The following is a guest post by Niraj Rajput, cofounder and Head of Engineering at Chisel Labs

Ethnographic research is a qualitative method of data collection in which the researcher observes and interacts with the subjects in their natural environment. This type of research requires intensive observation, so it can be difficult to get started if you are unsure where to start. 

That’s why we created this guide.

We will take you through what ethnographic research is, how it can help your business grow, and provide resources that will give you more information on how to conduct ethnography.

What is ethnographic research?
Steps involved in ethnographic research
Importance of ethnographic research
Significant properties of ethnographic research
Advantages of ethnographic research
Disadvantages of ethnographic research
Final thoughts

What is ethnographic research?

It is a tool that can be used in place of focus groups and interviews. It allows you to researchers can observe see what potential customers are doing in their natural environment, outside your office. 

Ethnographic research helps you understand how people use products so you can improve them.

This includes understanding when they use it, why they use it, and if anything is missing or needs improvement from an existing product/service. Additionally, ethnography allows for more in-depth study than just interviewing people about features. 

Because researchers get context and meaning behind each feature by seeing users interacting with them naturally in real-life scenarios without leading questions or specific tasks being asked beforehand.

The goal of this method is also to observe thought patterns while someone uses a product which can be difficult to do in a traditional user interview.

This research method is helpful for all stages of the design process and can provide insight into how products are used which leads to better ideas, more successful features, and ultimately happier customers.

Ethnographic research is a great way to get inside the user’s head.

In addition, researchers can observe the actual use of products in context. Not just do interviews where users explain what they would like from an app or website that doesn’t exist yet.

Today, many companies are making huge strides by going out into their customers’ worlds through mobile apps and wearable technology such as smartwatches. 

This allows them to better understand how people feel about features before launching anything online which can save time and money!

People love being able to see data visualizations on a watch. Rather than constantly pulling out their phone when checking email during lunch breaks at work. Hence,  this method has been extremely successful for some companies.

For companies that are looking to go beyond the mobile app, wearable technology is also a great way to get feedback from customers on what they want specifically. 

Instead of just asking them open-ended questions through an online survey or one-on-one interviews where users explain what they would like from an app or website that doesn’t exist yet.

Ethnographic research is an amazing research method. How exactly do you carry out this research? Let us look into that now.

Steps involved in ethnographic research

  • Formulate a research question:  Identify and state your research problem.
  • Prepare a list of questions: Ask the right kind of question to get an answer for your research topic.
  • Conduct initial observations: Do not take any interview or survey, just observe people in their natural surroundings without asking them anything. Observe silently and attentively what they are doing? What is their body language?
  • Plan the study:  Prepare the schedule of participant observation, make a list of necessary materials and equipment.
  • Collect data: It can be done through interviews (face to face or over the phone), surveys, observations, and so on.
  • Analyze collected data: By coding it for themes that become categories against which you want to compare your findings later on. This will help in writing the final ethnographic report.
  • Write up your results: Write a balanced account of what you have learned about people, their culture, and their way of life during participant observation. Acknowledge any limitations in terms of time spent on research or access to participants, and more.

Importance of ethnographic research

Ethnographic research can help in understanding the various motives behind consumer behavior. 

It helps in taking decisions related to a product or service by understanding its success and failure rate among customers.

There are many companies today which have been successful because of their use of ethnographic research while others have failed due to lack thereof. 

For example, Starbucks used this type of market research when they decided that people wanted more than just coffee from them but also other food items available at an affordable price point.

This helped build customer loyalty over time as well as understand what kind of experience would be suitable for consumers during different times throughout the day e.g., breakfast, lunch, and so on. 

The same can be said about Dunkin Donuts who started only selling donuts before deciding to add sandwiches and beverages to their line of products.

The benefits of using ethnographic research can be seen in both the short term and long term. The immediate benefit is that it gives companies insight into.

 What consumers are looking for or not looking for within a certain product category or brand helps them better target their marketing efforts. 

Also, improve upon existing concepts they may have already developed but been lacking consumer demand.

Over time this information allows these businesses to further develop the customer base over coffee shops by understanding how to capture attention with things like location, price, environment, and more.

All key factors go hand-in-hand when developing an effective business plan. 

Especially one focused on creating loyal customers who will continue coming back again and again due to sharing positive experiences at your place of business.

Significant properties of ethnographic research

Ethnographic research is a science-based method of observing and analyzing the culture. It has roots in anthropology, sociology, and psychology. 

Ethnography helps to understand a particular group or society by studying their behaviors, practices, ideas, and more. 

By doing so it provides insights into human behavior which can be very useful for businesses while developing new products or services that appeal to specific audience/market segments.

Ethnographic research also encourages creativity as it seeks novel solutions from within groups under study, rather than imposing pre-existing theories on them. 

In this sense, ethnographers are no different from artists who have been known to draw inspiration from everyday life making art more accessible.

The difference here is that the ethnographer’s job is not just confined to representing the findings through artistic mediums. 

But also to communicate them in a way that is easily accessible and understandable for their audience.

Ethnographic research can be used as an important tool for businesses looking to gain insights into customer behavior, needs, wants, and more. It allows researchers to dig deeper. 

Not just limited to knowing what customers say they want or need by tracking their actual usage of products or services over time.

A common misconception about Ethnography is that its usefulness ends once you have identified certain trends within your target market segment(s). 

On the contrary, this knowledge has no real value unless it’s communicated effectively so others (i.e., business owners) can use it too.

This would require people with strong writing skills who are capable of synthesizing complex research findings into an easy-to-understand, well-written report.

Ethnographic methods are also commonly used in the private sector as a means of gaining insights about individuals’ experiences and perspectives on brand image, products/services offered by companies, and more. 

This information can then be used to create better customer service strategies going forward or even inform future product development efforts.

Advantages of ethnographic research

The benefits of ethnographic research are many. It is useful in the early stages of product development, where there may be little or no market data to rely on. 

It can also help you understand what your customers want from a new product or service by observing them at work and allowing them to explain their own lives to you.

Ethnographic research is not just about conducting observations in the field. It’s also important to ask people what they think and feel, by using focus groups or one-on-one interviews. 

This allows you to validate your findings with customers before rolling out a new product or service.

Ethnographic research allows us to gain a deep understanding of our target market. It allows us to learn how our customers think, feel and behave differently from other markets.  

This type of research is useful when we are developing something new because it allows us to study customers’ motivations and behaviors in-depth. It helps us better understand how they think, feel, and behave on a personal level.

It can be difficult to pinpoint why certain products succeed while others fail. Sometimes you will see competitors with similar features who suddenly take over your market share. 

That would be without any explanation as to what changed or how this occurred. With ethnographic research, you can uncover hidden patterns that could help explain these phenomena. 

Through understanding exactly why people buy from you instead of someone else within their industry.

Ethnography allows for an unbiased approach towards studying our target audience at a much deeper level than other forms of quantitative or qualitative research

It gives an insight into the user’s world by immersing themselves in it and allowing users to guide them through their daily lives, routines, thoughts, and motivations as they go about their day-to-day activities.

Disadvantages of ethnographic research

Like all other research methods,  ethnographic research comes with a list of disadvantages. It can be mainly attributed to the technique’s very nature. 

Firstly, ethnographers must go into the field and immerse themselves in their study for significant periods. Even before they can gain any substantial results from it. 

The longer a project drags on, the more likely participants and interviewers may lose interest and motivation towards continuing or participating on-site.

Another challenge is that some groups do not want researchers studying them as this could lead to embarrassment if something was found out about them during an observation session (that would make others judge them negatively). 

Ethnography requires a high level of trustworthiness but also confidentiality as well as knowledge about how participants react when being observed by someone.

This is why it can be difficult to do an observation session with a group that the researcher has never met before. 

The longer a project drags on, the more likely participants and interviewers may lose interest and motivation towards continuing or participating on-site.

Final thoughts

Ethnographic research is a great way to build and understand customer personas. 

The more you know about your customers, the better able you are to serve them and make their lives easier. 

Ethnography shows us how people use our products in real-life situations.


Niraj Rajput

Niraj is co-founder and Head of Engineering at Chisel Labs, a premiere agile product management software company that brings together roadmapping, team alignment, and customer connection. Niraj is passionate about building scalable infrastructure and systems and he also happens to be a huge fan of Cricket!


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