How to Better Understand Your Customers: The Power of Ethnography

On a damp November morning, we pull up to a townhouse in Silver Spring, Maryland, double-checking the address to make sure we have the right house. We huddle on the small porch amidst the damp leaves until our research participant, Chris, opens the door.

Before Chris can say hello, a giant black Labrador rushes to greet us. Chris walks us through the living room, dotted with toddler toys, to the dining room table where we take a seat and set up our equipment. The interview hasn’t even started, yet we have already learned a lot about Chris and his family.

We will spend two hours at Chris’ house, asking open-ended questions about his goals for the future and his attitudes about finances. During that time, Chris’ young daughter, Ana, and wife, Susan, will join the conversation, allowing us to observe first-hand the family dynamics with respect to financial decision-making, from day-to-day budgeting to investing for college and retirement.

Moments like these are rich with insights that you can’t get using traditional quantitative surveys. Quantitative data provides essential information about your customers: it can tell you their age composition, their household income, the members of their household. It can even give you some insight into what they think. But quantitative data can’t tell you WHY people think and act the way they do, primarily because people often say one thing and do another. That’s where ethnography comes in.

An ethnography is a detailed, in-depth scientific study of the everyday life and culture of a social group (in this case, potential consumers). The goal of ethnography is to understand the world from the group’s perspective.

How is it done?

An ethnography generally involves a combination of qualitative research techniques such as contextual interviews, participant-observation (the researcher shadows the participant), and/or direct observation.

This ethnographic study consists of in-depth contextual interviews (generally 3-4 hours in length) with participants in their homes, rather than an artificial research facility. This natural setting facilitates a more authentic conversation and provides additional opportunities for observation.

Isn’t this a bit touchy-feely? I need actionable insights!

We code the data we have collected and analyze it to identify underlying patterns and connections between concepts. The end product is not a summary, but a rigorous analysis of the group’s attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors. The resulting framework can be used to foster innovation, educate employees on customer needs, develop new messaging strategies, identify cross-sell and new product opportunities, and build holistic, omni-channel customer experiences.

Are the insights generalizable?

Ethnography is highly effective at identifying the relevant behavioral and attitudinal segments. It is not designed to predict the size of the individual segments (that needs to be validated with quantitative data). In other words, ethnography is essential for identifying the categories for further qualitative and quantitative analysis.

There is something magical about interviewing your customers in their homes. It is a transformative experience, and once you do it, you’ll be hooked.
In the next newsletter, we will tell you more about what we learned about financial decision-making during our ethnographic interviews.

Our recommendations:

Book: The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems

Numbers are a powerful tool for understanding customer behavior, but they only tell one side of the story. In The Moment of Clarity, the authors show how applying a human lens can help you overcome default thinking and ignite innovation within your organization. Using engaging case studies of companies such as Lego and Adidas, they demonstrate the power of the human sciences to unlock insights that will transform the way you do business. A must read for understanding the strategic value of the human sciences approach in business.


Until the next time,

Jenia, Tara and Awk


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