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Use Your Customers as Ethnographers

By Julie Wittes Schlack for Harvard Business Review

Several of the great success stories of corporate ethnography have 3M engineer Richard Drew as their protagonist. In the 1920s, Drew spent several days at an auto assembly plant, observing how the workers were using his company’s sandpaper. Two-tone cars were all the rage at the time, and Drew serendipitously noticed that the plant workers were laboriously and often unsuccessfully using newspapers to shield the painted portion of the car while the second color was applied. That alerted him to a need and ignited the idea for what became 3M’s keystone product: masking tape.

When it comes to discovering unmet customer needs and innovation opportunities, there’s no substitute for in-the-moment, in-context observation for making meaning out of the complex weave of emotion and rationality that drives consumer behavior. That’s why ethnographers often follow subjects around or even temporarily move in with them to note the compensations, workarounds, and rituals associated with some specific product, task, or routine.

But unless ethnographers are willing to spend weeks on end with their subjects, their presence inevitably introduces some behavioral change in the people they’re observing. After all, if you’re a teenaged girl, are you likely to buy condoms for your boyfriend with an ethnographer tailing you around? If you’re her mother, might you hold back from purchasing those Cheetos or Oreos, or hesitate to strip off your bra the moment you get home from work? If you’re her father, will you be tempted to tune into NOVA instead of the latest episode of Hoarders?

 At the same time, technologies like selfie sticks, Fitbits, and wearable video cameras are making people comfortable monitoring their own calorie consumption, sleep patterns, heart rate, friends, family, and daily experiences. This is leading some companies to investigate whether they can obtain comparable or at least good enough ethnographic insights in faster, cheaper, and more scalable ways by using simple mobile ethnography apps to equip people to observe themselves. These apps typically enable people to upload media files, tag their location, and provide brief responses to open- and closed-ended questions that are tailored for each project.

Why use them? At C Space, we’ve conducted more than 800 mobile journaling and ethnography projects on behalf of over 240 clients since 2010, and have seen the power of bringing consumer experience to life for our clients. Product and package designers can see how people open, store, and use their purchases “in the wild.” Manufacturers and retailers can jointly learn what shelf sets, aisle layouts, signage, and promotions are capturing attention and changing shoppers’ behavior in the moment. Marketers and innovation specialists can immerse themselves in the sights, sounds, and emotions of consumers’ daily lives, surfacing opportunities to make their products and services more emotionally resonant and durable. Customer experience initiatives can benefit from longitudinal studies capturing consumers’ every touch point with the brand.

In myriad tangible and intangible ways, consumers’ self-ethnographies help employees throughout an organization get to know customers as real human beings, not merely as data points. And that living, breathing knowledge builds corporate empathy, which, we’d argue, is ultimately the key to business growth.

But to achieve these benefits, mobile ethnographies must be well designed. (The screenshots below, from our mobile ethnography app at C Space, give a sense of how this sort of activity is captured.)

One of the biggest challenges companies are finding in getting their customers to become their own ethnographers is that it’s difficult to remember to step out of the moment to capture it. We’ve found that companies have greater success getting people over that hurdle when they give people short, focused assignments, particularly those that capture moments of strong emotion.

For instance, consumer insight specialists for Procter & Gamble’s Secret asked a number of women to use our mobile ethnography app to upload photos or videos illustrating the scents that brought them pleasure over the course of a week, and then to write a few sentences explaining what these pictures meant to them. The resulting images of Play-Doh, newly painted birdhouses, and freshly mown grass led product developers far from the types of scents normally associated with deodorants and antiperspirants. The stories accompanying these pictures highlighted the ways in which, over the course of an ordinary day, the women appreciated the power of scent to fleetingly elicit other times and places. That insight drove the development of a new sub-brand for the Secret line, Destinations, which promises scents that evoke locales and seasons. Not only did Destinations advance from insight to concept development to market launch in record time, but it exceeded its sales forecasts.

Similarly, to help market researchers understand the effectiveness of store layouts, we asked people to document what captures their attention or changes their behavior when they are in the grocery store. Some assignments focused on a particular product, as when we asked people: “On your next trip to buy toothpaste, show us what confuses you, surprises you, annoys you, or simply captures your attention in the oral care aisle.” In another, designed to explore what prompts people to make impulse purchases, we asked consumers to submit photos and narratives showing us what was on their shopping list, what captured their attention in the store, and what unplanned purchases they ended up making.

In both cases, the assignment was clear, the duration short but intense. Asking for images enabled us literally to see what is breaking through the visual noise of the aisles. Connecting those images to participants’ reflections on why they deviated from their plans or routines and why they made the impulse purchases they made adds a depth and texture that we could not have gotten had we asked participants to rely on their memory sometime later in a survey or even if we’d sent a professional ethnographer shopping alongside them.

“But isn’t this atypical of the normal shopping experience,” the seasoned market researcher might object? And it’s true – asking consumers to install a smart phone app to chronicle and interpret their own processes and rituals falls outside the realm of normal behavior. Still, that doesn’t invalidate the insights that spring from this approach. In fact, there are unique benefits to this kind of enforced mindfulness for researcher and subject alike, especially when they are one and the same person.

“I thought I mostly bought healthy food until I photographed what was in my pantry and refrigerator,” one consumer told us. “Now I’m wondering if I can’t figure out what’s healthy while I’m racing through the grocery store, or if I’m just lying to myself.” That kind of epiphany is gold for the manufacturer of food or, in this case, of weight loss products, informing the design and content of consumer education and behavioral support materials. But it can only happen when the consumer is both a participant and observer of her own life.

While the assignments might be specifically focused in support of a specific product or project, the insights gained from this kind of emotional self-reportage can resonate with creative professionals, marketers, and researchers across a company. That’s what Hallmark found when it turned to self-ethnography to yield a deeper, more empathetic and more individualized understanding of the 85 million+ American moms who are so essential to the Hallmark brand. “We hope that experiencing their real moments will help Hallmarkers recognize that our core consumers aren’t ‘moms with kids,’ but are real individuals,” observes Nancy Cox, Hallmark’s manager of consumer understanding and insights (CU&I).

With that goal in mind, the greeting card and media company equipped members of its long-established online consumer communities of women advisers with a simple ethnography app, which they used to conduct a variety of projects.

When asked to record the sounds of daily life that made them happy, for instance, they generated hundreds of submissions over the course of a single, wonderfully noisy week. They used their phones to record and upload thumping washing machines; the whirr of dishwashers; the opening door signaling someone’s return home; and, of course, laughing babies. What became apparent from their accompanying commentaries was that all of these sounds created happiness, or at least satisfaction, for these women, many of whom were juggling families and work outside the home. They created a feeling that no matter how demanding or volatile other aspects of their lives were, things were at least operating as they should within the domestic world in which they had some measure of control.

These sounds were then used as ambient background in an immersive exhibit at the company’s Kansas City headquarters entitled “Real Moms, Real Moments.” Created by the CU&I team and designed to inspire creative professionals, marketers, and researchers, the exhibit, which more than 600 Hallmarkers toured over a three-week period, featured an array of interactive, sensory-rich simulated areas of a consumer’s home. For example, by “answering” phones, exhibit visitors heard moms describe the differences that make a house a home. Hearing these women talk about the aromas, sounds, and warmth of a home helped further humanize their words.

Employees were also invited to sit in a comfortable chair while browsing excerpts from multimedia diaries of 20 moms who used a mobile app to record their thoughts and experiences during the course of a workday and a non-workday. The serendipitous input — one mom raving about Bollywood theatre, another sharing the fact that she was pregnant and afraid to tell her family because of heartbreak from a prior miscarriage – illustrates the intimate, contextual nature of this approach.

Beyond sights and sounds, ethnography apps also generate GPS location data, which some companies have used to discover some surprising insights. For instance, a major toy manufacturer developing an app to provide parenting tips asked women to share moments of success (children’s problems solved, crises averted) and moments in which they were desperate for suggestions and help. Contrary to the hypothesis going in, the project revealed that the parents’ moments of need arose not outside the home — like, say, when the child was having a temper tantrum in the mall — but inside — when they were trying to come up with a new hairstyle for their fashion-conscious daughter or cook a meal that their picky child would actually eat.

Hospitality companies are also deriving quick, highly actionable insights by combining GPS information with the experiences and rituals that travelers and guests are recording and sharing with them. How far from the hotel do solo travelers tend to go at night, and how does that differ by gender? What do frequent travelers do when they first check in to their rooms? Some lay out their toothbrushes on facecloths so that they need not touch the counter (suggesting that hoteliers should either provide toothbrush stands or reassurances about their hygiene practices). Others inspect the walls and ceilings for leaks. Indeed, the video one nonplussed man shot of the creepy stain behind his bed almost put Psycho to shame. The geo-tracking data that came with it enabled our client to identify the specific property in need of some fast upgrades.

Longitudinal data can be as, if not more, valuable than actual longitude. For example, California health-insurer Healthnet enlisted 40 of their online community members to document their insurance renewal journey over the course of three months during the 2014 Open Enrollment Period. While technically more of a diary than an ethnography exercise, this project illustrates the benefits of having long-term relationships with consumers who are equipped with ethnography apps and willing to share some aspect of their lives in an ongoing way. Take a look at the accompanying timeline below (which is in no way unusual – we’ve collected dozens like it), and you can see how the customer experience can change dramatically over time and how clearly it suggests opportunities for improvement.

“While we’ve always paid attention to our internal processes, this approach allowed us to hear and directly witness our members’ emotional as well as operational experience,” explains Guy Hadnot, Healthnet’s Director of Customer Experience. “And what we learned was sobering. We found that our members didn’t so much actively renew as just “stay” with us, and largely because of price. They were apathetic renewals, not actively positive ones, which meant that they’re at-risk renewals.”

Healthnet acted quickly and systematically on this insight. They shared out the findings from this in an immersive, internal cross-functional Action Setting workshop, where they mapped out changes in advance of the 2015 Open Enrollment period. Healthnet hopes that on the strength of the insight gathered through this longitudinal process, they’ll retain and expand the company’s member base despite an increasingly competitive pricing environment.

“You just can’t get this depth of insight in a one-off focus group or survey,” Hadnot notes. “And the icing on the cake is that even after the renewal journey was complete, thanks to the ongoing relationship we had with them, we could partner with our members to help us improve the process.”

Having consumers chronicle and interpret their own lives helps to mitigate the embarrassment potential of being observed by a stranger, face-to-face in real time. But it can nonetheless feel invasive to know that intimate data – what you’re seeing, where you are, how you feel — is being collected, often by people you’ve never met. So just as in live ethnography, researchers have to earn the trust of the people from whom they’re hoping to learn.

But how do you do that? Playback and dialogue turn out to be key success factors. The diligent and often intimate disclosure by citizen ethnographers should never be transmitted to a black hole, lest once-willing “subjects” quickly feel unacknowledged. What’s more, when consumers document their days for remote researchers, it’s crucial that we close the loop, testing our interpretations with them. Saying “Here’s a pattern we’ve observed” not only demonstrates the kind of reciprocity that’s inherently motivating but helps us understand if we’re drawing valid conclusions.

Family members, friends, and others in the “subject’s” immediate circle can also provide a reality check. When consumer-ethnographers fall victim to the quest for “social desirability,” presenting themselves as healthier eaters, more frequent exercisers, or more disciplined shoppers than they typically are, we can ask them to pass the phone to their spouse to comment on the accuracy of what’s being reported.

Ultimately, the outcome of consumer-conducted ethnography is not just to reveal unmet needs and innovation opportunities, but to humanize customers for the brands that serve them. And you don’t need a Ph.D. in anthropology for that; anyone with a smartphone and a sincere desire to learn from can do it.

https://hbr.org/