The Ethnography of Marketing

A software tool allows researchers to study human behaviors and plot them along dimensions that reveal product and service needs

The new core competency is ethnography. Companies use it to gain insights into the culture and behavior of their customers. But the demands of business are different from those of an anthropologist doing field research. The most obvious is speed. Where anthropologists may take years to do one study, businesses need results in weeks.

The other difference is scope. Global corporations need detailed consumer data from dozens of cultures. In China, the coast and desert, north and south, have different cultures. In India, there are over 100 languages, dozens of castes, and major differences in religion. Companies must gather and compare huge amounts of information.

To address this issue, the Institute of Design under Patrick Whitney and Associate Professor Vijay Kumar have developed the User Insight Tool, an ethnographic methodology designed specifically for business. It relies on disposable cameras, field notebooks, and special software that teases out new understandings from consumer observations.


  How does the User Insight Tool work? Researchers decide what human behaviors they want to observe. They give observers disposable cameras to take photos of those activities. With pictures in hand, researchers talk to the people using a standard framework outlined in their field notebooks. The goal is to understand each person's activities over a number of dimensions such as comfort level and product use. The notes are analyzed and entered into the software along with general insights and the original field notes.

The software lets the researchers look for similarities among all the insights gleaned from the different subjects. It organizes them graphically on the computer screen so large patterns of similarities appear as dense patches or clusters. The value of clustering is that it can reveal hidden patterns of behavior.

Procter & Gamble (PG) and China's Lenovo Group have both used the User Insight Tool. Lenovo wanted to study how Indian families used consumer electronics in the home. For the P&G study, the Institute of Design looked at party planning in American homes.


  Researchers observed both adults planning a dinner party and teens planning a gathering, and developed more than 100 general insights, including "Daughter came home later than expected and could not help prepare." One surprising cluster revealed was the large amount of time party planners spent overcoming obstacles and taking steps to avoid them.

Using the clusters to anchor their thinking, the researchers draw larger conclusions that can guide the development of new products and services. Three themes emerged from the P&G study: making sure the party is fun for the host, overcoming unpleasant surprises, and ensuring the party met preconceived expectations. Two broad product categories came out of these insights: ones that give the host more time to participate in the party, and ones that easily hide spills so the deep cleaning can be done later.


  By helping direct research and put in order hundreds of insights, the User Insight Tool cuts time and makes the findings consistent across multiple research sites. This is important for a global company mining for innovation ideas across different geographies. Most important, the consistency allows companies to compare past and present studies, to build their research base, and to look for new patterns.

When the Institute of Design compared the ethnographic data of both the P&G and Lenovo studies, it found that while the kitchen is the center of family activity in the U.S., the parents' bed is the family social center in India. This is vital information for any company making global consumer entertainment products.

Whitney says the institute is not yet prepared to sell the User Insight Tool, though companies can use it for a fee.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.