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Importance of Ethnographic Research | By Paul Miklautsch

Here at Start Something Bold, we use a variety of research tools to help us explore opportunities and build new products and services. Ethnographic research is an important one, which is why we want to focus on explaining it more. What is ethnographic research? When and why do you use it? That’s what you can learn here.

Why Ethnographic Research? 

The benefit of this type of research is building real empathy. Authentically understanding what a person experiences and the roadblocks they encounter along the way. We can ask people many questions through in-depth interviews, but we can learn infinitely more by seeing them in their natural state, going about their usual routine. The more complex a process, the more helpful it is to have insights from ethnographic research.

What is Ethnographic Research? 

Simply put, ethnographic research is observing something as it happens ”in the field,” as we call it. For us, that could mean in a lab, a surgery, a manufacturing facility or a range of other medical or manufacturing settings.

Ethnographic Blog 2

*Image was taken from the Bold team on site in London

Ethnographic Research Methods 

There are a variety of ways to observe in the field:

  1. Observing without interjection. This can be through video footage or observing on-site without interrupting. Video is a great way to bring a multifunctional team into the field without truly taking them there–especially if teams are scattered around the globe.
  2. Time motion video. If we want to look at a repetitive action or study a long routine, this may be the most helpful way to do so.
  3. Shadowing with interjection. In this scenario, we talk and and ask questions as an individual goes through a routine or procedure. This way, we can ask specific questions like why they do one thing versus another, the logic behind an order or probe about pain points of the process.

An Example of Ethnographic Research 

Take your family’s morning routine in the kitchen for example. If we asked you to describe how it works and what could be better about it,  would you likely leave out some steps or helpful details unintentionally? 

Now, say we came by for a cup of coffee and observed your family’s morning routine as it unfolds in your kitchen. By being there, we can truly understand your process, the interactions of family members, the placement of different items and stations (the toaster, the coffee maker, the dishes). We’d likely see many details you wouldn’t think to describe in an interview outside of your home. 

By noticing that your coffee mugs are across the kitchen from your coffee maker, or that your coffee maker is the activity that takes the longest when making breakfast, we may be able to identify inefficiencies or product improvement opportunities that would truly help your morning routine be a better experience. 

When we apply this thinking to a complicated surgery or a complex product, you can see how being there, in it, with professionals as they interact with their space and each other, can reveal insights that other research methods simply cannot.

Ethnographic Blog 1

*Image was taken from the Bold team on site in Bangkok

When do We Use Ethnographic Research?

Ethnographic research is a great way to study interactions in the field. Sequencing, steps, seemingly inconsequential movements and interactions between people, products and their space. We can see how the same product or process plays out in different use cases and different people in a variety of roles. 

Here are some ethnographic research questions we may want to answer:

  • What are the natural user behaviors?
  • What space and environment factors influence the user?
  • How many user interactions happen with a product?
  • What do people do subconsciously that they may have a difficult time remembering, explaining, or describing what they are doing?

What are the Outcomes?

So what does Start Something Bold do with the insights we uncover? One deliverable  is  a workflow map to show how users move through a space to understand tasks, time and product and user interactions. This is used to identify pain points, challenges or opportunities for efficiencies. The deliverable we produce really depends on your specific research objective and how we want to apply it to your innovation strategy.

As a front end innovation partner, we specialize in ethnographic research, from designing the study to mining the insights it reveals. Want to find out how our approach is different than what you’ve been doing? Or see how this kind of research applies to your product or service? 

Also, we know gaining access to environments can be a challenge. Let us talk you through how we’ve had success at this in a variety of verticals around the world--including video options. Contact us and let’s talk about your company and what you’d like to better understand about your audience.

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By Paul Miklautsch - November 04, 2020

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