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The Value of Ethnography in a World of Big Data

The Value of Ethnography in a World of Big Data

Jennifer Murtell

green, red, orange and blue paint rollers on white wall

Ethnography uses the classic tools of data collection, but its key characteristic is that it takes place in context, and researchers play an active, immersive role. Try creating embedded scenarios to explore insights that quantitative data is unable to capture.

Trends in consumer research have dramatically changed over time and have drawn on both quantitative and qualitative approaches to understand consumer behavior, motivation, habits and aspirations. More recently, established insight collection methods have been eclipsed by the volume and velocity of large data sets, or Big Data.

Today, we have unprecedented access to vast quantities of data points. Big Data has proven itself a powerful tool in predicting consumer behavior, identifying patterns and establishing correlations. But we cannot lose sight of the contexts in which these data points exist. Qualitative data—specifically ethnographic approaches to understanding individual behavior and their embedded cultural frameworks—can produce deep, valuable insights with meaningful and actionable applications.

Design ethnography grew out of the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), with a focus on how users engage with technology. Its intent was to learn more about the nuances of the interface between humans and technology. HCI focused on the importance of developing empathy for the user, in order to understand how and why they engaged with products—and importantly, how it made them feel. Connecting with consumers while they engaged in technology allowed researchers to witness first-hand how their products were being used, uncovering ways that designers had not intended, as well as pathways they had not envisioned—potential use case opportunities.


Consumer-centric design that leverages ethnographic methods goes beyond a focus group for natural discovery.  Focus groups are held in an artificial setting that creates an observer-dominant lens, a heightened sense of being watched that puts pressure on consumers to say what facilitators want to hear (consider Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Medium is the Message’). Design ethnography draws on the early innovative methods of industrial design for work environments where those being researched are observed and engaged in the real world.

We can see this immersive approach illustrated in the work of IDEO Design Thinking, a company that revolutionized the design and layout of grocery store floors and carts after enmeshing researchers in the real-time shopping routines of customers. IDEO’s research model was based not on consumer reports, but on careful observation of consumers moving through the product or service experience: women struggling to find a place to put their purse, mothers being interrupted by their children running off, older customers who were challenged by mobility. The result was a reimagined shopping cart that considered ease of movement, child safety, security of personal items and a place to put a coffee cup.

Ethnography uses all the classic tools—observation, interviews and focus groups—but its key characteristic is that it takes place in context, and researchers play an active, immersive role. Collecting data in context with participants opens up possibilities and creates room for the unexpected. There is time and room for rapport to develop, for consumers to let researchers into their world, take them through their day-to-day activities, engage in unstructured conversation and share their thoughts and feelings. These embedded scenarios create spaces to explore insights that quantitative data is unable to capture: impressions, aspirations, fears and passing thoughts that might not emerge out of context.

Big data is not the only innovation to emerge from the digital era; there is a host of creative digital technologies that allow for new ways of engaging consumers whose voices might not normally be heard. Creative research tools such as video diaries, GoPro interviews, photo-elicitation and the use of online platforms to share perspectives allow consumers new ways to share and reflect.

My company has had particular success with video diaries that give consumers the privacy and control to share on their own terms and in spaces where they feel comfortable. Classic methods of recruiting consumers often rely on what we call the “extreme” consumer, or the ideal consumer, one who speaks expressively, creatively and confidently for many.

In our own consumers insights work at Snapdragon, we have found ethnographic approaches invaluable to deepening a more nuanced understanding of consumer need states that are hard to identify, either because consumers are reluctant to talk about them, or they are unaware they are need states that could be improved.

A recent project focused on women’s perception of milk products and the stigma associated with being lactose-intolerant or having dairy-related digestive issues. Many consumers were not willing to identify as being lactose-intolerant, but were drawn to the messaging around purity, filtration and quality processing that happened to characterize a host of lactose-free products. The stigma around digestive discomfort and the status of being lactose intolerant was not an experience we could have explored through a survey or focus group—it takes time, trust and space to discuss issues and barriers that consumers don’t normally talk about, and to bring the contours of these highly personal insights to life.

Another key strength of ethnographic methods is that they allow us to discover, witness and explore the complexity and detail of consumer ritual and routine. Accessing ritual and routine is crucial—it allows us to understand the human moments that punctuate the rituals of everyday life. The patterns and routines of our everyday lives shift as quickly as experience informs them, and finding our way into new rituals that individuals, peer groups and families are creating opens up possibilities to connect with consumers.

These human moments via private and collaborative ritual may connect more to lifestyle positioning rather than simply solving a functional problem. To be authentic, it is imperative that we access the deeper personal meaning behind them. Insight into the nuances of human ritual can be especially fruitful for brands that rely on shifting cultural convention, or exist in markets where they are competing with the overwhelming clutter of a saturated market landscape. It’s in the details of new ritual and the sets of behaviors that they contain where brands can carve out new white space that competitors can’t encroach upon.

I am not suggesting that qualitative, ethnographic methods or data are superior to quantitative ones, but we do need to engage with consumers in a more holistic and comprehensive way. No one piece of data composes the whole picture and no one strategy will deliver the full picture of human experience. However, we do need to embrace the messiness of qualitative, ethnographic approaches that will embed us in the culture of everyday life and give researchers and consumers the space to explore the both the nuance and universality of human experience in a rapidly changing world.

Photo by David Pisnoy on Unsplash.

As vice president of strategy, Asia Pacific, at Marks, part of SGS & Co, Jennifer Murtell leverages design thinking to solve business challenges, develops brand portfolio architecture, whitespace models and positioning for a variety of leading consumer packaged goods brands.