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What is an Ethnographic research: a case study
Ethnography responds to one of the most important needs of companies that produce consumer goods that is to “enter the consumer’s mind”.
This qualitative research methodology is in fact a tool for understanding how people and consumer goods interact with each other and it provides an analysis of the social life and culture of a group starting from detailed observations of the actual behavior of people.
In fact, it uses some techniques of the social sciences, such as anthropology and sociology, to gather information through direct in-field observation and it allows companies to observe consumers in their ‘natural environments’, to directly collect information on the their cultures, to acquire knowledge that can actually be used to improve products, to penetrate the experience and behavior of consumers.
How to organize an ethnographic research
In ethnographic research we talk about “participant” observation because, once the researcher has identified the environment to be studied (a sales point or a specific place of consumption), they go there to “familiarize” with it, integrate it, in order to being able to collect information in a more natural and spontaneous way. It involves the researcher’s participation in people’s lives for a longer period of time than traditional interviews, listening to what is being said, watching family members interact, etc.
Through ethnographic research, the researcher can observe first-hand how a consumer interacts with a product and how they use it in everyday life, allowing a much more complex understanding of the potential areas for product improvement and the characteristics of the target audience.
There are different types of ethnographic research:
On-site ethnographic research is conducted where the consumer uses the product or service: restaurant, shop, office, even in the car! This allows the researcher to observe the behavior of the respondent offering the opportunity to ask follow-up questions.
Home based ethnographic research, similar to on-site ethnographic research but limited to the home environment. It can involve one or more family members and often it lasts several hours. The researcher immerses themselves in the family environment and observes, asks questions and listens to better understand consumer reactions.
Virtual ethnographic research is conducted online: participants, for a period of time that can vary from a few days to a few weeks, are required to perform “tasks” such as writing their opinions about a product or service, sending photographs and even videos thus obtaining a complete overview of the attitudes, emotions and perceptions of the consumer.
The true value of ethnographic research is therefore often presented in the form of a subtle observation of the behavior of respondents when they interact with the research subject. What makes them “light up” when they talk about the product? What frustrates them about it? Do they use the product for purposes that were not originally intended or conceived of?
Ethnographic research can reveal the answers to these questions, and ultimately, it provides companies with invaluable insights into their consumer base.
Differences between focus groups and ethnographic research
Traditionally, when businesses want to determine how consumers feel about a product or service, they employ focus groups. These groups meet in a room and discuss the topic at hand. However, this methodology places the respondent in a different environment from the one in which they normally interact with the product under investigation, forcing them to base their statements on prior experiences, exposing their insights to the fallibility of human memory and the influences of other opinions in the group, or “groupthink.”
The ethnographic research instead allows to eliminate all these constraints, starting from the physical barriers represented by the walls of the room in which the group takes place, and to remove the artificial settings, opening the doors to the real world.