“Expect the unexpected” is what I recently said to a client who was about to embark on her first in-home ethnography visit. Out in the real world, away from controlled environs like a facility or online platform, almost anything can happen. That’s the beauty of ethnography. You get to see life as it’s really lived instead of having it explained to you. It’s also the challenge of ethnographies. Like life, an ethnographic project can be unpredictable. While that appeals to some personality types, it doesn’t sit well with everyone, especially clients who don’t do ethnos very often.
Here are 3 ethnographic tips to transform the unpredictable into a certainty:
Get to Know Your Participants Ahead of Time – If you think it’s daunting walking into a stranger’s home, try having a group of 4-5 strangers over to your house to “put you under the microscope.” To help respondents feel more at ease, make sure they are a great fit with your recruiting criteria. To help advance the conversation upon arrival, get to know the participants before you visit them.
This orientation can be completed through “screendowns”—phone or video calls with potential respondents recruited by the field house but not yet booked. That conversation allows you to verify and validate what was said in the recruit as well as their comfort engaging in conversation. Or you can engage participants in an online or video activity prior to fielding and use that to help select your final participants. Both approaches enable you to get to know the respondent and, just as importantly, they get to know you. When I walk into a respondent’s home and I’m able to mention the names of my colleagues who have talked to them, I always see a glimmer of recognition and the respondent starts to relax as they’ve already made a connection with us through these earlier interactions.
While these steps add time and dollars to the budget, they help to lower the risk that a session will be a dud. In a focus group or online community with numerous respondents, you can get beyond a quiet respondent or one or two recruits that aren’t quite the right fit. In an ethno, each respondent is the “star” of their own show. If they aren’t spot on and comfortable, it will be a loooooong session that your clients have paid a lot of money to sit through. It’s time you won’t get back, but your clients might ask for their money back.
Prep Your Clients on What to Expect – If clients are joining you in the field (and hopefully they are), help them understand what it’s going to be like. Remember, your clients don’t do ethnos as often as you do. It’s even more important when you have an extended client team joining you in the field.
We put together pre-field briefing calls and documents explaining what to expect. It aligns everyone and answers the questions they have, big and small. Can they ask questions? What should they do during the session (see tip #3 below)? Can they use the bathroom in a respondent’s house? What should they wear? When will they eat? Can they use their phone?
The briefing is also the best time to make sure everyone is aligned on the key questions, flow of the conversation, and other points you want to make. At our company we coach clients on the 5 Steps to Building and Applying Empathy. That little bit of coaching can make a big difference in how they engage and ultimately absorb what they experience.
The risk of not doing this? A big, disorganized mess when you get into the session. Uncomfortable clients will make the respondent uncomfortable and will lead to an unproductive session.
Put Your Clients to Work for You– Ethnographies are a juggling act. Yes, you are moderating, but you are also doing things like taking notes and pictures. If clients are with you, have them help you out. Give them notebooks and ask them to take notes on their observations and what they hear. Those come in handy during debriefs in the car right after the session. You can even incorporate them into your analysis.
Need pictures from the session? Designate one of your client attendees as the official photographer. Give them direction on what pictures you need (a nice face pic of the respondent for sure). Think ahead about what other images you might need for your report. How might images from the in-home visit help advance the story you will tell? When we have clients take pictures, we try to set a minimum — maybe 30 — so they realize they should take a lot of pictures, not just one or two. You may end up with 18… but it’s a lot better than none.
Engaging the clients empowers them; they’re immediately more invested and at ease, which helps them get more out of the session. And it reduces your own cognitive load so you can focus on what you are really there to do – moderate the best conversation possible!
It’s unrealistic to try to solve for every variable that could possibly come up on an in-home. I was in the middle of an in-home during the East Coast earthquake in 2011. You can’t plan for that, but you can give your clients tips on what to do to keep themselves safe. The more you make an investment upfront, the better prepared you’ll be to fully engage and get the most out of each session as the moderator.
What tips do you have for a better ethno? What challenges do you have with ethnos that you’d like to resolve? Ask away!
By: Rob Volpe
Rob Volpe is CEO and Chief Catalyst of Ignite 360, an insights and strategy firm. When he’s not traveling the globe in search of the answer to the question “why,” he’s at work on his first book, Everyday Americans, his journey to understanding empathy told through his adventures in ethnography.
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