Ethnographic Research for Customer Empathy

Quantitative data tells us ‘what’, ‘how many’, and ‘how much’; qualitative research tells us ‘why’

When was the last time you cooked a meal with a customer, biked with them to work, cruised with them through a farmers’ market, or spent a day with their family exploring a museum?

For design researchers like those at Empathy, all of this is in a day’s work.

Some people think of customer insight or understanding as something that happens through surveys, or UX testing or focus groups. Design research is different.

In the last few decades, there have been massive changes in the way people engage with brands. Globalization has opened up a world of choice for people seeking products, services and experiences. If a company can’t do right by a person and their values, that person has a host of other options available. With so much choice, consumer decisions are becoming less product-driven. This means traditional methods of customer research no longer tell a business everything it needs to know about the people it’s trying to reach. To help businesses create more value and meaning for their customers, research now needs to go deeper than surveys, UX testing or focus groups can go.

Using techniques from anthropology, including a willingness to listen and ask “why?” in different ways, design researchers take the time and effort required to understand customers in the context of their lives. This often means spending time with people in their homes, offices, local shops or gyms. It means having a long conversation in which we commit to getting to know a customer, rather than conducting an interview. It means understanding someone’s world, in that moment, from their own perspective — as well as through the eyes and experience of a trained researcher.

This type of ethnographically inspired research is nothing new in design or marketing. But we are in an exciting time. The benefits of putting customers at the heart of business are becoming increasingly obvious. Global companies like Nike, Lexus, Sonos, Airbnb, Virgin America, IBM, and PepsiCo use an ethnographic approach to shape products, services, experiences, and their organisation’s culture, around what is meaningful and valuable to their customers. Marketers are exploring the potential of ethnographic research to deepen the relationship between a company and its customers.

What is ethnography?

Like many words, the meaning of ‘ethnography’ has changed over time. The word breaks down to peoples and cultures (ethno) and writing (graphy). It could be interpreted to mean ‘writing about peoples and cultures’. A Google search tells us ethnography means the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits and mutual differences. But it’s much more than that. As ideas about research have morphed and developed, so too has the use of this word — particularly in a corporate context.

Ethnography has traditionally been used by anthropologists to record and report observations. Somehow, writing an ethnography has warped into doing ethnography. In the context of business, ethnography is associated with qualitative research. It’s seen as the best way to get a full understanding of a business and its customers. Ethnographically inspired research gets below the surface of conventional market research, which most often produces quantitative insights.

Quantitative data is great for answering questions that begin with ‘what’, ‘how many’, and ‘how much’. But qualitative research tells us why. If a business knows the number of people using its products or services, but doesn’t understand why, they miss out on a huge amount of information they could use to create and deliver value to customers. Without the ‘why’, any new venture — investment in new products or services, appealing to a new audience, exploring a new market — carries more risk than it needs to.

Qualitative research can do much more than enrich quantitative data. It helps businesses respond to people’s genuine needs. This creates more meaningful and enduring relationships with customers. If a business can deliver what customers say they want, as well as what they need, it is in a better position to succeed and evolve.

The power of qualitative insight

What people say and what they actually do can be completely at odds. This phenomenon often pops up in fieldwork. We spent time with Tom, who told us buying organic is the single most important thing to him when he purchases food. Tom then chose less expensive, non-organic options at every chance during our trip through Trader Joe’s. Susan swore she never wastes money on fancy personal products because she thinks they are a sham. But her house turned out to be full of high-end soaps and lotions when she showed us through her cupboards. Katie and Greg said their son could never sit still through a craft project. They looked on incredulously when the child spent almost 45 minutes totally engrossed in building a toy rocket at the local science center.

If we had approached our learning through a survey, interview or focus group, we would have collected data that had no relationship to reality. Participants don’t intend to lie, but what they really need or prioritise in life is often different to what they say they need (or don’t need).

This is why immersion in people’s lives is vital if we want to understand what’s important to them. In Tom’s version of his best self, he is an eco-warrior who only buys organic. In real life, his desire to buy organic is outweighed by his need to pay off a credit card bill on a low salary. Susan’s desire to look beautiful when guests visit outweighs her philosophical belief that people shouldn’t waste money on high-end personal products. Katie and Greg’s need to keep their son occupied was filled in a way they never thought possible — simply because the child was given the reins to choose his own activity that day.

If you’re making it, make it meaningful

Companies who commit to using ethnography for human-centered design have learned that delivering value for people requires a deep understanding of what’s meaningful to them. While quantitative research is useful, only an ethnographic approach gets to the heart of what people need.

The time, resources and expertise needed for ethnographic research come at a cost. But it pays for itself quickly. People want the things they buy to align with the way they think, feel and live. Understanding customers from many angles helps a company focus its activities and offerings, reduce risk and form stronger, more enduring relationships with the people who matter most. And investing in human-centered design is proven to pay off. A 10-year study of the Standard & Poor’s index shows design-led companies outperform other organizations by 211%.

These companies know real solutions and success measures are more complicated than what ‘how many?’, ‘how often?’ or ‘how much?’ can tell them. Their competitive edge is sharpened through lasting customer relationships. People will go further or pay more to engage with a company they trust will do right by them.

The habits you count, track and measure through quantitative methods are lived by people who have thoughts, beliefs and feelings that help them make sense of the world. Ethnographic research helps us design a world that responds authentically to who they are, how they live, and what they need.

Ann Pistacchi is Design Research Lead and Nik Jarvie-Waldrom is a Content Designer at Empathy, a business design firm with studios in Wellington, New Zealand and Southern California. Empathy offers deep customer understanding and insight-driven design, for truly great organizations. Connect with Ann at or 619-929-4629 to learn more about what’s meaningful to your customers.

Ann will provide the practitioner perspective at our workshop on Ethnographic Research on Thursday March 8 at 7:30 AM at University of San Diego, Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.

A powerful add-onto Qualitative Research, Ethnographic Research is used to provide detailed, in-depth descriptions of everyday life and practice.

The workshop will describe the practice and uses of Ethnographic Research from both the practitioner and academic perspectives, with a deep dive on:

  • The impact of consumers purchasing products, services and experiences that are meaningful to them
  • The influence of marketing on the commoditization of facial plastic surgery

The workshop will include presentations, hands-on activities, and networking. Join us!

About Ann

Ann Pistacchi is Design Research Lead at Empathy, a business design firm with studios in Wellington, New Zealand and Southern California.