How to do ethnography the right way: 3 tips for getting a better understanding of your customers

Ethnography has become a buzzword, almost to the point of being a joke. But it can be a powerful tool for ensuring success of a product or service when done right.

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Ethnography and ethnographic research have entered the management vernacular at many companies, to the point that they'll generate the same occasional eye rolls you'll see when mentioning Millennials or customer experience. However, despite being frequently misunderstood and ineffectively applied, ethnographic research is a powerful tool for technology leaders.

So, what exactly is ethnography?

Ethnography solves the common problem of acquiring tacit knowledge: knowledge that's difficult to transfer by written or verbal communication. Ask someone how to write a poem, swim the butterfly, or write elegant and efficient code, and you'll probably get a collection of rules and tips, but not be able to execute the task yourself. By observing practitioners of a process, the ethnographer is able to identify the tacit knowledge and document it in a way that a non-practitioner can develop solutions to the practitioner's unarticulated problems.

Ethnography is essentially the study of people and their interactions through observation. It was originally developed as a subset of anthropology, and used as a technique to determine the cultural and social norms of different peoples. You could imagine how ethnography might apply when discovering a long-lost group of humans in the Amazon rainforest or deep in the jungles of Indonesia: a researcher would attempt to observe the customs and interactions of this unfamiliar group, and determine how they lived, interacted, and related to each other and their environment.

Done well, ethnographic research is executed in a similar manner in a business context. If you were developing a new mobile app for your factory workers, an ethnographer would observe how they interacted with the tools they use, how they interacted with each other, and the norms and customs that defined how they performed their job. The researcher would abandon his or her own personal biases and knowledge of manufacturing, and try to get to the root cause of why workers performed in a certain way.

SEE: Smart office technology: What's working, what's failing, and what users want out of it (Tech Pro Research)

Why is ethnographic research relevant?

Continuing with the above example, armed with detailed knowledge about how our factory workers performed their jobs, you could develop tools and ways of working that immediately resonated with them, were readily understandable, and improved their jobs significantly. It's the equivalent of providing someone with a custom, carefully tailored garment that's designed for their climate, versus tossing them a one size fits all snow parka, never mind that they're living in a desert.

Ethnography extends the notion that the best products, whether they're a logistics application, pickup truck, tea kettle, or CNC machine, are designed with the end user in mind. Ethnographic research is often the starting point for design thinking or user-centered design, since it's critical to understand the end user before attempting to build a product for them.

If you use ethnography effectively, you're more likely to deliver applications and products that create maximum benefit for the end user, with minimal training and adoption costs. Think of tools or technologies you've picked up, and immediately understood how to use them to be more productive. Ethnography gives you the data required to create these types of tools more often.

SEE: Turning Big Data into Business Insights (ZDNet special feature) | Download it as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Tips for doing ethnography the right way

Perhaps the biggest challenge to doing proper ethnographic research is that the process and insights seem staggeringly simple to achieve. When I talk to companies, they'll often suggest we skip any ethnographic research, saying "We've already done a couple of surveys and focus groups." While surveys and focus groups can provide valuable data, they're not the right tool to identify tacit knowledge. The other challenge is that, superficially, ethnographic research seems like a simple task to perform. The assumption is that one could drop a couple of interns with clipboards and a video camera in a customer's house, and it should be just as effective as professional ethnographers, since the latter usually show up similarly equipped.

1. Observe what ethnographers actually do

Like everything from IT architecture to leadership, there is a complex set of skills and techniques beyond asking questions and videotaping, and if you decide to leverage ethnographers, I highly recommend joining them during some of their research. Seeing and hearing your customer group, and observing them in their "native" environment, is powerful, and will help create a connection and understanding you may have previously lacked. Having some of your team members ride along with the pros can start to create this capability internally, but it's critical that you provide this training before unleashing any warm body upon your customers. Not only do you risk not gathering helpful data, but your ethnographers may be the most intensive interaction your customer segment has ever had with your organization, and it's important to make the experience positive and constructive.

2. Test the waters internally first

If you've never used ethnography, start in a relatively "safe space," either using professionals to execute external customer research, or experimenting a bit on lower-risk groups like internal users and employees. Unleash a few interested persons on your IT help desk or a similar internal process, and ask them to share any insights they glean through observation.

3. Share results within the company

Finally, if you go through the time and expense of doing a proper ethnographic study, make sure you maximize the value you achieve through the study. Invite other leaders to "ride along" and observe customer interactions (without overwhelming the customer, of course), and publish and share the results with other parts of the organization, as there are likely others that would benefit from the knowledge you glean. If you do the study well, it will likely benefit dozens of projects within the company, and find that ethnographic research is a powerful tool that may require some unfamiliar spending on the front end, but results in a significant return on the overall end product.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...