Qualitatively Speaking: The irreplaceable on-site ethnographer

February 12, 2012 − by Jeff Bierer − in Articles of Interest − No Comments



Published in Quirk’s Market Research Review:
February 2012, page 20
Bill Abrams: President of New York research firm Housecalls Inc.

Much has been written recently about online qualitative research. In particular, mobile and online methods are said to allow researchers to connect conveniently with consumers no matter where they live, without the cost of travel and in less time. An indisputable advantage of online qualitative.

Additionally, consumers responding in the privacy of their own homes, without the presence of an interviewer, are said by some to be more truthful. This article takes issue with the latter assertion and makes a case for the ethnographer’s physical presence.

Consider the ethnographer accompanied by a videographer or using a Flip-type camera in a consumer’s home. While some ethnographers believe in laying back and working primarily as an observer, many others believe in engaging with the consumer. They become the consumer’s “instant best friend,” sitting down together in the kitchen over a cup of coffee, helping with the dinner or laundry, even holding the baby while mom empties the shopping bags. The familiarity developed in the process often produces intimate revelations and confidences about the consumer’s life and true feelings about the products and services she or he uses – revelations he or she may not have articulated to anyone else before and may feel reluctant to discuss with an anonymous moderator at the other end of an open computer connection. We have even seen denture wearers pull out their uppers to show the ethnographer where they hurt.

There are discoveries an ethnographer can make and document only on-site. Here are a few of the opportunities open to the researcher who is actually there:

The complete product experience. As adept with a smartphone camera or Webcam as the consumer may be, it would be much too awkward to maneuver the device while she makes dinner, brushes her teeth, gives her baby a bath or goes through the pain of setting up a new computer – while at the same time carrying on a conversation with a remote moderator. The on-site ethnographer can watch and document the experience from soup to nuts – shifting the point of view when appropriate – whether a consumer is testing a new product to see how it fits in her life or using a product or service she’s used hundreds of times before. Often the ethnographer who’s right there will capture and probe details that may have seemed irrelevant to a consumer performing a routine task in a routine way.

The surprise in the refrigerator – or the pantry or the medicine cabinet. An experienced on-site ethnographer will spot a product lurking on the back of a shelf, one the consumer wouldn’t have thought to bring up or show but that might give a new dimension to her consideration set. It may even provoke a genuine aha! Or, the ethnographer – just walking around the kitchen – can notice equipment the consumer may take for granted but that indicates a particular emphasis on one kind of cuisine. Similarly, a Netflix envelope lying on the hall table may provoke a discussion about movies that has nothing to do with the product at issue but may say volumes about the family’s tastes.

The tenor and influence of family life. A good ethnographer will learn a lot by sitting down to dinner with the family or accompanying mom as she ferries her son to soccer practice or by watching early in the morning as the family wakes up and comes down to breakfast one by one. How do the kids respond to that new breakfast cereal? Does one of them leave half of it in the bowl? A deft probe will discover why. And is mom off to the office after breakfast? When mom works, how does the level of dad’s participation in cleaning, meal preparation and product selection change? Who actually does the dishes or the laundry and how does that influence product choice?

On the go. Shop-alongs can be highly productive. Accompanying a shopper in the store allows an ethnographer to notice the body language, including hesitations before settling on one product or a dismissive gesture as she passes by another. The lure or ineffectiveness of in-store promotions becomes apparent without the shopper having to say a word. This also applies to many kinds of retail venues such as gas stations, banks, electronic stores. What produces an emotionally-charged reaction? What leaves a consumer cold? The ethnographer sees and hears it happen right before his or her eyes. Want a thorough rundown on the purchase decision? The complete process can be explored – from needs felt at home to shopping at the store and then back home to observe storage and product use.

Many other away-from-home occasions offer grist for the ethnographer’s mill. Sports of all kinds are usually difficult if not impossible for a respondent to video or even describe himself. An observant ethnographer can catch every detail of the action, including facial expressions, for later analysis. The car offers another opportunity. An ethnographer and a camera accompanying a driver can not only learn which controls are difficult to manipulate but the inconveniences of entering and loading a car as well.

Delve for insights

These are only a few of the ways on-site ethnographers can delve for insights and revelations – often uniquely. While remote online ethnography has many valid applications and definite advantages in time and travel savings, every project should be carefully considered in terms of its objectives and of the optimal depth of information and intimacy sought. In many cases, in-person ethnography will provide a worthwhile vantage point and valuable payback.