Ethnography and new product development
Simply put, ethnography – as it applies to innovation – is the process of doing observational research, going into the field to watch how customers utilize your products. Often used in consumer new product research, ethnography is an excellent way to uncover new opportunities for product improvement.
For example, speaker Pam Rogers, who is corporate director of global customer excellence and innovation, explained how the inspiration for a pedestal/storage unit for its Duet front-loading washers and dryers came from observing a woman who had placed her Whirlpool dryer upon cinderblocks, to make it easier to load and unload it without having to bend over.
Okay, yes, I guess, but really, no. It’s not simply about observation. That seems to be the easy part to explain and so that’s the part that gets spoken about. I’ve written a bit about ethnography here
So often, companies go to the trouble of studying customers, only to address the opportunities revealed by usage. For example, an award-winning snow shovel was redesigned when the design team went out to watch how their product was being used, found that women instead of men were shoveling, and so they made the handle smaller.
But there’s much more that can be revealed. What is the shoveling occasion (or, if you will, ritual) really about? What meanings does it hold? Does it hearken back to childhood? Or does it represent female independence? Or the nurturing of motherhood? Or the abandonment by men? Probably it’s none of those, but the point is that within the ordinary activity of shoveling we can find deep meanings that can provide enormous opportunities for innovation as we question the basic assumptions about what the product could possibly be.
I’ve found the word ethnography to be a troubling one, frankly. It’s a mouthful, it reeks of academic snootery and hand-waving inconclusiveness. It’s gets confused with anthropology and various parties have tried to claim the pure methodology only for those with the right doctorate. And I’ve been an advocate for stepping aside from the word and pointing to the key elements (getting out of your own context, observing and interviewing, and synthesizing something new). But that is troubling for some.
Grant McCracken has written a strongly-worded piece about the coming-of-age of ethnography in business in 2006, and there’s a spirited discussion in the comments below his piece, including several entries from me, including one where I advocate ignoring the word and just getting to the root of it (as I said above). Grant doesn’t take too well to that.
It’s a very troubling issue that is perhaps eating away at the development of an excellent practice and community of practice around that excellence. But I do think the terminology wars and the discipline battles are painful, frustrating, and perhaps fruitless. I look at the “interface” community which has split into many different professional networks based on what term they agree with (IxD, UxD, UX, UD, IX, ID, etc.) or what end of the egg they prefer to break open.
Yesterday I was in a conference call with a prospective client. We were proposing some work and hadn’t used the word ethnography at all. An internal person from another part of the organization was very interested in displaying her own mastery of the research process, and made numerous references to some ongoing work as “my ethnography.” Only she couldn’t even comfortably pronounce ethnography. And she wasn’t doing it; she was sending it out to the “only” provider that did this, apparently (?). And what were they doing? Inviting cool kids to an art gallery in Miami. [Okay, I don’t get this at all].
At a conference the other week I participated in a side conversation that included this snippet “Oh that’s not ethnography, that’s just depth-interviewing.”
I may be coming around to Grant’s way of looking at this. We have a problem. I’ve got my explanation, sure, but so does everyone else, whether they have more experience than I do, or worse pronunciation than I do. We’ve got experts like the Innovation Weblog getting it badly wrong, Pam Rogers perhaps missing some of the point, my recent encounters (presumed experts in their own peer group?) with their own versions of what we’re doing, and on and on.
Unfortunately, I have no solutions. And I don’t see a culture that is ready to reach a solution, establish a common language, speak in one voice (not millions), establish standards, or even work together on this.