“Expect the unexpected”

is what I recently said to a client about to embark on her first in-home ethnography. Almost anything can happen. That’s beauty of ethnography. You get to see life as it’s really lived instead of having it explained to you. It’s also the challenge of ethnographies. As a client, you are making a significant investment in ethnography – of time, money and resources.  A little unexpected is great, a lot of unexpected can derail the project, create doubt amongst the broader team, jeopardize the learning and break the bank.  Additionally, if your team doesn’t go in field often, or doesn’t have a personality type that is comfortable with uncertainty, it will challenge your team’s engagement and acceptance of the learning.  And no one wants that to happen.


Here are 3 tips for great ethnos:


1.     Get to Know the Participants Ahead of Time

There are 3 benefits to this: 1) it confirms you are seeing the right people; 2) it helps prime the conversation, and 3) it puts the respondents at ease, which enables a looser, more fluid conversation from the start.

Confirming the right people can be done through “screendowns” or “auditions” – these can be phone or video calls with potential respondents recruited by the field house but not yet booked.  Your moderating team can handle this and you can consider joining those calls.  Taking the time to join a few of these calls can help ensure that the recruit is what you want.  It’s particularly useful if you have a difficult recruit or a very specific behavior or attitude you are trying to understand.

Homework or pre-session assignments will also get the respondent reflecting on who they are or how they feel about a product.  A collage or timeline (or other creative assignment) can be used to dive from system 2 into deeper system 1 conversation.

If you think it’s daunting walking into a stranger’s home, try having a group of 4-5 strangers over to your house to “put you under the microscope.” These early touchpoints, especially a screendown, can help create a glimmer of recognition upon arrival. The outcome is a better, more immediate conversation with less warm-up required to get to the same place.

These steps add time and dollars to the budget, but they help to lower the risk that a session will be a dud. In today’s budget-conscious reality, it’s a small investment for the bigger return of a great ethnography session.


2.     Prep Your Team on What to Expect

If your business team or internal clients are joining in the field (and hopefully they are), help them understand what it’s going to be like. While you may be familiar with what to expect, your team may not know what to expect.  A pre-field briefing call can be a 30-minute investment of time that will pay off by significantly minimizing your team’s stress.

Ask your moderating partners to put together a pre-field briefing call and perhaps documents explaining what to expect. This will align everyone going in field and answers the questions they have, big and small. Can they ask questions? What should they do during the session (see tip #3 below)? Can they use the bathroom in a respondent’s house? What should they wear? When will they eat? Can they use their phone?

The briefing is also the best time to make sure everyone is aligned on the key questions, flow of the conversation, and other points you want to make. At our company we use that time to coach client teams on the 5 Steps to Building and Applying Empathy. That little bit of coaching can make a big difference in how your team engages and ultimately absorbs what they experience.

The risk of not doing this? A big, disorganized mess when you get into the session. Uncomfortable teams make for uncomfortable research sessions.


3.     Put the Team to Work

Ethnographies are a lot more involved than focus groups. In addition to moderating, there are pictures to take as well as notes and observations to capture like you would in a back room.  The team that’s joining in the session can help cover these tasks, freeing up the moderator to do what they do best. Make sure your team has notebooks and ask them to take notes on their observations and what they hear. Those come in handy during debriefs in the car right after the session. They provide great reference points and can help with quick analysis.  It’s all about observations and quotable quotes – you don’t need a transcript from them, that can come from the audio recording.

Pictures are critical in bringing to life a story.  Designate one of your team members as the “official photographer.”  Collaborate with your moderator on the types of pictures you’ll need. A nice face pic is pretty much a given.  Think ahead about what other images you might want to see in the report. How might images from the in-home visit help advance the story? Try to set a minimum — maybe 30 — so your photographer realizes they should take a lot of pictures, not just one or two. You may end up with 18… but it’s a lot better than none.

Engaging the team empowers them; they’re immediately more invested which helps them get more out of the session.

It’s unrealistic to try to solve for every variable that could possibly come up on an in-home.  I was in the middle of an in-home during the East Coast earthquake in 2011. You can’t plan for that, but you can give your team tips on what to do to keep them safe and engaged. The more you make an investment upfront, the better prepared to fully engage and get the most out of each session.

What tips do you have for a better ethno? What challenges do you have with ethnos that you’d like to resolve? Let me know at rob@ignite-360.com