What Is Business Ethnography?

Redefine Your Customer Relationships

What Is Business Ethnography? - Redefine Your Customer Relationships

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Business ethnography can help you to boost your customers' engagement with your product or service.

Think about the product or service that your company offers. You know how you want people to use it, and you've carried out surveys and run focus groups, so you know how people say that they use it. Your data tells you how many people use it, and even who they are.

But perhaps you've acted on all of this information, and sales are still falling. Or maybe you've launched a new product based on your customer feedback, and it hasn't been as successful as you'd hoped. One possible reason for this is that what people say they do and what they actually do aren't always the same.

So, wouldn't it be great if you could find out how your customers really use your products, and why?

That's where "business ethnography" comes into play. This is the use of direct observation and interviews to reveal your customers' true behaviors and motivations.

In this article, we look at what is meant by business ethnography, how it's used, its benefits and pitfalls.

What Is Business Ethnography?

Ethnography is a branch of anthropology, the study of human societies and cultures. Ethnographers study the way that people behave in their own environments. In a business context, they observe the ways that customers use a product or service.

Business ethnography has been called "the new core competence," and the insights that it generates can help you to stay ahead of the competition. It can help you to do the following:

  • Identify unmet customer needs.
  • Develop new products.
  • Devise a successful marketing strategy.
  • Position your brand effectively in the marketplace.
  • Break into new markets.
  • Uncover emerging trends.

Ken Anderson, principal researcher at Intel Corporation®, was an early adopter of ethnographic research. He said that the goal of business ethnography is "to see people's behavior on their terms, not ours." [1]

Let's illustrate this definition with an example.

Business Ethnography: Example

Anton runs a coffee shop in the middle of town, and he enjoys a reputation for excellent coffee, delicious pastries and friendly service. It's close to the local school and college, and is popular with young families, home workers and students.

Business is booming, so Anton decides to open a second store just out of town, close to a busy intersection. His own attempt at market research suggested that it would be an easy win: everyone says they love his coffee, he's well known in the area, and the new site is close to a number of office buildings with lots of workers.

But after some initial success, interest tails off, and his new store is losing money. Why?

He calls in a business ethnographer, who observes and interviews his customers in both locations. Anton's own research was correct, up to a point. But the ethnographer was able to establish that the two coffee shops had very different meanings and functions to the people in each area.

He finds that Anton's town-center clientele sees his coffee shop as part of the fabric of its life. Parents take their kids there for a treat; they associate it with a sense of community. Home workers use it as a surrogate office, where they can socialize but remain productive. Students treat it as an extension of campus; it's "their" space to hang out and chat.

In contrast, customers at his out-of-town store are mainly busy commuters, who just grab an espresso and go. They say they find his homespun style too whimsical, and the ever-changing cake selection doesn't appeal: they want to know exactly what they're going to get.

Anton realizes that he opened his new business believing that it should follow the same formula as his first. But his new customers behave differently, and have different needs. Ethnography has given Anton the information he needs to change his strategy.

How to Carry Out Business Ethnography

Ethnographic researchers use a range of techniques, depending on the project's requirements. These can include:

  • Fieldwork. Business ethnographers study their subjects "in the field," which means wherever the customer uses the product or service. Researchers shadow their subjects as they use it, and may ask questions to gain further insights.

    To gain an in-depth understanding of how the product or service fits into the customers' daily lives, the research can take place for weeks or months. The selected customers are part of the process, they are aware that they are being observed, and they are often paid for their involvement.

  • In-depth Interviews. An ethnographic interview can last for two hours or more, so it's vital for the researcher to build trust and rapport with the customer. The interview is conversational, but the interviewer's aim is to find out what the product really means to the customer.
  • Mobile Ethnography. Smartphone apps like ExperienceFellow, EthOS and Schlesinger Group are often used to conduct ethnographic studies. Customers document their own experiences, and provide GPS data, photos, audio, and video to ethnographers for analysis.

    As there's no researcher present, a mobile study needs to be more focused than fieldwork research. For example, Procter & Gamble™ used an app from research agency C Space to conduct a study that asked women to upload photos and videos representing smells they enjoyed, along with a description of how each one made them feel. This data was used to develop a successful new range of deodorants. [2]

How to Use Business Ethnography

We've looked at the methods that ethnographers use to gather data. But how do you structure your research project to achieve the best results? In their 2014 article for Harvard Business Review, strategists Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen outlined a five-step process for this: [3]

1. Reframe the Problem

First, reframe the problem by looking at it from the perspective of your customers, rather than from that of your business.

In our coffee shop example, the question Anton needs to ask is not, "How do I expand my business?" but, "How do my customers experience my business?"

2. Collect the Data

Next, break down the customers' perspective into a series of further questions, such as:

  • What do my customers enjoy about my product or service?
  • What challenges or pain points do they experience?
  • Who are they with, and what else are they doing, when they use it?
  • How does the product make them feel?
  • What meanings or values do they attach to it?
  • How do my customers' social and cultural identities inform their behavior?

These questions provide a framework for your observations and interviews.

3. Look for Patterns

The third step is to identify the root causes of your customers' behavior, and see if any common themes emerge. Madsbjerg and Rasmussen compare this process to peeling an onion. The first layer consists of factual observations about your customers: who they are, for example. The second layer is concerned with their behavior: what are they doing? And the third layer reveals their motivations: why are they doing it?

Ethnographic studies can generate a vast quantity of photos, video, audio, and interview transcripts. To make sense of it all, create a data card or file for each participant. Include their demographic details and a summary of their key responses.


Tools such as Appreciation and the 5 Whys can help you to understand the underlying causes of your customers' behavior.

4. Create the Key Insights

This stage is to find out what your product or service means to your customers. This can reveal any false assumptions that you've made about how they use your product, and it gives you the opportunity to address any unmet needs.

In our coffee shop example, Anton's key insight is that the experience of "getting a coffee" means something very different to local people relaxing with their family and friends than it does to busy commuters, and he needs to change his strategy accordingly.

5. Build the Business Impact

Finally, think of the meanings that your product or service has for your customers as opportunities for development and innovation. How can you tap into these meanings, or meet the needs that you have identified?

One real-world example is the German manufacturer Miele's™ use of ethnography to develop a successful new range of vacuum cleaners aimed at allergy sufferers. [4] The company observed that people whose family members had allergies spent far more time cleaning than they really needed to. In response, its new range of cleaners included a sensor that tells the user when all the allergens have been sucked up.

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Pitfalls and Challenges of Business Ethnography

Remember, ethnography is about people, and their relationships with your products, rather than the products themselves. An ethnographic study will not directly answer questions about how your product compares to someone else's, or what you should do to improve it. Ethnography will provide observations, evidence and hypotheses, but it's your job to decide how to act on them.

There are other challenges, too:

  • Skills. Ethnographic researchers require considerable skill and expertise to recognize what is significant, and to avoid introducing bias to the study. For these reasons, ethnographic studies are often carried out by external agencies, though this can be expensive.
  • Time. It can take several months to run an ethnographic study and interpret the results. Mobile ethnography is faster and cheaper, but you may not achieve the same depth of understanding.
  • Information overload. Although sample sizes in ethnographic studies are far smaller than those used in other types of market research, analyzing many hours' worth of video recordings and interview transcripts can be a huge task.
  • Resistance. Ethnography may represent a significant challenge to the way that your organization understands and operates its own business, and this may cause friction. As Sam Ladner, senior user researcher at Microsoft, says in her 2014 book, "Practical Ethnography," "Asking what consumers truly believe about a company's product is a bold act, because it begs a self-examination of what the company believes about that same product." [5]


Customer Experience Mapping is another useful tool for analyzing your business from a user perspective.

Key Points

Business ethnographers examine the way that your customers or clients interact with your product or service at the point of use. They use direct observation and interviewing techniques to find out why your customers use your product and what it means to them.

Business strategists Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen outline the following five-step process for business ethnography projects:

  1. Reframe the Problem.
  2. Collect the Data.
  3. Look for Patterns.
  4. Create the Key Insights.
  5. Build the Business Impact.

You can use ethnographic studies to identify unmet customer needs, develop new products, and devise strategies for innovation.

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Comment (1)
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Ethnography is indeed an interesting field in business. Knowing why and how your clients use your product means you don't have to learn everything by trial and error - and run the risk of losing money (or your business).
    Asking focused, intentional questions when doing client interviews will be a necessity. As you dig deeper into each person's relationship with your product, your interviewers will have to be artful about extracting useful information from every person.
    Identifying patterns in anything in life can be very useful, not only in ethnography. It means that you have to be consciously and mindfully observant - and practice to recall the right information from your memory at the right time.