Having it Both Ways: Market Research and Ethnography

In recent podcasts we discussed the difference between traditional market research and customer-centered, ethnographic research.

Market segmenting and reports look backwards.  You are making deductions about what you think will happen in the future, based on what has happened in the past.

This analysis has some strengths.  You can look at actual buying behavior.  You can see through to the consequences of past product decisions.

It also has some weaknesses.  As the stock brokers say, past performance is not an indicator of what will happen in the future.  A body in motion only stays in motion until it meets a another body–some force that causes it to change direction.

Ethnography, studying customers, is looking forward.  We are observing what customers are doing right now.  We are listening to what they are saying in the current moment.  We are collecting that information and we are using it to predict what is possible.  Roger Martin calls this ‘adductive reasoning’ in his book the Design of Business and it’s a way to think about what we might do and how that can effect the future.

Because we’ve got some tools and practices that help us to make sense of what we see, we can create something useful from this.   We can create a hypothesis of what we think might be a better way–through a product or service–for our future customers to get the experience they want.

This also has some weaknesses.  There are no guarantees.  That’s why we continually test and retest our theories to get a better idea of how right or wrong we are and correct accordingly.

Both kinds of analysis have their place.  It would be irresponsible to ignore market research that tells us where people have spent money.  There is a momentum to that kind of success.

But, if we want to uncover things that are hidden from direct view and find needs that customers can’t verbalize or don’t yet understand, we have to study them as individuals as well.

We need to integrate these two kinds of thinking and research to really get at what customers want and to be able to communicate those ideas to the rest of your company in a way that they can understand and accept.

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