Minimum Viable Ethnography

One question. Ten minutes. No excuses.


After reading yet another account of how so many entrepreneurs and business people find excuses to avoid research, I want to expose these objections as the fear-spawned, ego-propelled straw herrings they are.

No time? No money? No stomach for diverting energy away from building? I challenge you to a single-question remote user research study that will cost you no more than $299, take 3 days, and yield priceless real-world insight.

All you need:

Genuine commitment to learning. The point of this exercise is to increase your empathy and challenge your assumptions. If you find yourself or any of your team getting defensive, you’re doing it wrong.

ethnio. A fantastic remote recruiting tool. Starts at $49/mo. Free for the first 30 days. Sure you can make a survey using Google apps, but that’s harder and jankier.

10 Amazon gift cards at $25/each as the incentive. Incentives decrease bias by attracting people based on the criteria of who wants free stuff from Amazon. Which is everyone (or close enough).

A telephone. Or ideally something like join.me or GoToMeeting, so that you can record the phone calls and refer back to them.


Also, consider getting Just Enough Research, which is very short.


Day One: Recruit

You’ll want to start pretty early in the day to have as much time as possible for logistics.

Sign up for ethnio and create your screener. Offer a $25 Amazon gift card in return for a ten-minute phone call. Only people who complete the call get the gift card. Your survey questions should include age range, gender, location, e-mail address. You get one bonus behavioral question you can use to find people who are closer to your target. How often do you shop online? How often do you eat out? How often do you book travel? How many children under 12 do you have? Whatever. (Don’t ask the closed question “do you…?” Everyone will answer yes to be included.) No more than 5 questions!

The sole purpose of the screener is to get you a pool of people to talk to. In and of itself the screening survey does not constitute user research. Ethnio offers fantastic instructions and examples in the course of setting up the screener. Include a response deadline of “today”.

Get everyone you know to tweet and Facebook the link to the survey. If you get a decent amount of traffic on your website, you can do a javascript pop-up through ethnio. On your calendar set up 15 15-minute slots with at least 5 minutes in between. So, this gives you 3 per hour with wiggle room to reschedule and handle no-shows.

The recruits will magically populate ethnio. (If it’s insufficiently magic, do more tweeting.) Once you have 40 responses, pick 20 to e-mail to set up time for a conversation the next day. This should get you 10. You want a broad distribution in terms of age, gender, and geography. If you are honestly targeting people of a certain age range or geography, filter to those.

At least two people from your team should participate in reviewing the recruits to root out as much sampling bias as possible. Don’t stress too much. You are trying to get useful insights about people who are not you quickly, not meet a statistical standard.

And maybe it will take you a day and a half to recruit and schedule. Sometimes these things take a little longer. But short calls with a broad population are pretty easy to fill up.

Day Two: Interview

Put all the interviews on the calendar. Designate someone to take notes. Have as many people from your team listen as possible. Call your participants.

Your interview script:

Walk me through a typical day.

That’s it. Present that one request. Shut up and listen to them for 10 minutes. Do your damndest to keep yourself and your interests out of it. Bam, you’re doing ethnography.

OK. To be fair. You should pop a wrapper on that query to be sociable. Here is the full extent.

Hi, my name is [name]. I work for [company] and I am doing some research to help us improve our work by better understanding real people like you. This should take no more than 15 minutes. Do you mind if we record this call for notetaking purposes only? The recording will not be published or shared outside our team. [Optional 30 seconds chat about weather and or sports]

Now, walk me through a typical day. [And really, really just shut up and let them talk. This can be very difficult.]

[You may, if the opportunity arises, prompt for detail “Tell me more about that” “What type of device are you using?” or ask a clarifying question, “And why do you do that?”. If there is a gap in the conversation avoid rushing to fill it. ]

Is there anything you would like to add?

Thank you so much for your time. Your input has been very helpful. Is [e-mail address] the right place to send your Amazon gift card? We will be sending that out within the next 24 hours.

At the end of the day, send out the Amazon gift cards. You can batch send them. It will take 5 minutes.

Day Three: Analyze

Get your team in a room for 90 minutes. Bring all of your previous assumptions about how people behave and what they value. Talk about what you heard. Answer the following questions:

What do we offer of value to the people we spoke with?

What are the greatest challenges we face getting them to adopt our product?

How else might they already be solving the problem we want to solve?

What are the greatest opportunities to serve them?

How did these conversations challenge our assumptions?

If you approach these questions honestly and in good faith, this discussion will probably prove quite illuminating. In the highly unlikely case that you didn’t learn anything new or useful, carry on with enhanced confidence in your direction.

I am absolutely sure that this exercise is well within the budget, timeline, and expertise of every team working on any product or service. If it is not, I question whether creating a product or service is within your means at all. And once you get a small taste of user research at its quickest, I bet you’ll be eager for more.