This article looks at how Xerox and Intel are using ethnography to develop viable products and improve the lives of their users.
Ethnography is a type of study that tries to describe the social life of humans. Using qualitative research, ethnographic studies aim to produce a detailed description of everyday life and practice.
Put simply, to understand human behavior you have to watch them doing what they do. It’s perhaps the human equivalent of heading to the jungle or desert to watch wildlife in its natural habitat.
Whilst many research methods for studying human actions involves asking questions to the participants being surveyed, anthropological researchers instead visit people where they live and work to observe their behavior, without directing it.
Although ethnography started out as a branch of anthropology, this kind of analysis also has applications for business. Major companies such as Xerox and Intel have used ethnographic research methods to enhance their understanding of how people use products and services.
The systematic and holistic approach to real-life experience that ethnographers employ is valuable to product developers, who use their methods to understand unstated desires or cultural practices that surround products.
Where focus groups fail to inform marketers about what people really do, ethnography links what people say to what they do—avoiding the pitfalls that come from relying only on self-reported, focus-group data. It also helps avoid the very obvious limitations of people not being able to express what they are doing (such as in the case of children) or not understanding there are any other options for how they do it.
Reducing traffic congestion using ethnography
Xerox was called in to try and understand how the cost of parking could be adjusted to reduce traffic congestion, to improve flow, and raise the supply of parking spaces in Los Angeles.
In a bid to reduce the amount of circling around that drivers needed to do in order to find a parking space, the cost of parking in the most desirable spaces was increased. The cost of parking in less desirable spaces was also decreased.
Xerox identified that lowering the cost of parking spaces that had previous been considered less desirable had the effect of making drivers significantly more likely to use these space. In fact, drivers’ willingness to park there increased out of proportion to the reduction in the cost of parking there. By adjusting the costs of parking in the different spaces, at peak times the undesirable spots saw 10% more parkers and the more desirable ones experienced a 15% decrease in drivers attempting to park.
Xerox was able to incorporate ethnographic data that showed what electronic parking meter data couldn’t capture: the number of people having problems using the meters or not understanding the signage. This helped fill in the gaps in the data provided by the algorithmic data from the parking meters.
Ethnographic studies using methods such as video recording of driver behavior helped accompany the technological data gathered to really understand the true picture of why traffic congestion occurred.
Xerox’s management team has expressed a preference for getting ethnography involved early when it comes to problem solving like this parking example. Whilst the company can glean a lot from algorithms and Big Data, ethnography offers a counterpart to data analysis and can help confirm that the right approach is being taken, confirms the interpretation of data and shows that nothing has been missed.
Xerox took the approach that big data analysis and ethnographic research were to be used to complement each other rather than deciding between one approach and the other. For many companies, commissioning any kind of research is often prohibitively expensive; this dual method approach is only suitable for brands with major resources behind them.
Intel: the world’s largest corporate ethnographer
At Intel, ethnography is used to gain a more complete understanding of customers, to inform strategy and planning, and to improve the firm’s ability to innovate successfully.
The company first employed ethnographic research in the mid nineties to see if the products it sold for business use could seamlessly move into the home environment and help it open a whole new audience of private consumers. It dubbed this approach “new uses for new users.”
Obviously Intel has access to plenty of information about buying habits from various pieces of market research and customer data. But ethnographic analysis can provide another kind of information – the type consumers aren’t necessarily able to express.
This might include looking at how net natives (those who grew up with the internet) and net immigrants (those who first accessed the net as adults) differ in their use of technology. Consumers are only able to answer questions from their own perspective, so ethnographers are able to get a bigger picture by observing rather than asking about use of technology by different social groups.
One of the products Intel’s ethnography program has produced is a handheld netbook-type PC for emerging markets. This product was designed to reflect the way children like to carry a pen and paper around a classroom, so it’s highly portable, flexible, and durable to reflect their real-life needs and behavior.
Approaches which use ethnography was particularly useful when dealing with children from emerging markets who aren’t necessarily able to articulate what tech they have a need for based on experience and understanding of what options were available to them.
Introducing a new product to a fresh market like young users in emerging markets is an illustration of the “new uses for new users” approach that ethnography can offer to tech firms.
Ethnography is now used to inform their long-range strategic planning, and to answer questions about how consumer use of technology is likely to evolve. The kind of questions Intel now investigates using ethnographic research include how comfortable baby boomers are at moving away from TV and PC to tablet use, and how smartphones are replacing PCs.
Intel has found the insights it has gained from ethnographic research to be so worthwhile that it now employs what is probably the biggest corporate ethnography team in the world.
At Intel, ethnography is a core part its long term strategy and forms a core part of its engineering research function: the company sees this research as vital to how it survives and adapts to our changing use of technology.