Ethnography – a tool to understanding what drives customer behaviour

According to a recent global study of 1500 CEOs conducted by IBM, customer insight is recognized as the biggest deficit in managing the increasingly more complex business environment. Not surprisingly, many CEOs are turning towards analytical tools which can yield great results in helping them understand certain parts of the market. However, they often lack depth as big data is nothing without context. In other words, there is no insight in knowing the customer made that click if there is no knowing of why she made that click.

Ethnography, a discipline that until relatively recently in Eastern Europe used to be connected only with academia, has been gaining momentum with business executives and many an ethnographer, anthropologist, and other social science professional has been employed in business, marketing and R&D ranks. No wonder, as an insight into the latent and deeply hidden is what nudges people towards certain behaviors and actions and few business challenges are tougher, and more crucial to success, than identifying what drives customer attitudes and behavior.


We start every project with ethnographic research, meaning spending time with carefully selected individuals in the context where they use a product or service. Those individuals are screened and chosen according to criteria relevant to research objectives and selected as to represent the market segment relevant to the product. Depending on the project, we usually sample a minimum of ten up until couple of dozens individuals, or even more. Contrasting this with couple of thousands usually sampled in quantitative researches, how is this even representative, right? It is, because a sample of thirty customers could be expected to identify 90% of all the needs that might exist in the total population of customers, and a sample of twelve might uncover 70 to 75 percent of needs. It’s important to note here that where data analytics and surveys provide flattened snapshots, ethnography contributes an emphatic understanding of how consumers live, work, play and how the product can fit in all of that. That is something raw statistic cannot provide, but is something that has the capability of formulating business strategy and changing the company’s strategic direction.

What do people want

There is a popular saying that’s been going around in circles that opponents to ethnography use to confirm that one should not ask customers what they want: If Henry Ford asked their customers what they wanted, they would have said – Faster horses.

And this is completely true. First, because people are naturally opposed to change and they imagine future in relation to what they know or can relate to. Second, because most of the times they are unaware of what they want or they are unable to articulate it.

To yield surprising and powerful insights, ethnography must go beyond inquiring about user needs and expectations, because those only scratch the surface of the problem and do not reach deep enough to the human psyche.

The key is to dig deeper into more fundamental issues, such as investigating people’s core motivators, beliefs and dreams to understand where true value lies for them. One should not ask only about what they would like or need, but how they relate to the life they are living now, how they imagined it when they were younger, what they dreamed and still dream about. People become vulnerable when they speak about their dreams, but understanding their deepest-held wishes provides a powerful insight into how to create products and services that would appeal to them.

For example, when Ford released a redesigned Mustang back in the 1990s, they received customer feedback which differed from what they were expecting: even though the newly released car was technically more powerful, customers perceived it less so. In order to find out the reasons, Ford executives launched an ethnographic research and sent out a team to ride with Mustang drivers. After a certain amount of time spent driving around and talking to drivers, they came back with an insight that drivers don't perceive horse power statistics, but feel power — viscerally. They feel it through their body when they start the engine, they hear it in their ears when the machine howls on a dirty road, they see it visually when they land their eyes on the dusty surface of the car. After having returned to the drawing board, Ford engineers redesigned the car to look more 'fast,' to resemble more the iconic model of the 1960s. Even though Ford executives feared that an aging target market was diluting the brand's equity, insights from the ethnographic research proved them otherwise: above everything else, Mustang represented youth itself, the forbidden longing for rebelliousness, for freedom, for being wild, unpredictable and irresponsible. Rather than modernising it, Ford executives embraced the brand's heritage.

Behaviour, rather than demographic-based segmentation

In too many marketing and advertising agencies, briefs are targetted at demographic segment from, for example, 23 – 55 years of age. While maybe individuals of 23 and 55 might be both buying iPhones, they do that from different reasons and for different purposes.

A nice example is that of a San-Francisco-based Wells Fargo Bank that changed dramatically their retirement planning strategy. For many years, they were mostly focused on monetary subleties — how much an individual had to save, for how long and in which phase of their lives. Although effective, this view lacked in context as it overlooked many, sometimes, unpredictable changes one can go through during their lifetime: student loans, marriage, divorce, unexpected layoffs, health and even economical crises and various cultural and industry changes. Wells launched an ethnographic project to find out what how people approached retirement planning during the course of their lives. What they found out was that their target market, Baby Boomers, found themselves in a lot of stress once they reached their 30s and all of a sudden they were confronted with many changes and stresses while planning for the long-term retirement and paying off of house loans. Even more, they felt unsure of which decisions to make and what were the implications of each. On the basis of these findings, the Wells Fargo team designed three models that reflected how people felt and addressed retirement planning. These then led to creating of the communication that conveyed ‘’We meet you where you are’’ implying human approach, guidance and support throughout all the stages of one's life, instead of numbers-densed material with financial projections.

Ethnographic research, therefore, helped Wells Fargo rethink the way they view, approach and conduct retirement planning.

A tool for radical innovation

While the value of user research is now by far widely recognized, it is quite common among design practitioners to argue that user research cannot deliver radical and disruptive innovation. Don Norman claims that only incremental innovation can come from user research, while radical innovation comes only from technology. Moreover, ‘’radical innovation almost always starts off being inferior to what already exists: it takes good design research to transform that radical idea into something that is appealing to the world.’’ One of the reasons for this is something I mentioned above, that people are naturally opposed to change and can accept something inasmuch it represents something they already know, or can relate to. Another reason to it could be because we are unable to transgress our own subjective judgment, so we sythethise the user research data in such a way as to naturally get to predictable results.

At Apple, they ‘’don’t waste our time asking users, we build our brand through creating great products we believe people will love.” Maybe Jobs didn’t invent Macintosh by conducting user research, but nevertheless he built it with a great insight into the human need to collect things and keep things private, so designed the world’s first personal computer. Then he added a Sleep Indicator button that mimics human breathing, which again was not inspired by user research, but is a result of a perceptive nature of Jobs that understood the intricacies of human physique and, especially, psyche and knew what would appeal to it.


Deciphering the meaning

Ethnography provides insight, it lightens up the problem area, it directs us to context to which our solutions need to be relevant to. Like David Ogilvy said: ‘We must stop using research for support and start using it for illumination.’’ It doesn’t, however, provide a clear-cut direction towards designing disruptive products and services in the same way as there are no precise recipes for success on the market.

Radical innovation happens when perceptive enough to decipher the meaning of a certain human behavior and motivator, and then repurposing it to match the present circumstances and context. The core human behavior and motivators rarely change. What changes are the manifestations of those behaviors and motivators expressed by technology, which only becomes innovative inasmuch it is applicable to a relevant context.

And to reveal the context in a detailed, descriptive and emphatic manner is the sole purpose of ethnography and its greatest power.

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