As an ethnographer, I spend many hours traveling to meet people in their environment, listen to them about their families, childhood days, friends, first crush, education, gossip and challenges, their aspirations, new gadgets, politics and almost everything under the sun.

Ethnography study to improve rural healthcare systems — Dungarpur Village in Rajasthan (India)

As we know, humans are very complex beings, and it’s always a challenge to claim that you know enough about them before designing any new product/service/experience. In several interactions that I’ve had with people from various walks of life — like students, businessmen, working mothers, daily wage labours and senior executives — they open up and talk about their deep challenges, aspirations and motivations only when they have developed some level of trust and bond with you. It’s essential as an ethnographer to extend warmth and comfort to the people you are interviewing to enable them to share their stories with you. To do this, I, by default, use a conversational approach rather than typical questions and answers one. The issue with Q&A is that our minds get tired of answering and there is a burden of being judged and hence, the extra precautions one would need to take to ‘sound right’. After all, they are talking with strangers and would not like to show their weaker side.

The issue with Q&A is that our minds get tired of answering and there is a burden of being judged.

Storytelling helps people open up because you are not judging them or pushing them to provide appropriate answers. Uninterrupted sessions show that you are listening to them, are interested in the discussion, in their stories, in their environment and at their pace. In such discussions, it’s important to go with the flow rather than stop the participant, because you have a protocol and the series of questions to follow in a defined format.
The magic happens only when you let them talk free. At the same time, it’s paramount that you stay on your agenda and keep a tab on your focus areas and topics that will add value to your research goals. It’s an art to listening to stories and derive insights from it.

It’s an art to listening to stories and derive insights from it.

In many sessions in which I’ve had clients accompany me in such discussions, I find them usually bewildered about the areas that I discuss with the participants. They often want to see a ‘direct’ correlation of the discussion to their business and set of insights almost immediately after the session.
The expectation is to ask a set of questions that should list their ‘challenges’ as that’s what they have planned to — learn about users challenges and design a new service that will ease ‘just these challenges’. In my opinion, that’s a very rudimentary approach of trying to innovate a new service/product.

The skill of an ethnographer is to identify the undercurrents and probe deeper on areas that will impact the lives of the users — ones that are deep rooted and if addressed should upgrade their standards of living.

The skill of an ethnographer is to identify the undercurrents and probe deeper on areas that will impact the lives of the users — ones that are deep rooted and if addressed should upgrade their standard of living, health, livelihood, etc. This can be achieved only when you get people to talk to you about things that matter to them and not limit discussions around areas that you think they should care about where your product/service is the epicentre of their lives.
As an example, in one of my research sessions, a client could not comprehend the need to know about a small business owners’ family, his children, their aspirations and motivations, his childhood days or even about his hobbies and friends. How can understanding about their day routine help us in selling him additional good/services?

One has to consider the fact that we are selling services and products to people and they have a life beyond using your products.

One has to consider the fact that we are selling services and products to people and they have a life beyond using your products. It’s foolish to limit your interactions to understand their current usage of your goods and that of your competitors. This approach best help you to make insignificant enhancements or maybe beat your opponent for a very short period. If your goal is to develop loyalty with customers, which is becoming essential now, more than ever, then you need to design products that they will want to use and will help them upgrade themselves, their families and organisations to next level. You need to connect with them as people and not just as your target segment. So, next time you set out to understand your market, make sure you get to listen to a few real stories too.