Is Ethnography The New Black?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on June 12, 2006

The first issue of IN is heavy into ethnography and its parent, BW, jut ran an incredibly good, vover-length story on ethnography as well. So, playing the provocateur, let me take a cautionary note on the trend. In academia, where it seems fashionable business trends tend to occur two decades before they emerge from the mouths consultants (examples: “framing,” “experience,” “narrative,” “co-construction”), a roaring debate over ethnography has been underway.

It goes like this. Ethnography gives you a clear picture of one situation but is statistically insignificant. You don’t know how generalizable it is to the larger population. Statisticians hate ethnographers (they don’t date or share the same music) and vice-versa.

So as companies rush out to do ethnographic studies, I hear more and more stories of the data being generated going into digital files to be stored and never used. Or the opposite. Products being launched in countries on the basis of an ethnographic study that provides insight into that town or village but turns out to be unique to that local culture.

The User Insight Tool that Patrick Whitney is developing at the IIT Institute of Design deals with this issue by providing a comparative framework for capturing many ethnographic studies, allowing you to find trends and clusters. That’s one reason why we featured him in the first issue of IN (the other is that Whitney looks good with his eyes closed). Ethnography is an answer but not the answer. Corporate managers have to find ways to use the data in a larger context. There is an interesting item on one of my favorite blogs, Putting People First, about this issue.

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Reader Comments

Greg Hinzmann

June 13, 2006 05:43 PM

Funny how every time a "new" business tool like ethnography comes along it is touted as the be-all and end-all. Whether its Six-Sigma, outsourcing, QFD or Ethnography, any good manager will realize that these are just tools to add to their toolkit and are not necessarily whole solutions to a particular problem.

Let's face it, the media would rather hype anything new over anything old, even if the old still works. And consultants are eager to be selling something new, just as clients are more interested in buying the "next big solution" to their same old problems.

And so the cycle of building up the next big thing and then tearing it down continues.

Matt Zellmer

June 14, 2006 11:15 PM

"Ethnography is an answer but not the answer."

As Greg commented, I think ethnography is a "piece" of the answer, not *the* answer. There is no single silver bullet methodology for understanding customers. It's a matter of understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the various techniques and how they play together. Then, depending on the situation, you select those that will combine to (hopefully) provide an accurate picture.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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