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Going on Location: Successful Ethnography for Voice of the Customer

By Kristyn Corrigan

The American anthropologist, Margaret Mead, said, “What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.” Mead was a pioneer in the field of ethnographic research. Ethnography involves observing people as they live and work, watching what they actually do, not what they say they do.Successful Ethnography for Voice of the Customer

Although very popular today, ethnography is more effective in some situations than others. It works best when you have something tangible to observe, such as customers using a physical product or completing a task. It’s less effective with businesses that don’t have a tangible product, such as understanding decision making criteria and processes among business managers. Furthermore, ethnography does not tell us why customers act the way they do. This requires talking to customers in a Voice of the Customer interview. As a result, it’s often best to combine ethnographic observation and interviewing. We might observe a customer doing something with a product and say: “I noticed you did this. Tell me more about why you did that.” We might not have known to ask about that behavior if we hadn’t observed customers acting a particular way, and we wouldn’t know why they acted that way if we hadn’t asked.

The most widely known approach to ethnography involves direct observation of product usage in the customer’s natural environment. This method involves visiting customers and watching them use your product in the typical way. This could be anything from watching a mother make lunch for her family in the kitchen to observing a foreman direct the duties of workers on a construction site.

These interactions are not solely observational. We ask questions, just like in a Voice of the Customer interview. Being there at the point of product usage often helps trigger the memory of a respondent about items of interest or frustration. In addition, being there with respondents as they use the product allows us to clarify statements by referencing a physical product, and ask probing questions based on our observation of the product: wear and tear, work-arounds, things like that.

Another form of ethnography is User Interface Research. This involves the observation of customers interacting with technology such as software or websites. It works in much the same way as that described previously for product usage.

Shop-alongs are also a popular form of ethnography. In this instance, an ethnographer accompanies a customer to a store to observe the shopping experience. This helps researchers learn first-hand about the complete buying experience, including issues such as store layout, aisle configurations, purchase-trade-offs and the check-out process.

Self-performed ethnography is a different but useful approach in the right setting. In this instance, the respondent collects ethnographic information without the presence of a researcher. This is typically done through the use of mobile technology involving still photographs, video or some combination of the two. Customers will use these images to tell a story about product usage. This could involve anything relevant, such as daily usage experiences or even the buying process. This method allows respondents to capture data on their own terms, without the potential bias of a researcher. It’s also often your only option if you’re dealing with a particularly sensitive issue such as the use of certain medical devices.Once you establish the type of ethnography you will conduct, it’s important to handle the logistics correctly. Below are a few tips to make your ethnographic research experience go smoothly.

Planning and Logistics: As with any research, up-front planning is critical to its success. Key questions to ask at this phase:

  • How many ethnographic visits does it make sense to conduct? In what locations? With whom?
  • How will respondents qualify?
  • How long will the research take to field?
  • Do I need approvals to visit them, such as on a jobsite?

Observation and Inquiry: Upon arrival, it’s important to have a game plan not only for observation and discussion, but also for the roles of each researcher Observing through Ethnographypresent. Typically, we recommend that no more than three individuals attend the ethnography, each with a defined role: someone to lead the observation and discussion, someone to take photos and videos and another to observe and take notes. Any more than this and the respondent may begin to feel intimidated or guarded. We suggest formulating a detailed observation plan, a note-taking document and an interview guide ahead of time. This will provide structure to the visit and make sure that you are capturing all that you had intended.

Data Capture: The most popular way to capture ethnographic data is through video, audio and still pictures. It is important to clearly catalog and label the artifacts from each visit in order to more easily conduct analysis. Other supplemental methods include diaries, homework or structured activities, often used to see how the respondent reacts to unfamiliar products or routines (e.g. I’d like you to do this task with this product.)

Analysis and interpretation: Ethnographic research produces a high volume of raw data such as transcripts, lists of behavioral observations, pictures, videos and audio. Synthesizing this information is labor intensive and involves multiple team members. Try not to underestimate the time it takes to do it right.

Ethnography is a valuable methodology because what people say and what they actually do are not necessarily the same. Observing customers using products or behaving in a real-world context can help us uncover valuable insight that we may not have gained otherwise. In order to be most effective, however, it’s critical that researchers combine observation with sound and probing interviewing to uncover the why behind what we see the customer do. Following these guidelines can help you add a powerful tool to your Voice of the Customer research toolkit.

Ethnography In-Depth Interviewing Voice of the Customer

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