Ethnography as a Tool for Innovation

Data is key, but we shouldn't forget about people


Big Data has often been heralded as the key to unlocking innovation. It tells marketers what their customers have done, what they are doing and can act as an accurate indicator of what they’re likely to do in the future. There’s no doubt that Big Data can be a very effective tool for innovation and it can accomplish a vast amount by itself, but often, it requires a human element in order to identify, in effect, the bigger picture.

It’s sometimes easy to forget about qualitative methods when we’re told that the application of analytics to Big Data is all we need to observe shifts in cultural patterns. But getting the bigger picture is a task that Ethnography, the study of culture and human interactions, plays an essential role in.

Ethnography has been particularly important for governments. Often, they have reams of data at their fingertips and even identifiable trends, but sometimes find it difficult to interpret the patterns in a way that actually benefits the electorate. There can also be confusion surrounding which problem should be addressed first, and ethnography can help confirm whether governments are working on the right problem and the one that requires the most urgency.

There are a number of very valid reasons why an organization might be wary of incorporating a human aspect into its operations. Focus groups for example, are often deemed a waste of time as companies, often without knowing it, almost predispose the participants to answering questions in a certain way. Even if this doesn’t happen, the answers can be taken out of context and utilized in a manner that’s unbeneficial for them. Most of time, these types of endeavors rarely lead to innovation.

But Ethnography is different to that. It doesn’t revolve around a series of questions; it instead gets consumers to interpret the data and to draw conclusions from it, adding a new layer to their analysis. The most recent example of this was seen in Los Angeles, where a new method was devised to make parking simpler in the city. Although they used analytics to identify trends and answer questions important to the initiative, they needed to use Ethnography so that they could make sure that their findings were in line with how people were actually thinking. At the end of the day, it’s not just a question of economics.

Data is allowing organizations to understand exactly what their consumers want. This gives them an avenue to be creative so that they can target specific innovations at things that their consumers want. Increasingly, Ethnography can improve upon these innovations even further. It’s more than just getting together a Focus Group, it’s about better getting peoples opinion on trends that can ultimately affect their lives.


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