What is ethnographic research and what are its defining characteristics?

A great interview with Gordon Milne on this podcast about what ethnography is, (and what it isn’t), and tips on how to do it. Gordon Milne is IPSOS Asia Pacific’s head of qualitative research and the podcast is part of a series of market research techniques, trends and practices. There are a couple of things mentioned in it that I completely agree with and are worth calling out, especially for those who don’t have the time to listen to the whole podcast (44mins in total).

He distinguishes between three types of qualitative research using ethnography: i) 5-7hrs of participant observation which he terns as “pure ethnography”; ii)”immersions” as 2-3hrs with participants, and ; iii) more traditional qual research incorporating ethnographic elements.

Some key points:

  • Ethnography is about seeing things and being there in the moment – not just talking about them (as it is in a question and answer format).
  • In ethnographic research you are looking for the unarticulated, and not merely describing what people report that they do.
  • Participant-led – This is such an important distinction between ethnographic research and more traditional qualitative methods such as interviews or focus groups. It’s far less about following a discussion guide and much more about being in the moment and taking cues from the research participant, such as matching the participant’s mood and energy levels. Make it a conversation, not a Q&A interview, and follow the order of their day, not them fitting to the order of your topics/questions. Be naiive – let the participant guide you.
  • Pre-field preparation – Get clear at the start about what you’re trying to achieve (i.e. the research question); recruit the right people; help prepare the participant so they know what to expect
  • “Pure ethnography” requires a trained ethnographer or a senior, experienced qualitative researcher (~15min into the interview)

Courses in ethnography and design research

EPIC have announced great new learning initiatives for its members. A series of courses and talks will be offered throughout the year in order to deliver on EPIC’s purpose to advance ethnography in industry. Some of the courses look to be taken from popular seminars from the 2016 conference. The only downside is the timezone issue if you happen to be based in incompatible timezones with the US, like Oz…

You can find out what courses and talks are offered here

Huffington Post: What is anthropology?

Here’s a nice brief article on what anthropology is, why study it and what it offers the world in the Huffington Post.

According to the article, anthropology has 4 main areas to the discipline: cultural, biological, linguistic and applied.This is different to how I was taught to think about its sub-disciplines and I’m happy to see that applied anthropology has been added as a category. I feel that it’s a more modern interpretation of anthropology’s offer.

Why study anthropology?

The article highlights the following reasons to study it: understanding the rules that govern what it means to be a member of a society, understanding difference across cultures, effectively negotiating workplaces with their particular norms and human diversity and ethical conduct.

Successful customer-centric companies have ‘insights engines’


If customer-centricity is the new metric for organisational success, a new study has revealed what a company’s insights team needs to look like in order to make this happen. The Insights 2020 study by global consultancy Kantar Vermeer highlights the evolution of internal insights teams from being part of marketing to becoming an ‘insight engine’ within an organisation. An insight engine has particular ‘alchemy’ of capabilities that were found to be the key differentiator for customer-centric growth across 10,000 companies. Organisations that possess these capabilities (and that ahve obviously proved their worth) have the ear of the CEO twice as often as other functions. Key to these teams success was having independence as a function with direct reporting into executive level.  Another KEY capability of these front and centre, empowered and valued insights functions in customer-centric organisations is data. Not just lots of it, but organised, clean, useable, searchable – and sharable. This combination seems to me to lead to the customer having a voice at the table and not just locked away in market research insights reports kept in particular parts of an organisation. Love it!

Harvard Business Review picked up on the Kantar Vermeer study and uses Unilever as a case study for how its working and to do it. Have a read 🙂

A few key points about “successful insights engines” for those short on time. HBR identifies 10 characteristics of  these ‘superior’, strategic insight teams which can be grouped into Operational and People characteristics:


  • Data – making sense of it and extracting value
  • Independence – sit outside marketing (its traditional home) and report in to C-suite
  • Integrated planning – being involved in where to play and how to win strategic conversations within the business
  • Collaboration – with customers and other areas with the business (evolving from being an effective service provider to shared goals and partnerships)
  • Experimentation – embrace a culture of experimentation such as hackathons, mentoring programs with startups and collaboration platforms and Shark Tank like pitching of ideas to execs
  • Forward-looking orientation – less focus on history to predict future performance and more focus on real-time
  • Affinity for action – focus as much on strategy as on data and who they recruit


  • Whole-brain mindset – recruiting and consciously supporting holistic, creative, right-brain skills as well the more traditional, (and organisationally familiar), left-brain thinking to move away from default thinking and gather multiple perspectives (and strengths)
  • Business focus – programs to build business acumen, linking staff bonuses to business performance
  • Storytelling – constructing a message through engaging, even provocative, narratives

The article concludes:

Much of what insights engines at any firm do is gather and analyze data. But today that is the minimum needed for success. Being able to translate this capability into customer-centric growth is what distinguishes winners from losers.

I’d add that your insights engine doesn’t need to just analyse data and translate into growth, but also internal insight teams need to know what and how to research otherwise the data just won’t be there to achieve those important strategic insights.

Future customer touchpoints to involve multiple brands as part of product and service delivery

What will future customer experiences be like as technology such as mobile devices and 3D printing move products away from mass manufacturing? An article by Yasushi Kusume on the UK’s Design Council website offers an intriguing perspective. He argues that product design is moving away from being based on  differentiating a brand/ product within a category to one based on providing solutions in a collaborative ecosystem based on customer needs.

From the article:

…what if a manufacturer didn’t just allow companies the chance to control its washing machine, but also allowed customers the chance to personalise their appliance by, for example, changing it’s appearance. What would happen if the washing machine owner could change or replace a part by contacting other companies? Not just the original manufacturer?

What will this mean for today’s companies? For me it means that one company will often no longer complete a user experience by itself. It means that it must pool resources with others to deliver the best possible solutions. It means that the current product-focused categories will disappear and new categories will emerge. These new categories will be based on providing solutions that meet all manner of needs, whether they be operating a washing machine or, to cite a more complex solution, monitoring diet and lifestyle to encourage healthy living. The solution will be goal, not the product.

I like this idea because it puts solving customer needs first and offers the potential for exciting and completely revolutionary products and services to emerge rather than ‘tweaks’ or incremental changes in existing and familiar product categories.

And of course, I also like it because ethnographic research will be well placed to provide insight into understanding these customer goals and needs and the ecosystems in which they occur. (wink, wink)

Teamwork needs conflict


I’m enjoying this HBR article on teamwork and the need to change our mindsets that conflict is a bad thing in a team. I’ve thought this for a long time. Why do we try to avoid conflict? Once we label differing opinions or perspectives as in conflict, we try to avoid the issue, keep those with divergent views separate ‘to keep the peace’, or reconcile and find a middle ground somehow. Why? What if we sought conflict out instead of harmoniously homogenous teams. Diversity in the workplace is such a hot topic at the moment. Just what is meant by diversity is soo interesting too. Sometines it just means gender (but let’s save that for another post). We need to not just pull together different backgrounds and skillsets but change our attitudes towards conflict (let’s find a new word too because this one is loaded with negative connotations). We also need to provide the structures where team diversity can play out, get heard and differing views can be debated with a curious mindset, not defensive behaviour.

From the HBR article:

“There’s no point in collaboration without tension, disagreement, or conflict. What we need is collaboration where tension, disagreement, and conflict improve the value of the ideas, expose the risks inherent in the plan, and lead to enhanced trust among the participants.”

How to do it

The authors suggest calling out and discussing the differences in a team (roles, personality); have the team agree on ground rules for moments of conflict; use structures such as De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats or rotating the meeting chair role amongst the team. The author closes with suggesting to your team that conflict is not only allowed, but is an obligation.