The Ethnography of Marketing (or, rather, the marketing of Ethnography!)

The Ethnography of Marketing is another BusinessWeek piece about, well, ethnography. (It should be entitled The Marketing of Ethnography, perhaps).

The Institute of Design…[has] developed the User Insight Tool, an ethnographic methodology designed specifically for business. It relies on disposable cameras, field notebooks, and special software that teases out new understandings from consumer observations.

How does the User Insight Tool work? Researchers decide what human behaviors they want to observe. They give observers disposable cameras to take photos of those activities. With pictures in hand, researchers talk to the people using a standard framework outlined in their field notebooks. The goal is to understand each person’s activities over a number of dimensions such as comfort level and product use. The notes are analyzed and entered into the software along with general insights and the original field notes.

The software lets the researchers look for similarities among all the insights gleaned from the different subjects. It organizes them graphically on the computer screen so large patterns of similarities appear as dense patches or clusters. The value of clustering is that it can reveal hidden patterns of behavior.

Interesting. The Institute of Design has been talking about this tool for a while now, and this is as close to an actual description as we’re probably going to ever get. It’s still remarkably opaque. Is this some advanced Artificial Intelligence system that does Natural Language Processing? That would be surprising to see emerge from the ID, wouldn’t it? If not, then perhaps the article is suggesting that the “observations” that are entered into the system must be put into a set of categories (pre-defined?) and then it does some rudimentary sorting on them? For it’s the creation of that categories that seems enormously challenging.

In science, you can determine your parameters ahead of time; you can even set up all your stats before you do your data collection. But in fieldwork, you don’t really know what the categories are, you can hypothesize, but the pattern recognition has to let you go broader than you imagined (that’s why you are doing this in the first place!).

I’m always a little nervous when I see a piece of technology emerge as the panacea to complex human problem (and we see this all the time, either it’s software, or hypnotism, or MRIs or something else presumably objective). In this case, we’ve got messy people (those who we study) and a slippery skill set (doing ethnography). And it seems that the story here is throwing some gizmo at the problem to eliminate that. Are the people doing the “observations” considered ethnographers or are they simply data collectors working to a script?

There’s always a market for short-cuts, easy answers, quick-and-dirty solutions. Although their case studies sound intriguing from the little bit of detail we’ve been given, I would want to know much much more about what they’re actually doing to get to these results.

When the Institute of Design compared the ethnographic data of both the P&G and Lenovo studies, it found that while the kitchen is the center of family activity in the U.S., the parents’ bed is the family social center in India. This is vital information for any company making global consumer entertainment products.

Is “the parents’ bed is the family social center in India” an ethnographic insight or something that any Indian would be able to tell you? On that note, Dina Mehta has documented a whole series of Indian cultural norms around business, consumption and beyond. It’s a brilliant reference piece. Check ’em out: part 1, part 2, part 3.


About Steve