Using Ethnographic Research in Business

By Natalie Cheng | Dec 02, 2014

Trying to understand your customers and your business better? One tool you can use is ethnographic research, which allows an organization to learn about the user’s current experiences so that teams can figure out how to create an even better experience. Ethnography, which comes from sociology, is the process of reporting on what you’ve learned about people and cultures. It involves participant observation and intensive fieldwork. It’s important to know how users interact in a natural environment and this is a way to do so. You can collect information on their behaviors and qualitative and quantitative data. Often, you may think that you know how people will use something, but after research, it can turn out to be completely different. Also, since ethnographic research allows you to view people in their natural environment, you can see their struggles and tie it all back to the system design. By using ethnographic research, companies are able to design and develop a more robust product in order to enhance the user experience.

Benefits of Ethnographic Research

There are some key benefits of using ethnographic research. These benefits include:

  • Can reveal unarticulated needs
  • Build a relationship with research participants
  • Capture visual and emotional behavior
  • See the user’s behavior in different contexts
  • Test market demand for products that aren’t in existence
  • Identify differences between what people say and what they do
  • Help uncover opportunities to differentiate from the competition and identify new products that would be valued by a particular group

Companies Using Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research isn’t just used in the classroom. Various companies have realized the value of ethnographic research. Intel uses ethnographic research to inform and plan their long-term strategy. According to Intel, they use ethnography because “it enlightens us about the context in which customers would use a new product and the meaning that product might hold in their lives.” In addition, the company has realized the benefits of being able to discover hidden trends by using ethnographic research. As stated in Harvard Business Review, “Ethnography has proved so valuable at Intel that the company now employs two dozen anthropologists and other trained ethnographers, probably the biggest such corporate staff in the world.”

Another company that has found value in conducting ethnographic research is The LEGO Group. When the early 2000s hit, the LEGO Group started struggling especially since the recession impacted many markets and hurt overall sales. A major problem the company struggled with was that kids didn’t like LEGO’s new designs. The company was losing $1 million every day.

To fix this issue, LEGO decided to spend time trying to figure out what the market valued in order to create products that people wanted and increase sales. This is where user research came in. LEGO decided to send user researchers or “anthros” to observe kids, toys, and families in areas where LEGO did business. These user researchers set out to focus on culture: “the meanings that kids found in favorite possessions; how, where, and why they played; and differences in parenting and play styles across the regions where LEGO did most of its business: Asia, Europe, and the United States.” (Observing the User Experience) In these ethnographic studies, researchers visited kids’ homes and interviewed them and then watched them play with different toys and objects. The company found that the meaning of play to children centered around storytelling and whether or not a toy fit into the story. Surprisingly, researchers found that toys weren’t about being fancy or having many features. Toys are about storytelling. Researchers also discovered that playtime for children was about “mastery” where they would learn skills and then demonstrate them to others. With this information, LEGO adjusted its strategy and changed its design direction. Designers decided to reduce the number of different pieces and worked with researchers to enhance the mastery of experience component.

Besides storytelling and mastery, the LEGO researchers found that they had been ignoring a core user group – adults that were devoted fans of LEGO. At the time, LEGO executives didn’t see any reason why they should cultivate this group of older customers. However, this way of thinking turned out to be a mistake since these adult fans were actually helping the company by building massive LEGO installations, which attracted media stories on TV and in newspapers. Furthermore, these fans had built up communities on the Internet. After learning about this, LEGO created a program to develop long-term relationships with these LEGO Ambassadors and also released special products that would cater to adults.

The results of conducting ethnographic research were stunning. LEGO was able to control costs and reclaimed its identity, leading to revenue increases of 105% and continued revenue growth. The company has since committed more time to user research. As one can see, user research helped LEGO tremendously by showing the company how to redesign its products to delight kids, how to build strong relationships with older fans, and how to control production costs.

The lessons that LEGO learned can be applied to software and app development as well. Using ethnographic research to study workers in the field gives app developers and designers insight into how employees complete tasks. Then, this information can be studied in order to figure out where and how technology can be applied to make the workforce more efficient and better while still aligning with business objectives.

Your organization can realize benefits as well by finding the right user research tool to use and implementing it with support from management. Ultimately, the goal would be for user research to thrive in an organization and be integrated into the everyday business process.
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