No. Ethnography is not like painting by numbers.

No Ethnography is not painting by numbers image.jpg

User-centred design and human centred-design, which are so much in vogue, have championed the use of ethnography. Now management consultancies are embracing ethnography, with some hiring ethnographers and others writing booklets and papers that laud its benefits.

One such recent paper by Simon Associates: What is Corporate Anthropology? re-hashes the ethnography 101 benefits and methods that, by now, I expect most of you would be familiar with.

Reading this paper, you could be forgiven for thinking that ethnography was simply a matter of getting out there and spending time with customers, doing a bit of observation, asking a few questions; the well worn tropes of ‘Day in the life of’, ‘Deep Dives’ and ‘Hanging Out’ or, if you want to sound really now… ‘Deep Hanging Out’. Indeed the paper seems to suggest that anyone: stakeholder, researcher, designer, client simply utilise these practices to do ethnography

I’m here to tell you that there’s more to ethnography than this.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for getting stakeholders, clients and designers to spend time in context with consumers. I often recommend and facilitate such consumer connections. This process helps build empathy and gets stakeholders to understand their customers’ worlds better. But let’s not conflate these consumer connections with the carefully constructed, thoughtfully executed and rigorously analysed process that is real ethnography.

In a similar vein, I attended a HCD training course last year run by LUMA. Whilst overall the course had some great tools and approaches, the section on ethnographic discovery research (which was toted as an important part of the process) was dumbed down to the extent that it was reduced to 10 minutes instruction on grabbing a clipboard (really?), spending time with customers and asking some ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.

The very nature of ethnographic fieldwork means you get to spend a lot of time with customers, users, consumers, people. Quite apart from the interviewing and observations skills required, which I certainly would never embark on with a clip board in hand, these activities inevitably generate a huge amount of observational data as well as data from what people said, didn’t say, hinted at: what was tacit.

Proper ethnographers pursue a line of enquiry beyond contextual observation and interview.

Here’s just three of the ways in which they do this 

1. Everything participants say and do exists within the contextual and cultural frame of that person and needs to be understood within that context. Further to that, other kinds of context (eg place and culture) are also hugely significant. The challenge for ethnographers is in taking this swathe of data and filtering it to derive what’s important, what’s significant, what’s new, what means something. These vital elements are then crafted into insights. And I don’t mean just generic observations, I mean, (to use Diageo’s definition) “penetrating observations about consumer behaviour that can be applied to unlock growth” or perhaps to unlock some other kind of opportunity. This may not sound that hard, but having trained many students as well as many qualitative researchers in ethnographic fieldwork, I can promise you that getting skilled at this takes a lot of practice.

2. Ethnography is an interpretational framework and an analytic lens that is informed by anthropology… it’s not just a bunch of fieldwork methods. Whereas qualitative research typically emphasises motivation and is based on psychotherapeutic foundations and techniques, ethnography is more concerned with behaviour, cultural norms and practices, shared values, ritual, what is symbolic etc. A deep understanding these frameworks, as well as a well-calibrated barometer of what is the relevant cultural zeitgeist, are both key planks in the foundations of a good ethnographers’ skillset. They are not something swiftly acquired. There are postgrad university courses in applied anthropology for heaven’s sake and the best practitioners hone their skills over years. Just as having a Facebook page does not mean you have a social media strategy, doing a few in-home visits does not mean you are doing ethnography.

3. Ethnography emphasises developing empathy for the customer’s perspective, and it is this insistence that can lead to paradigm shifts in the way in which companies and organisations view their products and services. But although developing this empathy is a crucial step, another challenge for the ethnographer lies in effectively communicating this empathetic understanding to a broader team. Clifford Geertz famously coined the term ‘thick description’ when he was writing about the imperative for the ethnographer to bring to life the texture and feelings in what has been observed or understood. Storytelling then (and sometimes video storytelling) are key skills for an ethnographer to master, particularly in the corporate world where speed is of the essence, attention spans are frequently truncated and people are juggling many balls.

As a practitioner of ethnography, I’m a true believer in the breakthrough insights it brings. But the prevalent idea that ‘anyone can do it’ does no favours to this approach and will likely lead to disappointment and disillusionment.