About the research we do
The consumer research we do is grounded in ethnography and social anthropology. By which we mean research with real people in their natural setting — using observation, interaction, and structured interviews — to explore and uncover their cultural frames of reference. In other words, how they see and experience the world.
Because we are asking open questions, listening, interacting and observing people in their own environment, it means we are not testing prior assumptions or hypotheses, unlike some other types of research.
Using our background in social anthropology, we analyse the data we have collected in the field and look for the patterns and themes, and provide context to the findings — the meanings people attribute to things, their beliefs and values, and ways of doing things.
What is social anthropology and ethnography?
Very simply, social anthropology is the study of human groups through a cultural lens. It is a social science that seeks to understand human behaviour within the social context and looks at the cultural beliefs and practices that underpin what people do. Anthropology gets underneath the social surface and makes visible that which is largely invisible. Anthropologists are interested in why people do what they do.
The research method that anthropologists use to collect data is called ethnographic research, which tends to get shortened to ethnography. Ethnographic research was ‘invented’ by the anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, who in 1922 published the first ethnography, The Argonauts of the Western Pacific, in which he described this now familiar research method. In academic settings, ethnographic research is typically characterised by long-term fieldwork during which time the researcher usually lives among the people they are studying and seeking to understand. Because of its immersive nature, this method reveals powerful insights into why people do what they do. Research in the field is followed by analysis, which entails organising the data in a logical way and using social theory (‘idea tools’) to make sense of the picture that emerges.
Business has been quick to recognise ethnographic research as a way to uncover customer insights and to drive innovation. And since businesses do not have the luxury of time, anthropologists working in corporate environments adjust their research scope and methods to produce valuable work within the constraints imposed by the commercial context.
What will ethnographic research tell me that a focus group or usability testing can’t?
Ethnographic research is a way of getting really close to your customers – you’ll see into their lives in a way that you will find fascinating (and possibly addictive!) – up close your customers will become ‘real’ people right before your eyes.
Focus groups are an opportunity to explore people’s opinions in a group setting and are useful way to listen to consumers express what they think about topics. A focus group may raise questions that you want to explore more deeply with ethnographic research.
Usability testing verifies whether people can use your prototype – the focus is on the product. This type of research answers the question: can people use this product? Which is a very different question to the one ethnographic research asks: how would your product or service fit (or not) into people’s lives? By revealing participants’ lives – their attitudes, beliefs, value systems, behaviours, norms, practices – ethnographic research can help you uncover unmet and unexpressed needs, which will help you design a better product or service.
How successful companies have used ethnographic research
- Miele: Ethnographic research revealed that customers with allergies were vacuuming their mattresses to remove allergens. Miele developed a vacuum cleaner that indicated when something was dust-free which reduced the amount of time spent vacuuming and provided peace of mind. Miele also used the insights to develop a washing machine with an extra rinse cycle to remove detergent residues.
- HTC: Using the insights from ethnographic research, HTC introduced new functionality into its HTC One (M8) such as the ability to lock and unlock the device simply by double-tapping the screen, and answering the phone by lifting the phone to your ear.
- Proctor and Gamble: Ethnographic research led to the hugely-successful domestic cleaning product, the Swiffer, “an idea that was based on consumer understanding, but no consumer specifically asked for it”. The Swiffer generated $100 million in sales in the final four months of 1999 (the year it was launched). The Swiffer product line is still a leading brand for P&G, with $500 million in sales annually.
- Samsung: In 2003, Samsung used ethnographic research to discover how people interacted with their TVs. Much to their surprise, Samsung designers found that people were more concerned with how the TV looked in their living rooms rather than the screen resolution. This insight led Samsung engineers to design the Bordeaux model. At launch, Samsung sold a million units in the first six months.
- Ikea: Ikea uses ethnographic research to better understand its customers, such as how they use their sofas, and how one product can be used so very differently across the globe. They also produce annual Life At Home reports to understand their customers' lives to create products that solve actual challenges.
- Whirlpool: Whirlpool used ethnographic research to bring a radically new washing machine to market. The outcome of their research and analysis was the extremely successful Whirlpool Duet, which changed the industry. Whirlpool went from 0% market share to almost 80% market share in 6 months.
- Fisher and Paykel: The idea behind New Zealand company Fisher and Paykel's innovative DishDrawer came about by the design team spending time in people's homes watching how they used their kitchen. They "took inspiration from an unrelated kitchen function – the drawer – and created a hybrid between the two". As their Industrial Design Manager Mark Elmore explains, "If you ask people what their problems are, they'll tell you what they think they are. But if you watch them you realise there are other problems that they've learned to work around. They've got used to the way they do things, so you need to look underneath their stated needs."
- Intel: Intel has a dedicated team of anthropologists, headed up by Genevieve Bell. Since 1998 she has been helping Intel to “shape next generation technology innovations”.
Advantages of ethnographic research
- Provides deep insights into how people behave in a way that few other research methods can – which is why it’s so highly regarded by companies such as Intel, Microsoft, Proctor and Gamble, Google, and Miele.
- Dispels assumptions about how people use things versus the actual lived experience of those people.
- Highlights the contradictions between what people say they do and what they actually do.
- Immersion into people’s world and life – their actual, lived life – reveals pain points, frustrations, and unmet needs – all of which can be used to bring unique product innovations to market that puts you ahead of your competition.
When should ethnographic research take place in the design process?
Ideally, ethnographic research should take place before design of the product or service begins. In design thinking, it is conducted in the Empathize stage with design concepts emerging once the analysis and dissemination of the ethnographic findings are complete.
If you are designing a complex system or software, ethnographic research conducted in the technology lifecycle is not just a method to show how the UI (user interface) should be designed but rather the system as a whole – in other words, the fundamental principles on which the system is designed. Ethnographic research conducted before any code is even written has a far greater impact than research done later in the development cycle.
How can ethnography be used to improve existing products or services?
Ethnography is also very useful when existing products or services are being redesigned or taken in a new direction. Perhaps customer feedback has highlighted some problems with your product or service, and you want to explore these in more depth with real customers in their own environment.
In the comfort of their own home, car, or place of work, people behave more naturally and by observing them using your products and asking questions, our research will show the difficulties your customers are having, which may provide the justification for a product or service re-design. Also, observing customers using your products may reveal additional pain points of which they themselves (and you) were unaware, which may provide your designers with the opportunity to design new features to meet these unmet and unexpressed needs.
Ethnographic research: identifying bona fide practitioners
Ethnographic research has become very much ‘in vogue’ to the extent that everybody seems to be ‘doing ethnography’ these days. Here are some tips to distinguish bona fide practitioners from the rest of the pack.
- Research informed by anthropological theory: Any firm offering ethnographic research should have either an anthropologist or a sociologist on their staff who has been trained to graduate (BA) or post-graduate (MA or PhD) level. Real ethnographic research is rooted in the methods and theory of anthropology. Otherwise the ethnographic research you’re paying for is just another market research method.
- Ethnography is not quick: If you are being promised ethnographic research that only takes a week, then it’s not ethnographic research. While ethnographic researchers have certainly sped up the research method in response to the constraints imposed by the commercial environment, ultimately, done too fast, ethnographic research loses its power to deliver in-depth insights.
- Ethnography takes place in the field: Ethnographic research involves researching people in their own environments (the ‘field’), not in a lab, with people who are ‘real’ people, not people who have actively chosen to take part in market or user research, or who are friends or employees.
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