Stemming from anthropology, ethnographic research is the study of a something — in this case a business — in its own environment. My company uses it to meet with clients face-to-face and observe them in their normal environment. This allows us to view the real relationships between the business and its own clients, and as a byproduct, what the products or services they’re providing need to succeed.
Ethnographic research is without a doubt the largest part of achieving our user experience (UX) goals. However, it also can work for other types of businesses, whether you’re selling software like us, doing digital marketing, or offering a product like baby clothes.
How Ethnographic Research Can Help Your Business
My company UM Technologies is not the pioneer of this strategy. As Intel Research’s anthropologist Ken Anderson said, when he summed up the use of ethnographic research inHarvard Business Review, “Our goal is to see people’s behavior on their terms, not ours. While this observational method may appear inefficient, it enlightens us about the context in which customers would use a new product and the meaning that product might hold in their lives.”
An example of this in action: My firm completed work for a utility company’s platform in a market that had no existing systems to model from. We based our initial design on user observation and modified this based on user feedback about what features were important to them for running the business. The result was a focus on triggering alarms when things went wrong, without the need to review when things ran properly. Without having observed its natural business environment, we would not have been able to know what the company needed or been able to build a design tailored to the business.
We’ve found ethnographic research when seeking UX solutions powerful, and so can you. The following are important guidelines for incorporating this type of research into your business plan.
Pinpoint The Actual Needs Of The Business
By viewing a company’s business-client relationships in real time, the actual needs of the business can surface — not just the wants. Sometimes, too much energy is placed on a business’s wants instead of what product or services their customers actually need.
Wants are usually addressed during conferences or internal meetings — this could be the idea of improving the product, which is mostly based on customer interactions. To find the real needs of the business, observe how their customers react to the business — either by watching the sales people or client services staff. The real needs of the customer, and consequently the business, will emerge.
For us, viewing the utility company it in its natural environment helped us figure out what they actually needed — rather than what they said they wanted.
Understand The True Client
Businesses spend a lot of energy trying to understand what they perceive are the optimal clients. Although you can learn from objective data, nothing pushes along the client discovery process more than observing a customer talking with a client services person.
When observing the client service employees at the utility company, we quickly realized that some were not asking a few basic protocol discovery questions. Discovering this not only helped the utility company itself, but a few answers to these missing questions helped us improve the software we eventually developed.
A business can learn a lot during this observation — a core tenant of ethnographic research — and the lessons are absorbed more quickly than time-consuming, data-based studies.
Predict Design Through A Business’s Natural Flow
The most important takeaway of ethnographic research is its ability to predict future design elements of your product or services model, or the entire business itself. As you observe the reaction of a client and business in real time, you’ll also observe trends that are naturally developing within the industry.
If you can recognize these movements quickly, it will help you freshen your product or services and give you a jump on the competition.
The most successful and sustainable businesses have deep thinkers throughout their organization, ones who master both long-term strategy and everyday tactics. Using ethnographic research as part of this can help you stay ahead of the competition and create a truly valuable product or service.
Stiner, Scott. 2016. “How To Use Ethnographic Research To Help Your Business”. Forbes. Posted: June 1, 2016. Available online: http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2016/06/01/how-to-use-ethnographic-research-to-help-your-business/#78a8dfe269ec