Common ethnographic techniques

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This is the fourth post in my Customer Research series.

The word “ethnography” has such a grand sound to it.  I’ve seen seasoned executives get intimidated by it. They say things like “Whoa – that’s big agency stuff! We don’t have budget for that!”  To that, my standard response is: “It’s not rocket science!  We can do this!”

And it really isn’t rocket science. It’s just hard, detailed work.  Lots of it. You don’t need a degree in anthropology or psychology. Anyone with an open mind and great listening skills can learn to do it.  If you can’t listen more than you talk… well, perhaps you shouldn’t be a product person after all.

And the budget can vary wildly.  You can spend $250,000 if you outsource it to a big agency and you have a global market.  You can train your staff to do it themselves under some guidance for well under $25,000, using a recruiter to find subjects for you.  I’ve run projects under $2500 where I did the recruitment myself using Craig’s List.  So your mileage may vary.

Now what exactly is ethnographical research in the context of product development?  In the simplest terms, it’s a set of qualitative techniques that places the researcher in the environment and/or the mindset of the subjects.  One listens and observes subjects in the environment that the product is meant to be used in, without showing the product or product concepts. One then derives the needs, wants, expectations and workarounds for the subjects, and uses this information to drive product definition.

There are three techniques that I am a big fan of (mainly due to their high bang for the buck):

  1. Detailed Interviews. Researchers meet with a subject for one to one and a half hours.  A researcher asks open ended questions to get the subject to tell a story about the domain of interest.  The interview guide tends to be very high level and the researcher is trained to mix things up and respond to new threads that come up in conversation.  I like to have two to three researchers at each interview so one person can drive the conversation while the other person mans the audio/video equipment and takes notes.
  2. Observation or shadowing. Researchers set up their audio/video equipment in the environment where a product or set of products is being used, and simply hang out with the subject while the subject uses the product.  The researchers asks questions when necessary, but by and large they behave like flies on the wall.  They are there to watch and learn, not to talk.  The subject is disturbed as little as possible.  This could be a multi-hour proposition – I once shadowed someone for 8h with a coworker.
  3. Immersion. Researchers use the product or a related product for an extended period of time to get a first hand understanding of long term product use. Researchers can record their extended findings via a journal or a photo essay. I also like to write a debrief document at the end of the immersion to sum up my key takeaways.

There are other techniques too, based more on self-reporting by end users. Examples include journal studies or photo essays involving customers.  These are all valid approaches.  When used with detailed interviews and/or observation, they can help round out the picture of the customer’s problems, needs, wants, expectations and so on.

The biggest challenge for this technique is the amount of time it takes to do a good job. Since research is done one customer at a time, and best practices suggest we work with 10-20 customers to allow the data to converge and allow time for tweaking the technique and/or the recruitment criteria, it takes corporate level commitment to pull off a project like this.  It’s a lot of long nights too since sometimes the research must be done after hours when the customers have time to work with the researchers.  But if we keep the focus, and we recruit correctly, generally by the 5th or 6th interview or observation session, a pattern will begin to emerge.

You know you’ve nailed it when you start hearing the same thing from everybody over and over again.  It’s an incredible feeling to get there and know you’ve built the knowledge that will guide the product team moving forward.

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4 Responses to “Common ethnographic techniques”


  1. 1 shakeel ahmad November 3, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    itis a vey good way to approach ethnographic research but can we add life history longitudinal research problem oriented research to these techniques please reply

  2. 3 Michael Rogers November 16, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    Hi Elaine – hopefully this will be useful for me going forward in my next project. Thanks for the info!

    Cheers

    Michael


  1. 1 Customer research series « Startup Musings Trackback on February 1, 2010 at 10:18 pm

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