What is ethnography?

Ethnography is one of the methods we use in our CX Lab Tests.  Although it’s not a new research method, it’s not yet used to its full potential by businesses.  We’re always excited by the insights revealed by our ethnographic research.  If you’d like to know more about what exactly ethnography is, read on for the lowdown!

Ethnography is a qualitative research method.  It was originally developed by anthropologists in the late 19th century, but has since become used in many different fields including medicine and business.  Ethnographical research aims to scientifically describe the culture of people or a group of people.  It uses observation to try to understand how people live their lives.  In essence, it encourages us to set aside our preconceptions and use our ears and eyes to truly listen, watch, and learn from customers.

Traditional business research methods usually involve the researchers asking customers (and employees) very specific questions. The research questions tend to be either face to face or via a survey.  Ethnography aims to observe and understand consumers’ behaviour on their own terms, not through the clients’ eyes.  Observation can be done in a number of ways, such as in person, or using hidden cameras or audio recording (with permission).

Mobile ethnography is also a great method that’s increasingly being used.  This involves customers using their own mobiles to photograph, video, and note take, in order to record their experience in real time.  Care must taken though, to ensure that customers record in real-time or as near to real-time as possible.  The danger, otherwise, is that mobile ethnography can become the capturing of the remembered experience, rather than the observation of what actual is happening in real-time.

For example, we used mobile ethnography with a major airline to evaluate the on-board services and work out which business and first class services made the most difference to customers’ motivation to fly with that airline. We discovered that customers ranked in-flight beauty services the lowest of all the services. As a result the client removed this service, saving $10m, with absolutely no impact on bookings, loyalty or satisfaction. The client had previously done extensive segmentation analysis, customer surveys with regression analysis and hadn’t been able to make this discovery.

Whatever the method of observation, it’s important that it is done in the customer’s own environment, in their home, at leisure or at work. So for example, when we conducted ethnographic research into the supermarket customer experience, we observed customers actually doing a shop in their supermarket. Simply filming interviews with customers after their shop would not be ethnography.

Why ethnography works

The advantage of ethnography is that it gives an unbiased insight into how customers actually behave. As we all know, when asked for feedback, customers often tell us what they think we want to hear – self reporting can be unreliable. There are often differences between what people say they do and what they actually do. Ethnography shows up these disparities, and thus can reveal what truly causes both pain and pleasure for customers.    Ethnography gives a deep understanding that big data and quantitative research methods cannot alone supply.

“Ethnography can result in breakthroughs for brands, offering an insight into what people are really like, rather than what they want researchers to think they are like.” [David Burrows, Marketing Week, 2014]

Aside from major breakthroughs, this type of research is also great at highlighting the simple tweaks that can be made to improve the experience for customers. These small bumps in the customer journey often go unnoticed by traditional feedback and survey methods. By seeing the journey through the eyes of the customer, a light is shone on the little niggles that need smoothing out.

For example, we were able to show a retail client how their customers were unnerved by an automatic door which had its motion sensor set 6 inches too short. The doors opened slightly later than the customers were anticipating, causing them to break their stride, and look alarmed. This seems like a tiny detail, but physiologically it’s actually important to get right, especially since this is the very start of the in-store journey. It’s vital that customers arrive in the store feeling relaxed. By altering the setting of the motion sensor – a quick and easy task – this hiccup was removed.

Ethnography in employee research

Of course, everything we’ve just described applies equally to employee research. Ethnography has huge potential for providing deep insight into employee motivation and engagement. By observing and seeking to understand employee responses it makes it much more possible to encourage people to take action to change their behaviour.

A great example of this is employees washing their hands in hospitals, as described by Tali Sharot in her wonderful book, The Influential Mind. The signs we see everywhere in the staff washrooms of restaurants, hotels and hospitals command employees to “now wash your hands”. These signs are ineffective, for example as shown by Cradnell et al in 2016. In the US the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that 62% of employees across hundreds of food outlets were not washing their hands. In 2008 a research team measured hand washing compliance in an ICU unit in an American hospital. It was very low. Instead of using signs, the team installed surveillance cameras at the sinks, and doorway sensors. Compliance remained low, at 10%. In the next phase of the experiment, the team put electronic boards in the washrooms. This showed a live percentage of employees who were washing their hands, the weekly success rate, together with a few encouraging words. Compliance rose to 90%! The experiment was rolled out more widely in the hospital, with the same remarkable results.

The reason behind the dramatic behaviour change is that as humans, we take action when there is a positive emotion associated with it, and we don’t take action when we anticipate pain. We move towards pleasure and away from pain. It’s as simple as that. It’s a principle that is not used enough in training, internal communications, and by managers when giving instructions.

Employee engagement is almost entirely measured by quantitative survey methods, with the odd focus group thrown in. Ethnography provides a great opportunity to walk in someone’s shoes and understand their motivation and engagement much more deeply.

In summary, if you want to understand what your customers do (or employees do), and why they do it, ethnography is an essential tool. Our CX Lab research methods combine both ethnography with biometric measurement, to give our clients unique insights.