Ethnographic Market Research: A Brief Guide 


Ethnographic market research – what is it, what are the benefits, when should you use it and how does it fit in with an overall market research strategy?

In this post, leading UK experts in market research Acumen give some insight into this topic.

Please note, this is an overview of ethnographic research – if you are interested in carrying out market research that can gain the insights to drive your project forward, please do contact us for an obligation-free conversation.

Ethnographic Research in 80 Words

Ethnographic research involves observing people as they really are. It has origins in anthropology but in market research terms it means seeing how people use a service or product, rather than relying on how they SAY they use it.

Effectively, the research acts as a fly on the wall. The subject is not prompted or aided whilst under observation. We see them using it truly as a user would, not someone who is using something while trying to impress.

Why Use Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research is a wonderful tool in the market researcher’s armoury because it shows how people actually use or interact with something.

It is necessary because people cannot always be relied upon to accurately say how they interact.

This difference is not through dishonesty, instead it is because we simply cannot remember how we use things, we aren’t focussed on every little step and, if we were, we wouldn’t then be using it naturally.

Imagine if a car manufacturer asked you how many times you changed gear on the way to work. You could only come up with a rough estimate, it might be wildly inaccurate.

If you were asked before a journey to count the number of times, this might then impact your driving. You might start to think you don’t change gears enough and so change your natural behaviour.

Only by observing (with permission of course!) and not prompting could we really gather an accurate insight. In this example, we might say we are observing driving to gauge safety information, without specifically mentioning the gear change part.

Why would this information matter? A car manufacturer might be looking at driving data and the ongoing switch from manual to automatic transmissions.

Equally, a website might want to know how users are finding information. If, for instance, Amazon wanted user information it would be better to observe people using the site rather than survey them a few days later to ask if they found what they needed.

Ethnography brings forward wonderful, 100% honest data capture.

Why then not use this all the time?

Ethnographic Drawbacks

As even the simple examples above showcase, there can be serious set-up costs.

Technology may be needed to observe, willing participants need to be found. If video is recorded this may need watching back and notes taken.

It can be time consuming, take a lengthy period to establish and be relatively high cost if done in bulk.

In some instances it is becoming far easier. If you allow tracking technology on websites, then data can be collected anonymously that shows precisely how users interact with a site.

A retailer could, for instance, see how users are navigating the site during the Boxing Day sales and draw useful findings from this. Did they find the key pages you wanted them to find? Did users seem to get stuck at certain stages?

However, other forms of ethnographic research will require people to be observed at their home, workplace or other setting with set-up costs and time requirements.

Using Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research would typically not be the first form of research, it is a technique to draw deeper understanding.

It may be that initial quantitative research – perhaps in the form of surveys or focus groups – picks out trends that then require qualitative follow-up.

At this stage, ethnographic research of carefully selected participants or groups may be deemed valuable.

Analysing the Data

Ethnographic research can create huge amounts of data. This may seem a positive, but if it is not carefully managed it becomes overwhelming and very difficult for anyone to see the wood for the trees.

You might observe numerous participants but that is not to say that all data is equal.

Typically, ethnographic research would only be undertaken by specialist market researchers. When companies try to undergo it alone it can lead to false insights and huge amounts of wasted time, effort and money.

It would be better in this instance to focus on simpler methods of research with less room for poor interpretation.

Considering Ethnographic Research

At Acumen, we have specialist teams that are experts in all forms of market research.

As shown through our case studies, we have successfully utilised ethnographic research to help create insights that drive projects forward – this includes in the specialist field of healthcare research.

Please contact us for further details.

The Highest Standards of Market Research

The proof of our quality is in our case studies and past clients. Please take some time to view our past work, this shows how we worked with clients to understand their needs, advise as appropriate and deliver the findings that could benefit their business.

We have won awards, received accreditation and have professional certification, for instance for data usage – you can find out more on this site.

We also have a bespoke verification programme called Acumonitor, this verifies all participants. We take every step to ensure you can be confident in the validity of the research and analysis we provide.

Acumonitor is an example of how we are actively looking to drive the standards of market research forward – you can read more and watch a short video that explains more.

Contact Us

On this site, there are contact details for every manager, so you can get in touch with any member of the team and discuss your requirements.

Whether you require further information, would benefit from an obligation-free quote, or simply want to discuss how to approach your healthcare research requirements, please do get in touch.

Call us on 0161 234 9940 or use our Contact Form.