Beyond Customer Interviews: Ethnography

Meg Davis  

May 09, 2012

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Every company wants better insights into their customers - so how do you get to the holy grail of customer insights? Ethnographic research is one best practice to getting to customer insights. According to a commissioned study conducted by Forrester consulting on behalf of Extractable, Data Driven Design: Digital Experience Teams Are Focused On Website Metrics That Don't Demonstrate Business Value (April 2012), the #1 tool that companies are not using but that they believe could provide new information they do not have today is ethnography.

Despite this recognition of the value of ethnography, interviews with customers are used as a replacement method for ethnographic research because of the expense associated with field research. It's important to understand the differences between interviews and ethnographic research to understand what kind of customer insights you are missing out on if you only do interviews with customers.

  • What is an Interview?
    • Duration: 30 minutes to several hours
    • Format: Sitting down with a customer and talking through a pre-made list of questions
  • What is Ethnographic Research?
    • Duration: 2 to 6 hours
    • Format: Observing customer at work in their environment, occasionally interrupting the customer to ask clarifying questions that come as a result of what you observe
  • Why Interviews are not sufficient
    • Interviews don't tell you what you don't know you don't know. In other words, interviews are designed by a moderator around certain topics. If a topic is not covered in the interview but is important to the customer you are interviewing, you may never ever know about its existence. Asking open questions can help to mitigate this problem, but it does not solve it.
    • People leave out what they consider routine details when recounting past events. People are good at telling you what they did in the past but not as good at telling you what they desire in the future. However, while customers can give you feedback about past experiences, they will leave our details that don't seem important to them. These details may indeed be the new seeds of innovation.
    • Interviews can restrict what customers share due to political or relational concerns. Customers sometimes are hesitant to give negative feedback in the presence of a company they have a close relationship with. Customers can sometimes better demonstrate their frustration than articulate it in words.
    • Interviews do not capture the context of the interaction. Customers can recount past experiences, but it is hard to understand the environment in which these events happened. What does a customer's desk look like? Who does a customer talk to every day? When a customer receives a package from your company, how does that package come to them? An interview cannot answer these questions.
  • Why Your Company can Benefit From Ethnographic Research
    • Ethnographic research offers insight into context and culture. Field research requires that the design team is on-site at the place where the customers are doing their work. This allows us to understand what physical and cultural implications affect the workplace. It allows the design team to see how customers model their workplace for optimal work flow. We see what other tools the customers use in their workplace in addition to the website and how the website is used in conjunction with other tools.
    • Ethnographic research helps the design team understand what we don't know. Because of the more exploratory nature of ethnographic research, it helps us understand what work or needs are not currently supported on the website. This identifies opportunities to surpass competition and do something that no one else is doing in the market today.
    • Ethnographic research provides guidance for emotional design. Design and usability are fundamentally about ensuring that a customer can accomplish the tasks they need to on the site. However, emotional design holds that emotions also have a crucial role in the human ability to understand the world and learn new things. By understanding how customers setup their own workplace, we can use metaphors to setup the website in the same way to emotionally resonate with them. We want to build on the natural way that people work.
    • Ethnographic research expresses the whole process, no just bits and pieces. Being in context with the customers doing work, we will be able to see the work as a continuous flow of tasks instead of discrete and artificial tasks. In interviews, customers tend to abstract information about their work. We want to know the concrete details of their work, and we can find that out by watching them do their work.
    • Ethnographic research informs beyond the website. Because of the thorough exploration of how customers do their work and what culture they do their work in, the data from ethnographic research can inform businesses processes and strategies beyond the digital strategy.
  • The next time your company is evaluating strategies for identifying customer insights, consider the value that ethnography brings to the table above and beyond customer interviews.