The myth

Ethnography can be done by almost anyone and involves watching people and that’s all there is to it: there is no real skill in it.

As a result it’s frequently discounted in terms of it’s usefulness, at least in part because clients don’t get to ‘see it’ as they do with focus groups.

The second myth is that

You can just ‘add on’ a bit of time for ethnography.

Ethnography is a discipline and it requires someone with true ethnographic training, someone who knows what to look for and what not to look for.

They see what others don’t see because they are trained to a high level in observation, and as a result, they get understanding that others don’t.

So don’t send juniors off to the supermarket for a couple of hours and dub it ethnography!


    The truth

    Ethnography is a discipline which needs to be undertaken by an ethnographer or anthropologist.

    It’s very good at unearthing problems or opportunities that people don’t remember in focus groups, i.e. latent or covert needs.

    If you think of Dyson, did anyone ask for a bladeless fan?

    No it’s not something you think about unless you are in situ.

    Neither are many incremental improvements that can be made to services, brands or products memorable enough to recall in focus groups – they are only visible from observation.

    Most product designers spend hours, literally, studying their potential market to understand the hidden problems.

    Don’t let ethnography be down-graded to a tag along extra.

    Done properly it is at least as useful as focus groups, and they compliment each other. 

    3 step process

    1. First, you need to find people who are truly open to being observed, and ask if you can record their lives.  This might mean living with a family for a few days.

    2. You use the ethnography videos to understand people’s lives more deeply, and uncover problems.

    3. Option – you then put the videos up which capture different markets and ask people to identify with the group that’s most similar to them.  This becomes a great starting point to do focus groups.