The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 5 Issue 7   October 2009


Ethnographic research offers a number of advantages relative to other research methodologies. Unfortunately, it’s also logistically challenging, time-consuming, and expensive.

This month’s newsletter offers a practical solution for realizing much of the ethnographic gain without the ethnographic pain!

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

I Miss My Mind the Most
This summer, my family suffered the loss of its elder statesman. My Uncle Joe, one of the leading contributors to this country’s space program, passed away in late July, two days after the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing.

I don’t often have the opportunity to “shuffle off to Buffalo,” where he lived, but I flew in and out of Niagara International to attend the services. And somewhere along the way, I lost my old-school, hard-copy, why-in-the-world-do-I-insist-on-using-this-abacus, day-planner.

What a bummer. That simple “prop” keeps track of all the really important aspects of my life, such as how I spend my time, how I spend my money, what I intend to do tomorrow at work and even where I hope to spend my next vacation.

And so when I returned home and noticed it missing, I called my colleague and friend Mark, to wail about my misfortune. Thankfully, he “talked me down” (Mark’s good at that) and helped me re-create many of the highlights of the day planner’s contents.

But it wasn’t easy. It took about an hour of careful questions, attentive follow-up and, thanks to Mark’s knowledge of many of my activities and priorities, a number of suggestions and informed queries. But finally, finally, I felt confident that we had pieced back together the projects on which I was working and the contents of my errant datebook.

A few days later, when my day planner arrived in the mail (one of my cousins found it in a bureau in a guest room [right in the drawer where I had put it so I wouldn’t forget it] and sent it back to me), I ecstatically reviewed the well-worn pages of my old friend, relieved and delighted to have my life back.

What a surprise… my recollections were astonishingly spotty. How had I forgotten spending an entire Saturday on a proposal? Or overlooked attending a two-hour Webinar on panel quality? Or failed to capture the night I worked late to edit a client’s final report?

To tell you the truth, I was amazed to see how much I had missed or minimized — despite the painstaking work Mark and I had done together, not to mention how sure I was that we had recreated just about everything.

And that, at its heart, is the challenge that both researchers and participants face when conducting a study.

Human beings, despite our protestations to the contrary, are just not that good at accurately recalling past actions, activities, motivations, needs and the circumstances under which all those occur.

Survey participants routinely forget when they did something, why they did it, the manner in which they did it, what their frustrations were along the way, whether they accomplished their initial objective, and even sometimes, what the initial objectives were to begin with.

It’s partly because of this tendency to forget (particularly when it comes to painful or difficult experiences), that Ethnography — an approach that allows researchers to gain insight through first-hand behavioral observation — has become so popular.

Ethnography lets researchers learn things without necessarily knowing beforehand what they’re looking for (and therefore, what to ask about). In addition, by using real-time observation, the ethnographer is less reliant than researchers using other methods on participants’ ability to accurately recall all details of a product or service experience.

That’s the good news. The problem is that ethnography is logistically challenging, time-consuming, and expensive. Also, the results are often biased by the very nature of the process; Big Brother aside, many people change their behavior when they know they are being observed, even when they are encouraged not to do so.

Fortunately, there is a solution… a solution which offers a practical means for realizing many of the benefits of this specialized process, while minimizing the time, effort and expense. It involves conducting the research over the telephone via in-depth qualitative interviews.

Further, to avoid the limited and faulty results that Mark and I experienced when trying to re-create the contents of my day planner from pure memory, participants are encouraged (and sometimes required) to use props. For example:
  • For an investment advice provider, our interviewers reviewed — over the telephone and page by page — a comprehensive financial plan that the advice clients received from the provider.
  • On behalf of an advertiser, our interviewers paged through the same copies of magazines as readers, while conducting a 30-minute telephone conversation about specific advertisements in those magazines.
  • For a seafood distributor, our interviewers reviewed with consumers their intended shopping lists. And then, after the shopping trips, compared the actual vs. intended purchases and reasons for inconsistencies.
Here’s the Twist: As researchers, we can obtain many of the benefits of ethnographic research at a fraction of the invested time and cost, through careful advance planning and by using the same kinds of tools (visual prompts, diaries, lists, etc.) that we all use in our everyday lives.

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In practice, it takes careful and creative planning to realize the benefits of ethnography via in-depth, qualitative telephone interviews as described above. Here are some of the elements we used in a recent study of this kind:

  1. Engage participants early. Participant cooperation is important in a study like this and making sure they are on board from the start makes a big difference later on. During the recruitment phase, we made sure to clearly explain the level of commitment required (e.g. daily maintenance of a diary and four to six 15-minute telephone conversations over two to three weeks).
  1. Use at least one memory aide. We asked survey participants to maintain a daily diary at a particular level of detail, to make it easier for them to remember their objectives, activities, motivations, needs and frustrations, as well as the circumstances under which all those occurred. Then we asked them to share this detail with our researchers.
  1. Keep it fresh. Even with the use of multiple memory aides, survey participants will forget details. Therefore, we opted for multiple short conversations through the course of the study (from four to eight over the course of three weeks), rather than one or two longer “debriefs.” This ensured that we would be discussing events soon after they occurred.


I Miss My Mind the Most

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

About Us

We’re delighted to announce that Mark will be presenting more about how we use this alternative approach to ethnography, along with one of our clients who has worked with us in this way, at The Market Research Event on Tuesday, October 20th.

The Market Research Event is being held at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas from October 18th to 21st. If you are planning to attend, please send us an email and/or stop by our booth (Booth number 503)!

Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.

— Mark Twain, repeated by Ozzy Osborne

Problems? Click here to send us an email with your request.
The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. The “Twist” to what we offer is this: We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data. As a result, our clients gain more actionable and valuable insights from their research efforts.

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