July 18, 2017

Ethnographic research is still evolving and relevant for business

By Paul Laughlin

ethnographic researchThis week, following another wonderful wedding (my daughter this time), I’ve been thinking about ethnographic research.

A variety of circumstances, including the wedding, have meant I’ve reflected on the continued importance of human interaction and the power of observing people.

It’s easy, in our increasingly technology-focused world, to assume the future of any industry lies in increasing automation and use of AI to reduce reliance on humans.

But, what separates the technology that people adopt as part of their lives, from that which quickly goes out of fashion, is usability. Designing digital experiences, or human computer interaction, that is both easy & satisfying, requires not just technical skills but genuine insights into people and what works for them.

In a month when we are focussing on research skills & developments, this put me in mind of the tremendous power of ethnographic research.

Rather than just relying on ever faster mobile surveys and speed of user feedback, taking time to observe people in their natural environment still has huge potential.

If you’ve not had opportunity to experience the power of ethnographic research to inform your customer insight and product/service innovation, I hope this collection of posts helps. I have curated a few that interested me & reflect how ethnographic research is informing innovation today.

Ethnographic research and Autonomous Systems

Robots and autonomous cars might not be the first thin you think of when considering use cases for ethnography. Perception of both research and this technique can cause us to assume it is focussed on only the softer or ‘more human‘ elements of services. But, it is also playing a vital role at the forefront of technological innovation.

In this fascinating post, Madeleine Clare Elish from Data & Society, make a strong case for the importance of not neglecting human elements in the design and supervision of automated systems. I’ve experienced similar frustrations with Uber drivers and we are at risk of abdicating human responsibilities to Apps at a time when quality thinking is needed more than ever.

As she points out, given some of the risks involved, the newly emerging human-machine-systems need careful thinking about the human elements as much as machines. For both legal and CX reasons, ethnographic research & analysis is needed to identify new responsibilities and education needed for us all to be ready to collaborate with AI effectively:


Ethnographic Research goes back to the Library

University libraries might seem like a more likely candidate for ethnographic research. But, it can also risk playing into stereotypes of this approach being outdated or of more academic interest, rather than relevant for today’s fast paced businesses. However, this next post, from researchers at Cambridge University, reveals an approach that is also relevant for many businesses.

The focus of David Marshall’s post is the importance of empathy. Rather than viewing the participants of ethnographic research as your version of ‘lab rats‘, he outlines the benefits of building empathy. Several of his examples of methods and availability, show how a more collaborative and empathetic approach actually enable a deeper understanding of the people being studied. Several times during this post, it struck me how relevant this mindset is for businesses studying their customers.

Several themes that we have explored previously on this blog, are highlighted as learning points for David & his team during this research. The importance of both context & silent listening, to better understand, are clearly as important to quality research as they are to coaching conversations:

The importance of empathy

We all know that… It’s no secret that building strong relationships with research participants will encourage them to become more invested in studies and willing to commit, and that this can lead to a richer knowledge of an individual’s behaviours and needs, while also providing stronger insights into their wider framework of goals and values….


Ethnographic Research applied to improving UX design

One use case for ethnographic techniques, that is probably relevant for every business, is digital UX design. Far too many businesses have (at least in the past) launched websites or apps with insufficient research or testing of human usability or experience. My work with clients suggests this is improving, with more installing UX labs within their offices, but many still don’t know  how to get started.

So, to complement the advice you are likely to receive on the technology aspects of UX testing, I’ll share a useful post on how to apply ethnographic research principles.

If the previous two posts have sparked your curiosity and got you thinking about potential use cases in your business, this last one should help you start. In this post, Yona Gidalevitz from Codal, outlines 3 tenets of applied ethnography. He helpfully walks readers through the implications for the stages of: data collection; turning qualitative data into quant; using ethnography to generate or validate assumptions:

The 3 tenets of applied ethnography | Inside Design Blog

User experience design is an intriguing field. It’s relatively new, and relatively subjective. When designing a user experience, there’s a lot of judgement involved. For every piece of quantitative data we can use, there’s a piece of qualitative data that must be interpreted.

Who are you watching?

Hope that content was interesting and relevant to your Customer Insight practice.

Are you currently performing any ethnographic research? Who are you watching?

If you’ve learned lessons about how to apply these principles in real world businesses, please do share your wisdom with us. Just use the comment box below and you might even have the opportunity to share a guest blog post on your findings.

Have a great week and keep people watching!