By supporting researchers to gather in-depth people stories, customer ethnography became a game-changer in the CX industry. This method allows brands to have a peek into candid customer experiences and design meaningful solutions.

As a cultural anthropologist, I believe there’s no research substitute for an in-context observation. Humans have complex everyday habits and sometimes ‘following them around’ might be the only way to understand what drives their decisions.

Instead of rushing to implement powerful AI software, I believe brands should first consider including customer ethnography in their front lines. Mastering ‘small’ or better thick data is often the first step in delivering flawless human experiences. In this article, I’ll share why ethnographic research might be your company’s untapped potential.

To make my point tangible, I’ll describe how Lego used ethnographic research to empower their brand’s vision and stay connected to its youngest users.

The power of customer ethnography

“If you want to understand how animals live, you don’t go to the zoo, you go to the jungle.”

Martin Lindstrom

By collecting the actionable insights about people’s attitudes, customer ethnography uncovers Why a certain behaviour occurs. It is an observational technique that helps us understand humans in their natural environments. To gather these personal and not easily accessible aspects of people’s lives, ethnographers have to spend time on extensive fieldwork.   

It is not rare for an ethnographer to spend months with users in their homes or workplaces to understand how a product or service makes them feel, think, and act. Anthropologist Martin Lindstrom calls this process small data mining. Small data mining employs open-ended interviews, user diaries, and real-time observations over a longer period. This research method digs into unfamiliar spaces with a hope to discover patterns and habits nobody has the curiosity to question before. It is an endless playground where each element is observed in the wider cultural context.

Some of the leading companies apply customer ethnography and anthropology to inform their business strategies. Among them are Intel, Apple, Google, Microsoft, IKEA, and predominantly data-driven Netflix. Doubtlessly, these giants wouldn’t achieve enormous success if already thirty years ago they didn’t understand the potential of having social and behavioural scientists united with engineers.

The Lego story: something Big data was not able to predict

“The two main reasons for LEGO’s significant financial recovery are the fact that we now have the right size and that we now understand children’s play and know how to reconnect with kids.”

Former CEO Jorgen Viig Knudstrop

According to Martin Lindstrom, Lego was facing a huge financial crisis back in 2004. All big data studies at the time were signalling that Millennials (people born after the 1980s) are now digital natives and will soon have no interest in playing with Lego bricks. It seemed like Europe’s biggest toymaker won’t be able to compete with the explosion of video games and all the magic of the internet. To check this, Lego employed an interdisciplinary research team of sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists to conduct an ethnography study. The aim was to understand what the playing experience is about by observing children interact with different toys in their everyday settings.

Customer ethnography: an image showing a mother and a son playing with Lego bricks.

During one of the interviews, researchers from ReD Associates realized that children have their currencies of success and strong identity symbols within the physical game world. They loved to demonstrate hard work with tangible results. Finishing a Lego project, for instance, was a way to get a special status among their friends and family. This is where the big data was wrong.

The researchers from ReD characterized the blind trust in Data as ‘thinking pollution’. Millennials didn’t want instant gratification and easy solutions. Instead, they needed to be challenged with even more tiny bricks, shapes, and building ideas. This is what was the a-ha! moment in the research that later helped Lego increase their revenue.

After unveiling how kids play, Lego continued investing in ethnographic research to understand cultural differences and adapt their products accordingly. The big data couldn’t analyse and predict the ‘customer segments’ not available in the database. The ability to observe and empathize is uniquely human and no computer can compete with that skill.

On the other hand, the data analytics helped Lego stay relevant in the fast-paced market by designing digital solutions suitable for new generations of kids entertained by video games and Lego Marvel superheroes movies. Moreover, with ethnographic insights in hand, Lego went a step further by creating blended playing experiences, balancing their product offers between online and physical environments.

Lego successfully wins the hearts of both children and adults for almost 90 years now. Its leaders understand long ago that the product can’t be observed isolated from cultural, technological, and nature factors shaping human experiences.

Boosting observational skills in business (and life)

The social sciences along with ethnographic research have an important role to play in the modern business world. Lego is a perfect example of how a giant organization can balance data science with deep qualitative research to gain trust and maintain relevant for a long time.

Epic products are usually inspired by everyday people and not big data predictions. Ethnographic research is a constant reminder that experience is not a tangible thing but a rather complex, emotional, and ever-changing process. The method also reminds us of cultural differences and similarities, underrepresented groups, and stigmatized individuals often excluded from Big datasets. 

As human beings, we have the unique ability to feel all of these aspects, which undeniably differentiate us for machine learning algorithms. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue sharpening our deep listening, and observational capacities. We instead need to immerse ourselves in the complexity of people’s lives, allowing ethnographic research to teach us empathy, a concept the world of business is crying out for.

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