The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 4 Issue 2   February 2008


Ethnographic research can be a useful tool in both business and consumer settings. This month we explain what it is and how it works, as well as highlight some of its potential limitations.

Hang on, spring is almost here!

As always, please click here to send us your thoughts and comments.

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

Ethnographic Research… When to Use it and Why

My friend Michael has one of those robotic vacuums (a Roomba) at his house. He’s had it for several months and the other day he was raving about it to me on the phone. I have to confess, I was intrigued by the concept: Press a button, stand back, and enjoy, as my least pleasant Saturday morning chore is taken care of by a five pound, dinner-plate-sized hunk of MIT-inspired technology.

And so last weekend, I took Michael up on his invitation to come over to his house and see for myself. Sure enough, it worked just as he described, happily roaming around the living room furniture and picking up every bit of dirt in sight. I was sold.

And then an interesting thing happened. As we sat down for coffee, Michael started taking the device apart. He was clearly very familiar with it, and in just a few seconds had pulled from its Roomba guts a collection of rollers, brushes, filters and other dust-covered parts.

He explained: “You need to clean it frequently and thoroughly if you want it to keep working properly.” According to Michael, “frequently” means after every third or fourth use; “thoroughly” means 20 minutes of taking it apart, cleaning the various pieces and putting it all back together.

Instantly, my visions of a Jetsons-like home maintenance existence vanished into the air; I couldn’t see the logic in spending that much time cleaning a thing which is supposed to automate my cleaning.

When I asked Michael why, in our long phone conversation last week about the Roomba’s ease of use and exemplary cleaning skills, he never mentioned maintenance, he said, with a puzzled look on his face, “You never asked.”

And that, it occurred to me several hours later, is the key benefit of ethnographic research: Gaining insight through first-hand, behavioral observation… insight that you may not get unless you already know what you’re looking for (and therefore, what to ask).

Ethnography is a broad field with connections to anthropology, sociology and psychology, among others. When applied in a market research setting, it typically involves going into the homes (or offices) of participants, with the goal of observing them doing whatever it is you’re researching. The premise is that by watching people in their natural “habitat,” as they make decisions, interact with a product, or carry out some other task, you’re likely to uncover things that might otherwise be missed.

For example, if you’re interested in how consumers make life insurance buying decisions, you might go into the home of a thirty-something couple for several days and watch as they call friends, search the web, talk it over together, etc. — all the things you’d never see in the sterile environment of a focus group session. The hope with the ethnographic approach is that you’ll uncover a simple, but critical, “aha” in the process, just as I did when I observed Michael’s interaction with the Roomba.

There’s no question that ethnography can be a useful device in the market researcher’s toolkit, particularly when (as University of Maryland professor emeritus in anthropology and linguistics, Michael Agar says) you want to know “What is going on?” In other words, when you’re trying to answer questions about things you couldn’t have predicted or hypothesized about.

There are, however, some potential limitations worth noting:

  1. Sample bias. Ethnographic research involves one or more researchers essentially moving into a home for some reasonably long period of time. And they don’t just sit there either… they bring notepads, tape recorders and video cameras, all put to good use as they follow people around. Clearly, those people who would invite such scrutiny into their lives and homes are a slice of the population, and not representative of everyone.
  2. Research bias. All research of course, creates some bias, as the very act of gathering data “touches” study participants in a way that may influence response. Ethnographic studies, however, take this to an entirely different level, since researchers literally insert themselves into the lives of those being studied. The risk of changing behavior (and therefore research results) is much higher.
  3. Compilation bias. The typical output of an ethnographic market study is hours and hours of video. Much of this footage is of little value to the study, and so researchers usually compile what amounts to a highlight film; a demonstration of key findings. These are certainly useful. However, the presentation itself, particularly because it’s a visual glimpse into “reality,” is very powerful. The things that are chosen and the way they are presented, therefore, have a big influence over how the results are interpreted (much more so than in a written study, for example).
  4. Sample size bias. An ethnographic study may involve just a half dozen people, with a “large” study of this type going as high as 60. It’s critical, therefore, to keep in mind that the benefit of this approach is to uncover the “ahas” — the results should not be extrapolated to a larger population.
  5. Scope bias. If I ask you a question about an experience, your answer is limited only by your memory and willingness to share your thoughts. If I observe you, however, I need to make sure I’m present for a long enough period of time to see what matters. For that reason, ethnographic research is best applied to a particular experience done over a short (days or weeks) period of time.

In summary, and although not appropriate in all situations (see Mixology below for more on this), ethnographic research is a valuable way to uncover insights that might otherwise be missed. In effect, it serves to make your questions “wider,” by opening up a box you might never have looked into. In this way, it’s a useful complement to other methodologies.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a carpet that needs vacuuming!

— Julie

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Mixology (Putting research into practice)

In practice, there are certain situations where ethnography is not the best approach:

  • Market sizing. Actually, anything that requires statistically valid analysis is a bad fit for ethnography. Small sample size prevents you from generalizing results to a wider population.
  • Group comparisons. Ethnography is inherently unstructured, and the fact that the questions asked, conversations engaged in and behaviors observed vary from situation to situation prevents you from comparing one group to another in a meaningful way.
  • Testing products, concepts or advertisements. If, for example, you want a reaction to a series of 30 second TV spots or thoughts on 7 versions of credit card designs, ethnography is the wrong approach: your question is well defined and your likely solution set is relatively limited. In these cases, you want in-depth reactions to guide design elements (“Enough with the SUV’s on rock croppings, already, show me how the car will save money on my gas bill…”), but your goal is not to discover the next alternative to credit cards (no pun intended). For well-defined questions with limited scope of solutions, your best research options are in-depth one-one interviewing, or even focus groups, both being particularly more attractive when considering cost and timing (see next paragraph).
  • Budget or time constraints. It should be no surprise that this type of approach can burn a lot of time and money. For that reason, unless you can point to a specific research need that can’t be satisfied in a faster, less expensive way (again, in-depth interviewing, for example, can obtain much of what is revealed from ethnography at a substantially lower cost), you’re better off taking a different approach.

Overall, and as with any research approach employed, make sure ethnography research is appropriate before jumping in!


Ethnographic Research… When to Use it and Why

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

About Us

CSR Executive Vice President, Mark Palmerino, will be giving a presentation to the Winchester Hospital Nurse Research Council in March entitled “Seven Keys to Designing Effective Research.”

Mark continues to work with this unique group of nurses as they contribute to the advancement of quality healthcare through cutting-edge research.

“I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”

— E. B. White

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