Posted By Maria Virobik,
Tuesday, May 14, 2019
Updated: Monday, May 13, 2019
Data Visualization: 3 Ways to Make Your Qualitative Reports Pop
What Can Data Visualization Do for Us?
Data visualization—the graphical representation of information and data—can be a powerful tool in qualitative reporting. While we certainly can’t completely escape text-centric pages in our qualitative reports, graphics add visual interest and help break up the monotony of pages (or slides) of text. Done well, graphics help support qualitative findings and enable us to communicate in more interesting ways beyond words on paper (or a screen). Effective data visualization can also help readers understand concepts more quickly and easily and make information more memorable.
All the Cool Kids Are Doing it
Newspapers and other media outlets have jumped on board the data visualization bandwagon. Publications like The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times employ full-time data journalists to augment their reporting. These folks take an enormous trove of data on a particular topic—for instance, the earlier start of spring in some parts of the U.S. or the confirmed U.S. measles cases by county in 2019 —and expertly slice, dice and manipulate the information into interactive graphics that communicate big ideas in an accessible and elegant way.
Data Visualization and Qual: Not a Linear Journey
Visualizing quantitative data is relatively easy. Hard numbers and percentages naturally lend themselves to visual representation. Charts, graphs and their modern equivalent—infographics—are easy to create from quant data.
Qualitative data can be harder to visualize; transforming qual data into graphics isn't as straightforward or simple. A search for “infographics and qualitative data” reveals that some people even argue that qual data can’t be turned into infographics. Take heart, however. An equal number argue that it can and provide examples to back this assertion.
But it’s not a linear journey from qualitative data to data visualization. Many of us have heard from end clients who want hard numbers or percentages included in a final report to quantify how various concepts or ideas stacked up against each other. We can explain that “qual isn't quant” until the cows come home, but clients persist in making such requests.
Instead of giving in to these requests (or refusing them outright), there is another option. We can take this as the opportunity to develop data visualization approaches that give our clients the detail they want and expect without compromising the qualitative nature of the report. A few examples follow.
Word Clouds – an Oldie but Goodie
Word clouds are a common data visualization technique in qualitative reports. Using font size (and often color), they convey magnitude of various responses, thoughts or ideas. Larger words=more popular/frequent/common. This approach works well because it’s a way to provide granular detail without showing the actual numbers behind the information.
While word clouds aren't the answer for every situation, they are a great tool, and websites for creating them abound. The PollEverywhere blog lists nine favorite word cloud generators, including Wordle and Tagxedo. A Google search for “word cloud generator” will point you to others.
Customer Journey Maps:Timelines in Disguise
Customer journey maps are another way to employ data visualization in qualitative reports. These maps are essentially timelines; a quick Google search on this term turns up many great examples that can be easily adapted to fit your particular purpose.
Here’s one example: a timeline detailing milestones in the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps history from 2010 to 2014.
The example above is organized by year, but the general format can be adapted to visualize a customer journey. Year markers become phases in the purchase journey: research, comparison, selection, purchase. The linear format allows room above and below the line for details on the individual steps consumers undertake in each phase.
Venngage is one great resource for infographic templates and tools, including many for timelines (such as the one below). They offer a couple different subscription plans. But you can peruse the templates for free, and that might be all the inspiration you need to create your own.
Bubble graphs are another idea we can borrow from data journalism. During the 2012 London Olympics, The New York Times kept a running medal count by country and visualized the data in a simple table (below). The information is clear, but the table doesn't do a great job conveying the magnitude of differences among countries.
The Times formatted the same information into a bubble graph. This approach does a much better job conveying magnitude. You can easily identify the countries that led the medal counts. Readers could hover over any circle for more detailed information, including a country’s medal count by type (gold/silver/bronze). (Visit the link below the graphic and try it for yourself!)
The same idea—sans numbers, of course—could be employed in qualitative reporting. For example, we could use a bubble graph to report the characteristics that participants want in a dog.
Readers can immediately see which characteristics were most important and which were mentioned by fewer participants. By keeping numbers out of it, the graphic remains faithful to the spirit of qualitative research.
Sky’s the Limit
These are just a few examples of how data visualization techniques can be employed to make qualitative reports more engaging and communicate findings and implications more effectively.
Here are several links to more examples; many additional resources can be found by searching data visualization:
What are your go-to data visualization techniques and tools? What works? What doesn't? If you have advice or a favorite resource to share, please leave a comment.
Maria Virobik joined QRCA in 2018 but has worked in qualitative research since 1997. After early dalliances in the advertising world, she came to her senses and has been devoted to qualitative analysis and reporting ever since. Originally from Southern California, she and her husband sold their house last year and now live a nomadic lifestyle with their two marginally obedient dogs, Lucy and Ginger Snap.
Annual Conference Reporter on the Scene: What Qual Can Learn from Coaching
In this session at the 2019 QRCA Annual Conference, Jay Zaltzman of Bureau West talked about his experience and training as a coach to demonstrate how coaching can provide a new perspective for qualitative work.
Coaching has gained in popularity in recent years. Coaches used to only be hired by athletes and other performers who wanted to go beyond average to excellent, but many have realized they don’t have to be performers to benefit from coaching and become more effective. Qualitative researchers can use coaching principles to stand out and provide even more value to clients.
As a qualitative practitioner, you already have skills that the coaching profession values, according to Zaltzman. You're comfortable speaking, you can listen without judgment and you know not to interrupt or impose your own point of view. Coaches are very good at helping clients look at issues in their own lives through different perspectives, and if quallies can bring multiple perspectives to their work, they will provide a lot of value in a lot less time.
Putting it into practice:
Having worked with a coach previously, I know that many coaches do initial exercises with their clients to help them clarify their values. Jay recommended starting with clarifying values to help inform various parts of qualitative research, including creating a discussion guide and further probing the values of the brand using a similar approach.
The best coaches know how to ask great questions. Jay introduced us to what he calls the miracle question during his session:
Imagine you go to bed tonight and sometime in the middle of the night, while you are sleeping, a miracle happens and the challenge that we are discussing is resolved. When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first small sign you’d see that would make you think, “Well, something must have happened” the problem is gone! When was the last time you saw a little bit of the miracle, even just for a short time?
Not only is this a useful question personally, but it's a question that delves into the heart of Zaltzman's belief that taking on a coaching attitude and asking better questions can help you go deeper and gain more insights for your clients.
If you're interested in more resources on coaching, Jay recommends checking out Co-Active Coaching textbooks or the work of Steve Chandler.
Posted By Kayte Hamilton,
Thursday, May 2, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, May 1, 2019
Annual Conference Reporter on the Scene: : UX Live! Revitalizing the Customer Experience
At the 2019 QRCA Annual Conference Shaili Bhatt and Nancy Baum, both from C+R Research, gave all of us quallies a live, interactive demo of mobile usability testing. Through small group work on writing effective mobile User Experience (UX) questions and a Q/A session that had the room buzzing, we gained helpful practices to help us execute digital user experience sessions.
I was thrilled to learn there are several easy-to-use applications that can be used to conduct digital usability testing on the market. While the available platforms range in pricing and features, many of them combine live video recordings, task based assignments, and real time updates that QRC’s can utilize to conduct more usability testing sessions nationwide while working remotely.
Putting it into practice:
I am excited to utilize the tools we tested in session to conduct remote usability testing sessions!
Being able to see the live video with screen animation was a revelation. It really does replicate what you see in person, but allows you to be in more than one place at a time as a moderator
The presented platforms and hands on application in session was extremely useful for many of us in the room to understand the impact these platforms could have on our work. The question and answer session was lively, with many questions that sparked insightful conversations, it’s clear these tools are going to make a big impact on how many of us work!
Posted By Lisa Horwich,
Tuesday, April 30, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, April 30, 2019
Why Quallies Should Care about Marketing Technology (MarTech)
The “Rise of the Machines” and how We Got Here.
When I graduated from business school back in the late ‘90s I never dreamed I would become a total tech geek…in fact, I really thought I was going to be a high-powered consultant (think McKinsey, Bain, BCG). Instead, somehow, I found myself implementing large-scale computer systems (fears of Y2K!) and then became a product manager for a small software company. My journey to tech geekdom had begun without me knowing it.
Fast forward to today. After spending much of my time working on quantitative and qualitative research for large tech companies, I can honestly say that I really love learning and studying technology.
With this in mind, about 2 years ago, a prediction from Gartner (the big technology industry research firm) caught my eye – their analyst Laura McLellan predicted that by 2017 CMOs will spend more on technology than CIOs. She was almost correct – it happened in 2016, a year ahead of schedule.
Think about it. Marketing departments are now spending more on information technology than the department that is responsible for a company’s technology infrastructure. Crazy, I know!
This has led to a proliferation of companies clamoring for a piece of this MarTech pie. From 2011 when 150 companies offered MarTech solutions, we are now in 2019 looking at over 7,000 companies competing in this space.
What is the aim of all these solutions? More importantly, what has changed with CMOs to prompt this massive investment in technology? It boils down to three main factors:
Most CMOs now share P&L responsibility. Instead of just being a “cost center,” marketing is looked on as fundamental part of revenue generation.
Marketing funds and designs the entire cross-functional customer experience (CX). If you think of CX holistically from generating awareness through post-sales feedback, it makes sense that marketing is in charge.
Finally – and arguably most importantly – with the soaring costs involved in attracting, maintaining, and growing the customer base, marketing now has to justify the ROI of their activities.
CMOs are turning to data-driven solutions that help them deeply understand every phase of the customer journey – tracking and quantifying the ROI of all marketing activities along this journey. They are also investing heavily into solutions that personalize the customer’s experience with the hope of converting these interactions into greater sales opportunities.
Technology Solutions and Their Uses
As researchers, we need to know the types of technologies where our clients are spending significant portions of their overall budgets (~30%) so we can recognize where we fit as human insight professionals. We don’t have to be experts in tech, just conversant — so when we walk in the door and our clients say they are using a new “Artificial Intelligence email optimization tool,” we understand what that is and can talk about how our services complement and augment this tool.
I’ve put together a few charts and tables outlining some of the fundamental building blocks of these solutions. Most MarTech offerings are powered by technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Business Intelligence, and Real-Time Analytics. I find it useful to see the interaction of these technologies with a chart:
To understand definitions of these technologies and common uses, this table is a quick reference (CAUTION: Tech speak ahead):
Unified customer data platforms, predictive analytics, and contextual customer journey interactions.
Any system that learns from past data to make judgments about previously unseen new data.
Optimize ad campaigns and other metrics, predict churn.
Opportunities for Quallies
Many of the technologies outlined above have inherent limitations – which I like to think of as “opportunities” for qualitative researchers. Most of the limitations center around the data – quality (how good is your data) and quantity (do you have enough of the right type of data). In addition, the other major limitation is having enough marketing content – a major bottleneck in the quest for personalized customer engagement.
Decisions are made solely on data – past and present.
Use the data as a launching point for deeper qualitative analysis.
Existing data is not predictive enough for decision-making.
Create and maintain communities focused on pinpointing predictive behavior.
Need exponentially more messaging content for personalization.
Assist in narrowing target messaging by identifying key characteristics valued by customers.
Insufficient data to train the machine/AI.
Provide personas and other descriptive metrics to help “train” algorithms.
Lack of “industry specific” attributes.
Create detailed feature lists to describe the unique features inherent to that industry.
While the ideas above are great tactical opportunities, strategically, our most important job as qualitative researchers to remind our clients how, in a world of automation, humanizing the experience of individual customers is key to authenticity.
Lisa Horwich is the founder of Pallas Research Associates, a B2B-focused research and consulting firm located in Seattle, WA. She is a self-ascribed tech geek and loves talking to developers, IT decision-makers, and CIOs. She also co-chairs the QRCA B2B SIG.
Posted By Peggy Moulton-Abbott,
Thursday, April 25, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, April 23, 2019
Annual Conference Reporter on the Scene: 20 lbs. of Potatoes in a 10 lb. bag; Managing Client Expectations
Kate Wagenlander Watson of KCW Global Research, LLC gave a super practical presentation at the 2019 QRCA Annual Conference that provided strategies and hacks to manage overly-ambitious client demands. Throughout her presentation, she covered tactics and tips to help all QRC’s become savvy consultants at all points in the process from the first client call to the creation of the moderator guide and finally the actual execution of the groups for application across a wide variety of research objectives.
Kate takes a realistic, but lighthearted approach to scenarios we can all relate to when clients continually over-stuff the study sack with more content than it can logically hold. With years of experience and an indefatigable spirit, Kate advises us to:
Set the Foundation so clients' expectations are aligned with reality. Do this starting with the proposal. Protect both parties' interests by clearly stating how much of the client's goals/objectives can be accomplished within the methodology, time frame, and budget they're offering. Offer alternatives, set boundaries and enforce them contractually (in writing). And don't be afraid to say no and save yourself if it becomes obvious that no reasonable detente can be achieved.
Manage the Stimuli and Guide Early and Often – continuously reinforce what is realistic within the amount of time available. Kate provided strategies for shrinking/refining concepts, both in size and number. She also demonstrated how to illustrate the time crunch in quantitative terms clients can understand, along with many other clever and insightful methods to manage scope-creep and over-stuffed guides.
Controlling Potential Fieldwork Issues – before, during, and as groups are ending.
Offering the "nuclear option" – Kate demonstrates how just "giving clients what they ask for" can be the magic bullet to making them truly understand what they're demanding is unreasonable and unrealistic.
Putting it into practice:
I want to tattoo this presentation on the inside of our eyelids and implement it EVERY time we bid, field, and report a project!
Make your clients participate in a mock-session BEFORE fielding so they will see for themselves exactly how much content fits in a given time period. This way they really comprehend the limitations of the "time-space continuum"!
This presentation should be required-reading and standard practice for all QRC's, as well as clients. A first-timer from the client-side told this reporter that Kate's presentation was the most eye-opening of the entire conference!
Posted By Janet Standen,
Thursday, April 18, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, April 3, 2019
Annual Conference Reporter on the Scene: Superqualitative! Using Your Skills Beyond Marketing Research
Foster Winter, who is Managing Director of Sigma Research Management Group presented stimulating ideas for opportunities to leverage typical qualitative skills into new arenas to all in attendance at the 2019 QRCA Annual Conference. The presentation provided an opportunity for qualitative researchers to expand thinking into new and future directions. Winter’s presentation included video testimonials and interviews of professionals who are utilizing their qualitative skills in new careers including urban planning and training medical professionals. For those who are thinking about new directions for their business, the case studies and the ensuing discussion helped provide a dialog for expanding ones' current practice or developing a new business model. For those just starting out, he provided a broader platform for thinking about a business model.
The core skills of great moderators have many different and diverse applications. Their usefulness abounds! From using them to help train doctors by acting as a patient dying of a disease, to moderating mommy and baby groups, to managing interactive community outreach sessions, to facilitating internal project team meetings, to interviewing interviewees for high level jobs, and more. The skills translate well to any environment where empathy, thinking on your feet, reacting quickly in the moment to evolve the conversation, and where interacting as a human who is staying on track while listening and empathizing with the audience is needed.
Putting it into practice:
I know, like many in attendance, I will be looking further into broader applications to apply my moderating skills.
There can be many audiences and target segments that can benefit from qualitative skills, it’s important to take the opportunity to explore how we all can expand our field and practice.
There's life after being a qualitative researcher, and many ways to enrich the diversity of projects as a qualitative researcher!
Posted By Liza Carroll,
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Design Thinking – Beyond the Breakers
Depending upon the source, Design Thinking (DT) is key to innovation in everything from consumer goods to complex social systems, or it’s an overhyped workshop package. Having first been introduced to the concept at QRCA’s 2019 annual conference, and with the idea that others reading this blog might also be new to Design Thinking, I wanted to share more about it. Design Thinking is meant to place those who seek to engage in innovation – often diverse stakeholders – into an uncomfortable space. It should move people past their own biases so they can understand customers’ real needs, and design solutions that work.
The five steps of the process are most often introduced graphically on brightly colored hexagons: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. Activities in the first two steps live in the problem space, and the last three are in the solutions space. People who understand the ego-threatening implications of these steps point out that practitioners must be willing to manage controlled chaos in seeking the path to making something great.
Design Thinking is demanding. Yet, it is often sold as a quick fix and its core essential stages skimmed. This is why it is disparaged by some designers and others close to it. Consultancies and companies seeking commercial success without committing to authenticity may champion superficial workshops. Some using the process try to make Design Thinking overly linear, misunderstanding the untamed nature of the creativity that lives within its DNA.
The first step – Empathize – has the most relevance to qualitative researchers — but can also be the most often snorkeled-over by those who don’t have the training or the gear to dive deep. “Empathy is hard!” notes Annette Smith in Is Design Thinking a Silver Bullet for Consumer Research. She explains what we all know better than most: “The ability to empathize without imposing your own cultural values and preconceived notions on a consumer is just not easy to do.” Add cultural difference to the equation, and empathizing is, of course, exponentially more difficult.
Jon Kolko addresses criticism of DT in his article, The Divisiveness of Design Thinking. He asserts that the real work required during the Empathy step might conceivably be exchanged for 2-hour ‘subject matter expert’ interviews; but in taking such an approach, you may only gain a scratch-the-surface understanding of the business needs at hand. Kolko also examines breakdowns that happen in the other Design Thinking steps. In summary, anyone planning to take on the enormous job of leading others through the process would have to have the ability and experience to guide people toward dramatically reframing a problem by asking more interesting questions and to facilitate rich, meaningful collaboration. I recommend reading Kolko’s article to gain a much deeper introduction to the topic than provided in most introductory articles that stick to defining the steps.
Circling back and thinking about Design Thinking’s qualitative heart, it’s interesting that just this month there was a post in the Qual Power Blog by Patricia Sunderland titled When Ethnography Becomes a Joke. In her post, she explains the difference between valuable and degraded ethnographic fieldwork, the methodology that is, as it happens, key to Design Thinking’s Step One – Empathy. Sofia Costa Alves, in her presentation Discover and Deploy Design Thinking described the careful ethnographic work that underpinned the Design Thinking activities she led with participants who were holders of diverse roles in a corporation during her facilitation experience in South America.
Being introduced to Design Thinking, what it can yield when done courageously, and also the ways in which it can be used when thinking “out of the box”, has been a wonderful learning experience. If you would like a list of resources I found valuable for gaining some understanding of Design Thinking, feel free to let me know in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Liza Carroll is Consumer Insights Manager at RDTeam, Inc.
Posted By Judithe Andre,
Thursday, April 11, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, April 3, 2019
Annual Conference Reporter on the Scene: Go from Facts to Truth with Neuroscience and Storytelling
There is no one thing more powerful than the power of a good story.
Ask someone a direct question and they'll try to give you an honest answer. But have them tell you a story and jewels will emerge that will be surprisingly illuminating. Professional storyteller and CEO of Story Strategies Lisa Lipkin shared her storytelling experience at the 2019 QRCA Annual Conference. Lipkin shared original storytelling techniques for extracting emotionally honest information in a safe and effective way and how to interpret those narrative responses.
At the most basic level, humans are hardwired for stories because our brains thrive on wanting to know, “will this information help me survive?” When we share information, e.g., what we as moderators tell respondents or clients and what we hear in return, the information gets translated neurologically in ways that are undoubtedly powerful, although, not fully understood. We do know, however, the benefits of storytelling are multi-fold. Lipkin shared that storytelling promotes healing, increases dopamine and decreases stress levels. If we tell an emotionally-inducing story, not only are we the storytellers producing oxytocin, but so does the listener. Storytelling creates a neural coupling affect that results in greater connection and resonance between and/or among listeners.
Tips and tricks for delivering and eliciting stories:
See the story in everything. Every object and person, even the most mundane of things has a story. We may have to stare at things for uncomfortably long periods of times, but staring long enough will reveal the story. Tip: Have respondents use the things and objects around them to tell their story.
Fact is not the truth. Never start your presentation to a client by stating what the important facts are. Instead, consider what fascinates, compels and/or moves you the most, and start with that. Due to neural coupling, if you are not engaged or moved by the story, nor will your audience be engaged. Tip: The key to compelling delivery is to start with the emotion and it can be a totally random emotion but make this the core story, then follow with the facts. Let the facts hang on the core or the emotionally punchy story for more impact.
Know when your chapter is over. Be mindful of your audience and timing so that you know when your story has run its course. Listeners and audiences will know if the storyteller is not being authentic
Tip: It is important to regularly recharge emotionally to ensure your storytelling stays effective.
Three specific techniques to help with eliciting stories from your participants:
Ask them where did they play as a kid? Have them be very specific as they answer.
Use objects. E.g., tell me the story about your accessory. Objects are vehicles that allow participants to not know that anything is being expected of them so that they can share deeper nuggets of truth.
Use the invisible. For example, hand an imaginary box to your respondent and ask her to reach in and take out any object that was precious to her grandparents. Asking the participant to speak about her grandparents and not herself helps remove the direct association to the respondent; allowing her to be more honest. This approach almost always, and subconsciously, reveals what is ultimately truly meaningful to the respondent.
Remember: There is no one thing more powerful than the power of a good story.
Putting it into practice:
I really enjoyed the session and appreciated Lipkin sharing her experience with all of us at the conference. I thought the elicitation tips were spot on and will incorporate them into practice.
We are all neurologically wired for a story, so let's start telling stories.
There’s no way to prepare for what we are going to hear, but as moderators we have to release some control and trust that these questions will go somewhere and lead to some very insightful information and jewels!
Posted By Daniela Rubio,
Thursday, April 4, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, April 3, 2019
Annual Conference Reporter on the Scene: Marketing Technology + Human Insights = Untapped Opportunities
New technology vendors are popping up every day offering CMO’s marketing automation tools that promise ‘smart data’ and improved analytics. For QRC’s these emerging technologies can provide new opportunities to provide services and expertise that augments this data. Lisa Horwich of Pallas Research Associates took attendees of the 2019 QRCA Annual Conference through how AI (Artificial Intelligence), ML (Machine Learning), BI (Business Intelligence) and other parts of the Marketing Technology (MarTech) stack are transforming the market research industry.
In her session, we explored how these tools are being used, and most importantly, their limitations. Marketing technology does provide businesses opportunities for greater return on investment (ROI) and growth, but they don’t do enough to provide human insights. This presents an important opportunity for us, qualitative consultants, to not only utilize these technologies, but share how our qualitative service offerings will enhance our customers’ marketing efforts.
As of 2018, marketing departments spent as much as IT departments on technology solutions. Marketing technology is selling the promise for ROI in a fast and more efficient way, including Real-Time Analytics, Business Intelligence, Artificial Intelligence (translation, speech recognition, decision making), and Machine Learning (the capacity for an algorithm to learn and improve its performance and output). All these tools provide solutions that help understand customer journeys in a more personalized way, increase customer retention and loyalty, and increase customer lifetime value.
These technologies also allow having multiple touch points of data (for example, if a customer is using a specific website through their mobile and then switch to an app but then decide to browse on their computer. While all these technologies are promising “better, faster, cheaper” results, there are some big limitations that for qualitative consultants presents an opportunity. The most important of these opportunities is that big data can tell you the WHAT in a very specific way, but the technology is not developed yet to explain the WHY behind those insights to marketers. Horwich presented these additional limitations (L) and opportunities (O) for qualitative consultants:
(L) Decisions are made solely on data --> (O) Use the data as a launching point for deeper qualitative analysis
(L) Existing data is not predictive enough --> (O) Create and maintain communities to identify predictive behavior
(L) Need exponentially more content --> (O) Assist in narrowing target messaging
(L) Insufficient 'training' data --> (O) Provide personas and other descriptive metrics to help 'train' algorithms
(L) Lack of 'domain specific' attributes --> (O) Create feature lists to describe the data
(L) Dimensionally inhibits predictive modeling --> (O) Help narrow down number of variables with human insights.
Putting it into practice:
Learning what these technologies can bring to the table and identifying where my qualitative expertise fits can help anyone during a sales pitch!
Despite how we have learned to utilize it as a resource, Google does not have all the answers!
What we do as qualitative consultants is incredibly valuable for business growth. Understanding the technological capabilities and their limitations are key for us to improve our sales pitches and present where our value lies to our clients.
Posted By Patricia Sunderland,
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, April 2, 2019
When Ethnography Becomes a Joke
It may or may not be news for readers of this blog — but for at least some clients, ethnography has turned into a joke.
For a number of years, we have witnessed a diminishing appetite for ethnographic work among commercial clients. Competition and challenges from new methodologies are understandable and to be expected. Yet an undercurrent of “we do not want to do ethnography because we tried it and we did not get anything out of it” has been unsettling. More troubling, a few months ago a client put it more bluntly: “No. Ethnography no way. It’s a joke around here when you mention it.”
Ugh. How could the methodology that I learned as an anthropologist and built my career around in the world of qualitative research have become a joke? And even more importantly, what must we do to retrieve ethnography from that dustbin of bad jokes?
Rejuvenate the Basics
Without simply sounding a conservative cry, one thing we must do is go back and ensure that we always deliver on the basics of solid ethnographic work. Ethnographic work seems to have been undergoing a process of lightening in which observation alone, a person alone, or even the word alone will suffice.
Observation and Conversation
Ethnographic fieldwork– as imagined and pioneered by founders such as Bronislaw Malinowski – was never simply about observation. The observational component was coupled with participation, as in participant observation, as well as linked with conversation, interviews, and quite simply put, talk. Observation without any window into what is going on in a person’s mind and heart while they are doing whatever they are doing is anemic at best. Frequently it is also off-base. A key to comprehension in ethnography, as in much qualitative work, is understanding a person’s point of view.
In January 2019, Rachael Lawes provided an outstanding webinar, “Honing Your Ethnographic Eye”. Drawing from discourse analysis, one of the key points of her presentation was the importance of attending to defensively designed statements in speech, for instance, when a person frames what they are saying as “simply stating a fact.” A pre-emptive defense such as this may indicate that the person may feel insecure about the point they are making and/or they may feel that others are likely to argue with what they are saying. Obviously, it is important that we listen – carefully – and not only observe.
Persons and Contexts
Also, while it is an ethnographic basic to understand a person’s point of view, the assumption is not that a person stands alone. When we do our ethnographic work, one of the strengths we can bring to the qualitative research table is to situate a person’s viewpoints and behaviors within a macro-societal as well as meso-social context. This can mean that rather than just studying the person, our unit of ethnographic analysis can and should be the household, the friendship group, the workplace, the family, and/or any social grouping that makes sense for the question and issue at hand.
Injecting Serious Analytic Soul
Beyond being sure to include both conversation and context as part of our ethnographic research, injecting serious analytic soul into the work is also definitely on order. One factor that seems to have fueled the jokes about ethnographic work is the handoff of ethnographic work to junior and client DIY teams. Unfortunately, what can and often does go missing in this handoff is the analytic component.
In much current commercial ethnography, it is almost as if the importance of the analysis has been forgotten. There is a tendency to take ethnographic work as if it is a case of “what you see is what you get.” But, of course, what one sees is filtered by the mind. And while ethnographers must strive for an open mind in order to grasp the point of view of others, they also bring every bit of experience, theory, and knowledge to their encounters and their own mental processing of the data.
For instance, a number of years ago, colleague Rita Denny and I worked on a new product study centered around home organization. The company’s goal was to develop new home storage products. As I observed and talked with people about how they organized items in their homes, it became obvious that spatial orientation (e.g., up versus down; vertical vs. horizontal) was providing critical cues. Items that were “up” were considered more organized than those that were “down.” Items that were vertical were considered ready to use; horizontal or flat signaled “in use.” Items that got stacked were packed. The photos below help illustrate the point.
Vertical hanging on the door – an organized way to keep items that were ready to be taken out of the home.
Vertical files keep papers ready as a resource and what must be done next is kept in front.
A briefcase kept up off the floor seen as neater and more organized than if on the floor. Also kept in vertical orientation.
Lying flat is a signal of “in use” as with a book lying flat on a surface next to the bed (vs. vertical on a shelf, which is “ready for use”). But flat also often leads to “stacked,” which then quickly leads to “packed.”
This spatial insight would not have been as possible without the benefit dof having once read Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff and Johnson examined the way linguistic metaphors organize the way we think about and experience the world. Good moods, for example, tend to be described as “up” and bad moods in terms of “down.” And for the purposes of this example, think about the phrases “picking up” and “cleaning up.”
We need to be ready to bring our analytic minds to the table as we perform ethnography. This is the real value of doing ethnography in business. When we make analysis central to the task, we are able to deliver serious and often breakthrough results. Inductive analytic insight provides ethnography its serious point of differentiation versus other methodologies. Analysis with attention to language and the larger social world (not only observation and the individual) has the power to move ethnography far beyond the realm of jokes.