Deeply understanding your future customer, ethnographically speaking

January 17th, 2014 by Alicia Dudek | PeopleResearch

“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises, he is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so” – Mahatma Gandhi

The latest addition to our SXSW blog entries comes courtesy of Alicia Dudek, Deloitte Digital’s extremely talented design ethnographer. We hope you find Alicia’s entry and recount of EPIC 2013 as insightful as we did.

It’s such fun to ask people, “what do you do for a living?” A common question but just imagine the variety of answers you could receive, or give? When I get asked the same question, I get to say that “I’m a design ethnographer.” With such a ridiculous long name, replying, “I study people,” seems like too simple of an answer. Being an ethnographer means I get to go out into the field and conduct qualitative research in context with real people about everyday life and practice. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz referred to this kind of rich qualitative data collection as “thick description,” a way of understanding the subject deeply. Being a design ethnographer in a digital world is to put ethnography to work designing customer focused experiences, interactions, and strategies that don’t yet exist. It is about applying ethnography to the art of predicting and designing the future tailored to your customers.

This year I was Deloitte Digital’s first ever design ethnographer to attend the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC 2013) at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London. EPIC is the premier global conference on the current and future practice of ethnography in the business world. It is held once a year in different international locations and enables ethnography practitioners to discuss different applications and possible futures for ethnography practised in business. The opening keynote speaker was ethnographer and sociologist Tricia Wang, who spoke about how ethnography should be used to provide thick data to help us interpret the big data that is revolutionising our world. Tricia’s discussion critically asked for big data and ethnography to work together in looking at our future.

Research like design ethnography is often used to help us get a picture of the current and ideal experiences of people. We use it to help explain human behaviour and improve future predictions. The big data revolution has also provided us with a very scientific oracle which we use to predict the future for our businesses. Sometimes this leads us to confuse understanding our markets with understanding our customers.

Tricia spoke of how humanity has always been obsessed with predicting the future. We will always be obsessed with predicting the future, it’s how we identify and maintain competitive advantages. Our prediction methods have changed with the advent of the scientific method which moved us forward from methods such as consulting the oracle of Delphi, who happened to be a young woman inhaling tectonic gases whose ramblings were strategically interpreted by a legion of priests. Big data is a substantial move forward in our prediction methods but we still need priests to interpret its ramblings.

“The work we do as ethnographers is more needed than ever because the world has mistaken computers as merely machines to produce measurement tools, while missing out on the fact that they’ve also been producing genuine social spaces that can only be understood through experience and stories” – Tricia Wang

Qualitative research methods, such as ethnography are the Rosetta stones needed in order to interpret the questions posed by big data analysis. The answer is not just in big data, or in small data, but in a rich combination of big data and thick data, which is intimately acquainted with the human condition and thick description. Thick data is produced by ethnographers bringing back stories from people out there in the real world, and once we apply it to the wicked problems facing us we have a slightly better picture of the future we all want to build.

In her EPIC2013 keynote Tricia Wang reminded us that creating thick data is a creative process, “ethnographic work is creative.” It is true that it involves a creative process that is dependent on the ability of the researcher to tell the story. As ethnographic work is creative it begs to be displayed and interacted with in order to help spread its message. We need to be collecting and sharing the stories told by our customers and communities. Designing for the future is complex and full of bumps along the way. Design research and ethnographic methods can help us inject practical humanity into our prototypes and predictions. By understanding our current and future customers deeply we can hopefully avoid customer rejection catastrophes and the associated redevelopment costs.

For further exploration, the full transcript and slides of Tricia’s keynote address can be found here, and the discussion continues on her blog.

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