Question: Why should your company use ethnography?

Answer: You don’t offer your product or service to spreadsheets.

Years ago, one of my college professors asked his class the following: “Any of you ever heard about the statistician who couldn’t swim?” Nobody raised a hand.

“One day, this statistician who’d never learned how to swim was relaxing at a mountain lake. It was a scorching day, even up at eight-thousand feet. Wanting to cool off, he walked to the end of a little pier and jumped in.

“And he drowned.”

He took in our befuddled expressions.

“Now, why would anyone who couldn’t swim jump into a lake?”

A few of us shrugged.

“Here’s why,” he said. “This statistician was very thorough; he’d done his research. And he knew that this particular lake had an average depth of 2.77 feet.”

We realized that the lake may have averaged 2.77 feet in depth – but not where our statistician jumped. Twenty other visitors to this lake might’ve jumped into knee-deep water. The 2.77 average figure didn’t apply to this individual.

While conclusions based on numbers-based (or “quantitative”) research can reveal a great deal about the world we live in, the human element is often lost in a morass of sample sizes, standard deviations, bell curves, probabilities and, yes, averages. On the other hand, qualitative work – what we do here at Ready to Launch Research – studies the world from a more human perspective. And one of the most important types of qualitative research that we do is called ethnography.



A blend of anthropology, social science and market research, ethnography is the systematic study of people and cultures. The term is taken from two Greek words: “ethnos,” meaning “folk,” “people,” “nation”; and “grapho,” meaning “I write.” It’s one of the best ways you can learn more about your consumers and how you can best meet their needs.

When conducting an ethnography, a researcher or research team observes a group of people – sizes range from local clubs to entire societies – to explore the group’s cultural phenomena from a variety of perspectives. The written report based on these observations provides insight into various aspects of the group in order to encapsulate the group as a whole.

An ethnographic study represents, graphically and in writing, the culture of a group. It is an effective way to describe how a cultural group works and by exploring its beliefs, language, behavior and/or perceptions in a specific context. It is also useful for studying cultural concepts or to expose issues such as power, hegemony, and advocacy for certain groups. In addition, ethnography can be used to better gauge how to influence or introduce motivation into a group.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road: Collectively, your customers comprise a group, with shared desires and motivations – conscious or otherwise. In addition to being a great tool for product or service ideation, a well-conducted ethnography can provide a comprehensive understanding of your customers’ wants and desires. It can inform you how your business can best serve their needs.



Although all ethnographic studies have the same intent, to better understand a certain cultural phenomenon, they come in different shapes and sizes. Ethnographies can be…



Would a pet store owner prefer data from a study done in a lab or in, well a pet store? Field-based ethnography is performed where real people live, engage, interact and make daily decisions about a variety of topics. It allows for rich, descriptive elements of consumer behavior to be observed and measured.



In this type of ethnography, researchers interact on a daily, face-to-face level with people, studying who they are and observing their lives from close up.



Researchers who desire to leverage helpful, actionable information and insight from their work should commit several weeks to a few months – and sometimes even up to a year – with the population of people they are seeking to understand.



An ethnography is exploratory in nature. Rather than seeking to confirm a hypothesis, it should focus on collecting a depth of information then analyzing that information. Only then should a summary, theory or conclusion be made.



The beauty of ethnography is that a researcher may ask participants specifically about a conclusion derived from the research itself, even while the study is ongoing. This allows her to explore her new findings on deeper levels than standard research would allow.



A masterful watercolor is always created one tiny brushstroke at a time. In the same way, the ultimate goal of every ethnography is to encapsulate a culture or subculture by summarizing a group in a way that portrays the most accurate picture of the group as a whole.



Depending on its objective and benefit, an ethnography can be conducted from a variety of vantage points. Here are just a few:



One of the best ways to understand how consumers interact with a given product in their house is to utilize an in-home (also called an “at-home”) ethnography study. With this method, researchers observe consumers in their own comfortable environment.



Similar to an in-home ethnography, an in-store ethnography (sometimes called an “at-store” or “shop-along” ethnography) explores how consumers interface with a store’s product and/or layout. This provides the most accurate way to observe a consumer’s behavior in a retail environment. Business owners use this method to best determine how a consumer moves throughout their stores.



This form of ethnography typically seeks to understand how a person or a group of people socialize and mobilize in a venue, such as a concert, theme park, or community- or city-wide event. Since event-based researchers serve as participant observers, they record observations without influencing the event they’re studying. This can be a tall order, but expert ethnographers can gather insightful information in this manner.

Any successful business must have a clear grasp of its consumers: who they are, how they act, what they need, what they do, and why they do it. At the end of the day, ethnography has proven time and again to be a highly effective strategy for businesses looking to better understand them. Statistics are essential to your business, but remember to include the human element – or you may drown in numbers.

To learn more about how Ready to Launch Research can assist you with market research, please contact us.

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