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If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t come across the term “ethnographic” research or ethnographies since, well … Anthropology 101 back in college? Yet peruse news articles of late, and you’re like to see the term pop back up into the lexicon.

“Ethnographers have been interviewing office workers to find out …”

“An ethnographic research team is seeing how people multi-task while driving…”

Huh. Interesting. Before you go and Wikipedia “ethnography” – and because we know that it’s really annoying to keep reading about a term or trend and not fully understand it – we’ll break it down for you. Succinctly and sufficiently.

What is ethnographic research? First let’s see how it works in practice

Sometimes it’s easiest to explain something by showing how it works in practice, so that’s where we’ll start.

Here is a verbatim quote from a recent New York Times Magazine article, titled “Failure to Lunch.” (Clever title, right?)

“June Jo Lee, an ethnographer, has been traveling the country, talking to Americans about how they eat. She has often been in offices, observing white-collar workers.”

The ethnographer in this article isn’t an anthropologist in the Margaret Mead sense. She’s a qualitative researcher. And she works for companies such as Kraft, Nestle, and Whole Foods, helping them understand how people behave around food so that the companies can come up with new and novel ways to feed us.

The article that features Lee’s work gave some pretty staggering statistics on the state of how most of us eat while at work:

Alone and at our desks.

While this might not seem like such a bad or abnormal thing (indeed, an estimated 62% of Americans eat alone at their desks these days, making this hardly abnormal), it can have negative consequences. For one, when people are isolated from their co-workers, they tend to snack more, and work productivity and satisfaction go down the more that people are cut-off from and not participating in communal activities with their co-workers.

Researchers such as Lee are able to tap into insights, such as computer-lunch-eating, by direct observation. Even in our incredible digital world, sometimes real-person observation is still the best vehicle for observing and questioning how and why people behave the way they do. In a nutshell, that’s what ethnographic researchers do.

But does ethnographic research really matter?

As basic as ethnographic research may seem, don’t be so hasty to brush it off as silly or a luxurious style of research that only really big brands can afford. It’s actually one of the more powerful research tools out there, and it’s led to a lot of insights – including insights that no doubt shape your current lifestyle and product usage.

As an example, Lee’s work, which was featured in the New York Times Magazine article, could have some drastic and lucrative impacts on companies that put her insights to use. If, for example, people are more productive and happier at their jobs when they eat with their co-workers, take a break from their desk, and share time together in a comfortable space eating a good meal (hint: Not in an over-crowded break room with a community fridge), how does this translate to better work? If it lowers turnover, helps employees connect with co-workers on a deeper level, and even leads to enhanced work collaboration, this translates to hundreds of thousands of dollars in increased productivity across even a mid-sized corporation. Multiplied across a large company, across industries, and across regions, this change alone could add millions and millions of dollars to productivity and cost-savings.

And it all starts with ethnographic research.

Another usage? Let’s say that a major food company that hires Lee to do this kind of work sees the output of the research and has an epiphany. “Ah ha!” They say. “Let’s encourage people to get away from their desks by sponsoring workplaces with weekly catering services that are affordable and can be set up in comfortable spaces to encourage large teams to attend.”

You can do the math. Let’s just say it could be incredibly profitable for this food company if they were to get into the corporate catering business.

Ethnographic research can be applied in home settings, too

Ethnographic research is popular in corporate settings because it helps companies create efficiencies. For product companies that service corporations, ethnographic research is a huge driver of new product development. However, ethnographic research isn’t limited to office settings; it’s an incredibly useful tool in home settings, as well. In fact, well over half of the personal care products, home cleaning products, and even entertainment tools you use in your home were likely developed from companies that rely heavily on ethnographic research to refine and test out how people actually use things in real life.

How every company can benefit from ethnographic research

Okay, maybe not “every” company, but if your company manufactures products and services that people in office or home settings use, ethnographic research will be an incredibly useful tool to help your team improve and refine the product.

See, quantitative surveys, data footprints, conjectures about how people behave, and “best guesses” simply aren’t sufficient ways to understand human behavior and application of products. Ethnographic research, for this reason, is an incredible way to unlock insights about your product and brand that you otherwise wouldn’t have imagined.

Interested in ethnographic research? Request a proposal today >