It’s a real bummer that one of the most proven tools for uncovering big ideas for innovative new products goes by the super-geeky, sleep-inducing name of “ethnography,” but it does. Ethnography, this mainstay tool of customer-centric new product development and innovation is in the midst of a major technology-driven transition that product development and innovation professionals should pay attention to, despite the snoozy name. Using the cameras in mobile devices (which are already in the pockets of an extremely large percentage of workers in the industrialized world) in combination with sophisticated special-purpose mobile ethnography research apps for iPhone and Android, it is now possible to observe how customers (as well as competitors’ customers) use products in their natural settings without the need to travel to distant, and sometimes remote locations. Significant insights into customer behavior and unmet needs, backed up by user-generated video and commentary, can now be obtained in ways never before possible. In many cases mobile ethnography produces much more powerful insights, faster, and at a lower cost than any other method. Better, faster, and less expensive? What’s not to like?!
Ethnographic research has been around since the mid 1800s when it was pioneered as a social science whose objective was the development of a deep understanding of indigenous cultures through long term immersion in them and documentation of them. In the mid 20th century, ethnography was adopted by consumer marketers and it began proving itself as an enormously valuable tool for identifying latent – meaning unrecognized and unexpressed – consumer wants and needs. Ethnographic researchers began camping out in people’s homes, watching carefully, and asking questions as consumers scrubbed their floors, prepared meals, did their laundry, and more.
In the latter half of the 20th century, and continuing to the present day, ethnographic research has proven itself equally valuable for new product development and innovation initiatives, with ethnographers embedding themselves in operating rooms to observe how surgical tools are used, in auto body shops to observe how cars are repaired, in shipyards to see how containers are unloaded, and in homes to watch how dinner is made, as well as a wide range of other settings with the objective of helping new product development professionals identify latent wants and needs.
While a variety of research techniques can help a customer think more creatively about his or her needs, the practice of expertly observing the customer perform their work in their own environment is one of the most effective means of uncovering and refining big ideas for B2B companies. The problem with this in-person observational research, while widely recognized as being enormously effective, is that it can be time, labor, and travel intensive, and as a result, really expensive. Add to this the need for the research to be conducted by someone with the necessary training and skills – often times a seasoned professional ethnographer – and the costs rise even further.
Now, all of this is changing. Using mobile ethnographic software and tools, ThirdSlice can now show its clients how customers store, transport, use, abuse, maintain, drop, share, and even disposes of a particular product, in the user’s own natural environment (be it at home, work, school, or on the go). This in-the-moment “show me” video can be augmented with “tell me” commentary by the user, explaining what he or she is doing (or not doing) and why. The researcher can observe the video and probe with follow-up questions to get a deep understanding of customer behavior and attitudes without the need to send a team of people to far flung locations. And instead of having to hang around a participant’s loading dock or machine shop for weeks (something that is never done because it’s cost prohibitive) to observe a specific activity or behavior that might be very important but also occurs in an unpredictable fashion, or that happens over an extended period of time, a mobile ethnographic study can span multiple days or weeks, allowing the participant to capture very specific situations or behavior that are completely missed during typical ethnographic site visits that last only a couple of hours. Lastly, mobile ethnography allows dozens of customers to be observed in the same amount of time that it would have taken to observe just a handful in person, often at a greatly reduced cost. Pretty amazing, right?
In light of all of these awesome benefits, you might feel tempted to try a mobile ethnography study yourself. And that, my friend, is a terrible idea. Just as with traditional ethnography and dynamite, mobile ethnographic studies are best conducted by trained professionals. Successful studies require careful planning and forethought. Recruiting the right participants, engaging them in a way that produces valuable data, and analyzing the vast amounts of data (often many, many hours of video) takes real training and practice.
If you want to get a whole new level of insight into unmet customer needs or into what’s happening with your products in the field, or you’re accustomed to spending big money (and a lot of time) to travel and observe your products being used in the customer’s environment, we encourage you to consider mobile ethnography. We promise you’ll see what you’ve been missing.
Post Epilogue: If you have a better name for mobile ethnography – one that truly captures the hella-awesome-essence of what it really is – we’d love to hear it. Comment or shoot or us an email with your ideas.