‘Ethnography’ exposed

Why do political and business leaders want to immerse themselves in our everyday lives?

Martn Perks

Topics Science & Tech

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The saying goes: ‘In order to understand a man, first you must walk a mile in his shoes.’ This Christmas, Boots CEO Richard Baker has been doing just that, by turning himself into a shelf-stacker.

According to Charlie Dawson of The Foundation, a ‘customer driven management consultancy’, the key is to get managers to ‘see the world from the customers’ perspective’, through a process of what he calls ‘immersion’ (1). So Baker wants to understand his customers better – and in this sense he is by no means unique among business leaders. Today, getting as close to the customer as possible is all the rage, in the hope that this will reveal new insights and opportunities to continuing the relationship.

While walking a mile in our shoes might sound reasonable, today the trend is to go much further: trying on our clothes, even pretending to live out our lives. This is typically known as ‘ethnographic’ research – immersing oneself in the contexts of the subject. It is hoped that by experiencing the minutiae of our everyday existence, the political and business worlds will discover the problems we face and come up with better solutions. In fact, this obsession with getting closer to customers tells us more about the anxieties of business and political leaders in trying to connect to their audience than about anything going on in our real lives.

Consider the looming election. UK prime minister Tony Blair is desperate to know what makes us tick. New Labour’s ‘Big Conversation’, unveiled in November 2003, is an open invitation to the electorate to engage in dialogue with the government. New Labour has developed a website to which the electorate can post ideas and suggestions, which will be fed into a discussion about the next election manifesto. So if something irks you, you have until January 2004 to say so (2).

The continual drive to find new ways of engaging with us highlights the extent to which political institutions feel out of touch with their constituencies. Of course it helps if they know what we think, need and even desire – but it is equally important to go beyond the audience and lead by example. This kind of consumer-led politics is a risky business, not least for us. The more stories we reveal in this way, the more political leaders will build up a caricatured picture of us and how we live our lives. Instead of setting an example through an imaginative and innovative agenda, piecemeal attempts at innovation often lead to increased frustration, disloyalty and apathy among voters.

The same goes for the business world. The desperation for businesses to understand better their existing customers and tailor their products to their preferences can be seen as a conservative, cautious strategy – an alternative to forging ahead with new ideas and attempting to find new markets. Even in these downbeat terms, it is doubtful whether such a strategy even works. Dawson’s article cites the American Customer Satisfaction Index survey of 2003, which found that spending on market research has doubled over the past decade, to $10billion (3). Yet there has been a dip in customer satisfaction: one in four American customers is unhappy in his or her purchases of services and products.

Businesses often complain that as consumers, or even voters, we are increasingly hard to understand. Once market research could be relied upon to extrapolate purchasing habits from sales figures or voting habits. Today, the risks of not knowing more about your customers mean that traditional methods of surveying us are increasingly outmoded. Instead, corporate and political paranoia means pursuing research techniques that go further and further, attempting to define a picture of us in terms of our culture. No longer does market research simply observe what we consume – it looks at how we form our relationships, the context of our lives, and the roles that ‘define’ us socially.

For example of this trend, think back to Michael Portillo’s ‘Single Mum’ stunt in October 2003. The former Conservative minister and now all-round media pundit spent one week trying to understand what single mothers go through day by day. In the BBC 2 programme When Michael Portillo Became a Single Mum, Portillo looked after four kids in Liverpool for a week while the real mother had a break. The premise was that by doing the dishes, Portillo could understand the true nature of being a single mum in situ.

In fact, Portillo’s drive for empathy and getting closer only highlighted a patronising attitude to the subject, and the distance between them and us. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the issues faced by single mothers on the breadline – but Portillo’s experiment showed single motherhood only in cultural terms, as if to ‘experience’ it was enough.

While Portillo dries the dishes, immersive research continues elsewhere. ‘Deep hanging out’ is used to describe what ‘cool hunters’ do. Unbeknown to us, we’re often being followed around by ‘cool hunters’: the weirdo researchers who hang out among streetwise kids checking out where they’re going and what they’re wearing, doing, drinking, eating, speaking, texting…. In a music shop, one cool hunter, William Higham of Next Big Thing, a youth trend prediction company, describes what he looks for: ‘I’m particularly interested in any wording on t-shirts or badges. Do they go to the sales section? Are they spending a lot or just browsing? Which section is busiest, rock or dance?’ (4)

Across the Atlantic, more researchers are hanging out. Crystal, a newly formed division of the global advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, is also dedicated to searching out ‘cool’. Richard Welch, joint director of Crystal, explains: ‘If you don’t try to tap into how they [customers] spend their time, who they are, it’s just another brand. If you don’t understand the changes they undergo, you can’t communicate effectively with them.’ (5)

As an example of a relatively new form of immersive research, the discipline of ethnography emerged out of social anthropology: that is, white men studying black natives in the jungle, in an attempt to understand and control them. Today, we are the natives, caricatured in the interests of research.

But how does ethnography actually help business and political leaders to understand and control us? While research is necessary as part of any design process, knowing about the target audience is only a part of a wider process of discovery and problem-solving. To understand a problem, it is crucial to be able to remove yourself from it in order to achieve a sense of clarity. Conversely, immersing yourself in the ‘culture’ of your subjects negates any opportunity for objectivity – and hence the possibility of an innovative outcome.

As an example of how ethnography lowers horizons, the research project iSociety recently published Fat Pipes, Connected People: Rethinking Broadband Britain (6). The focus of its year-long ethnographic study was various families’ experience of using broadband across the country. From so much effort, the report drew pretty mundane conclusions, leading to a limited view of the potential of broadband.

Much of its focus is underpinned by broadband content delivered via the PC into the home. The report correctly points out that the dearth of content is not the driving factor for broadband adoption – especially since many content providers struggle to come to terms with innovative publishing models. However, it claims that users experience ‘wow’ moments by adapting how they use broadband away from typically browsing websites to more social uses. The report’s message is that users get the most from broadband when they use it as a social networking tool – for example, for communication with their families via email, instant messaging and peer-to-peer file sharing.

From all of this, iSociety’s conclusions are that the priority in influencing broadband adoption is offering comprehensive support to users – from installation to fixing problems with broadband ISPs and providers. ‘Exploring possibilities’ is relegated to second place. The key, according to the report’s authors, is for business better to understand and support our habits and needs as customers; and it claims that ‘companies which win in this move will be those who provide rich support, not rich media content’.

The iSociety report is limited by its desire to reflect observations from typical current usage and experiences of broadband. While this rings true for many users – broadband lacks content, connection problems are common, and pricing is expensive – focusing on such immediate issues fails to look beyond the early years of broadband.

In fact, the future of broadband will mean much more than a PC-based delivery system through a browser. Through the availability of more and more networked enabled devices, broadband connectivity will continue through the home to other areas with new possibilities. These range from home entertainment systems and networked gaming systems to other household appliances, such as plasma screens and even the humble fridge. By setting all this aside, the message of the iSociety report reveals more about the low horizons of its methods of investigation, than about the significant possibilities that broadband could bring for many people in the UK.

It is one thing to understand your consumer or voter – it is an entirely different matter to deliver something better than what they have demanded. By focusing too closely on what already is, politics and business risk losing sight of what could be.

Martyn Perks is a user experience consultant, and a writer and speaker on design, IT and business. See his website

(1) ‘Immersion therapy’, Charlie Dawson, Financial Times, 17 November 2003

(2) See the Big Conversation website; and Chattering classes, by Josie Appleton

(3) Cited in ‘Immersion therapy’, Charlie Dawson, Financial Times, 17 November 2003

(4) In search of cool – the hottest work in town, Nic Fleming, Guardian, 28 November 2003

(5) ‘Hunting for the next cool in advertising’, Stuart Elliott, New York Times, 1 December 2003

(6) Fat Pipes, Connected People: Rethinking Broadband Britain (.pdf 1.32 MB), James Crabtree and Simon Roberts, iSociety, 28 October 2003

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Topics Science & Tech


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