.
  • A remarkable richness of data.
  • Highly actionable information with long shelf life.

The unique value of ethnography is that it reveals not just what people say or how they think, but also provides a clear understanding of how experiences work, so that businesses can see what actions they need to take to support, improve and change those experiences.

"Good ethnographic research will uncover the basis of behaviour of all key parties and throw into sharp relief the ways in which they might be misaligned."

Ethnography can explain behaviour in ways that more traditional research can not. It is based on the assumption that people have reasons for what they do, even if those reasons seem inexplicable to the casual observer. Good ethnographic research will uncover the basis of behaviour of all key parties and throw into sharp relief the ways in which they might be misaligned.

Moreover, ethnographic tools are capable of producing far deeper description of behaviour, looking at multiple levels of resolution. Conversation analysis, for example, looks at individual conversations at the level of tone of voice, inflection, gesture, body language and sub-cultural references, not just at what is said. A ‘cultural inventory’ focuses on the material culture surrounding an interaction, such as the cues we process almost pre-consciously when we recognise a room as a doctor’s office. These two data types are not even the core data for ethnography – behaviour and interaction over time – but simply necessary context for interpreting the observations gained.

This rich, visual nature to ethnographic data is a key part of the value – one participant’s history, recorded in context, explored from multiple points of view, and illustrated with visual data, is often more compelling than the summary of a large and representative quantitative study.

But perhaps the most significant advantage of high-calibre ethnographic work is derived not from its academic legacy, but more directly from its recent history as a business tool. Most of the pioneers of applied ethnography developed approaches that were tailored to innovation, decision-making and production processes. In practice, the focus on building models is what realises an ethnographic programme’s value to a business. A model can be applied to issues that weren’t part of the original research brief, and it can be updated and extended long after the original research programme has ended.

Applications of ethnography

Ethnography can be applied to any market. For example, GfK NOP conducted an ethnographic study manufacturer among users of over-the-counter mediations for a particular common malady. Over the course of more than three months, it employed nine different data-gathering techniques to understand the common conceptions, behaviours and things that people used to treat themselves and their families. This rich, intriguing data covered everything from how consumers read package labels in the store, to detailed descriptions of the terminology that consumers used when they themselves described the symptoms.

What made this particularly useful for the company was the development of a model representing how experience is organised for the user. The key was a near-universal understanding on the part of participants that this condition had four very distinct phases, each of which called for a different level and type of response.

Moreover, the consumers’ definition of whether they were in one phase or the next was entirely subjective, with little correlation to actual severity of symptoms. Despite that, the self-assessment had a profound and predictable effect on what category and type of medication participants would use in each phase.

This ‘patient's eye’ view of what it was like to have the condition provided the framework through which the client could address how it talked about the malady on promotional material and packaging, as well as ways to organise, communicate and develop new products for the category.

Simon Pulman-Jones PhD is head of ethnography & innovation at GfK NOP and can be reached on +44(0)20 7890 9246 or [email protected].

Replies (1)

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By kalbach
09th Nov 2008 10:30

Thanks for the article, Simon.

I've been practicing and speaking about ethnography for several years now. (See, for example, I agree that it doesn't need to be a dark art that only a privileged few can practice.

However, I don't quite understand what you mean with "ethnography doesn't aim to study people". First, the "ethno" part of the term implies exactly that: it's the study of people (as opposed to, say, the study of products or product usage). Second, you finish the sentence with examples of things that reflect the study of people: every day experiences, activities, relations, etc.

Do you mean ethnography is not the study of people's psychologies and preferences, but rather behavior, culture and beliefs? The sentence in the pull quote on the side of this article wasn't at all clear to me--indeed contradictory. I'd appreciate clarification, if you could. Thanks.


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