How to Make Ethnographic Interviewing Your Superpower: 5 Tips


It’s time to innovate! Where do we begin?

The first thing I did in my position as a corporate innovator was to understand the customers’ pain points. It makes total sense. First, identify the problem, then work to solve it. I would conduct a brainstorming session for half of a day, identifying what we believed to be the top pain points our customers experienced.

What informed us? It was some of the past research we were told about, the conversations that we had with our families, of course our own opinions and a little bit of “big data” sprinkled in. From there, we ideated to create solutions to those pain points and then tested them out.

Matt Mueller, Insights Manager at C.A. Fortune

After the first round of testing, our results were not bad. But nothing was game-changing or worth continued development. I could never understand why the solutions we created weren’t an instant success. We thought we had had some great ideas that would disrupt the industry, but each one would fizzle out. Reflecting back, I now see two major reasons why this happened:

  1. Our opinions and the opinions of our family and friends are biased, and though we may understand some of the surface level problems of the customer, we are not truly in the shoes of the customer. We prodominantly see things from the company’s perspective, rather than the customer’s.
  2. Big data can be a useful tool that teaches us about trends by looking at past performance. I am a huge fan of syndicated data, and know that when you put millions of purchases and buyers together, you will get some great insights that will teach you a lot about your customer today. But what does it teach you about how they will behave tomorrow?

We thought we had had some great ideas that would disrupt the industry, but each one would fizzle out.

With big data looking backwards, and our opinions looking inwards, we need to think differently with an approach that looks towards the future. Being a studious reader on innovation, I came across a book called Buyology, written by Martin Lindstrom, a neuromarketing brand expert. His approach to branding and innovation was unique. I wanted to know more about how he approaches insights, and engaged him to help me better understand our innovation opportunities. This is where I met the art form-meets-scientific technique called ethnography. Martin and I walked alongside shoppers. We spent time in their homes sitting on their couches, listening to their personal stories, and even rummaging through their refrigerators. From all of it, we were able to find tiny clues about who customers really were, and what they truly wanted. Not only did we learn in those interviews their product preferences, but we were able to understand what subconsciously drove them to make the decisions they made.

How was it possible to know more about our customers with such a small sample size, and no statistical significance? It felt so wrong! 

We learned a lot about our customers by connecting with just a few dozen people across the country. How was it possible to know more about our customers with such a small sample size, and no statistical significance? It felt so wrong! But the results from the research, and the sessions that followed, helped us get behind concepts that resonated more with customers. And it seemed like we finally were looking toward where our customers were going, rather than where they had been.

I became consumed by the desire to practice ethnography on every new project. Mind you, I was not trained on the topic beyond some on-the-job interviews I did with Martin and his team. I studied the topic with the resources I could scrounge up. The amount of content that is out there on ethnography seemed to be minimal — and mostly academic. Then I found an amazing program offered by Boise State University and met Dr. Kendall House. The program was fast-paced, and full of great tips on how to perform ethnography in real-life situations. It takes dedication to complete the course, and is totally worth it if you have the time. Until then, though, here are some tips I will share to help get you up and running doing ethnography tomorrow.

Ethnography is a form of research that primarily focuses on observing people to better understand how they behave in their own environment. Ethnography was first used by explorers in the early 1900s, like Bronislaw Malinowski, to understand the inner workings of tribes of the Western Pacific. Ethnography was a tool that helped piece the world together and identify the unwritten rules that define our cultural differences and similarities. Many people today see the benefit of using similar methods in market research to better understand the inner workings of their customers.

Grounding Yourself in Ethnography

There are four forms of ethnography, each of them a unique tool for gaining insights from your customer. Each takes a different level of comfort to perform. And each has specific benefits based on what you need to learn.

1. Informal Interviews — effectively just a conversation with a respondent to gain insights.

2. Unstructured Interviews — typically include a particular set of general areas to focus on during the interview. You want the interview to appear and feel casual, yet you want to make sure you get specific topics covered.

3. Semi-Structured Interviews — involve a loose list of questions asked during an interview to help guide you and the respondent through the interview. This will be used as a reference to glance at, not to show or read off to your respondent.

4. Structured Interviews — Simply, a live survey; a list of questions that are read and then answered.

These forms of ethnography work well together. I performed an informal interview with a respondent related to her cheese shopping habits. From her couch, we spoke about how she uses cheese in various meals, and how and when she chose to purchase shredded cheese. She told me that versatility was important to her — a product she can use in a multitude of different recipes. “If I purchase Colby-Jack cheese, I can make the tacos that I was planning on, but then my husband can use it in his eggs.” After versatility, then she said she looks at price.

I then tested this out by taking our respondent to ground zero — the grocery store. There, I performed an unstructured interview to confirm what she said was true. When observing the customer’s eyes as we approached the shredded cheese display, I noticed her eyes narrowing in on a specific point of the case. I asked her to “give me the play-by-play in her head” as she moved closer, and she said that she was looking at sales signs to identify the best deals. Then, she would look for a flavor that she would like under that sale price.

Our brains run so much of our lives subconsciously that we don’t really know how we make a decision until the opportunity to make that decision is in front of us ‘in the wild.’

This diverged from what she told me in her informal interview. She lied! Or actually, she misremembered. What people will tell you and what they will do are two different things. Our brains run so much of our lives subconsciously that we don’t really know how we make a decision until the opportunity to make that decision is in front of us “in the wild.”

An informal interview in a person’s home is good for getting base-level information. But home should focus more on the things a consumer does there, like using the cheese. That is why I wanted her in her home; she can recollect better how she uses the cheese in dinner preparation. And we can also look in her fridge to see what she has, and why she purchased it. The home visit also gave me the opportunity to start thinking about what areas I wanted to cover in my in-store unstructured interview.

Doing both an informal interview in-home and an unstructured interview in-store, we were able to learn what she purchases, how she uses it, and how she decides what to buy. All of these nuggets would have not been discovered if we hadn’t coupled the two methods. 

Ethnography Tips for Beginners

Learning how to do ethnographic interviews takes a lot of practice and time. But if you are like me, see the immense benefit, and want to get your feet wet immediately, here are the top five tips to get you started.

  1. Be Prepared. Good preparation is key to good ethnographic interviewing. It ensures that when you are done with the interview, you will have what you need to make sound business decisions. Before you jump right into interviewing people, write down these four things:
    1. What is the objective?
    2. What do you want to learn?
    3. How will you learn it? (interview technique and where to do it)
    4. Who do you need to talk to in order to gain those learnings?
  2. Be Ready To Listen. The most important thing is not your learning agenda or getting to your next question in the interview. The most important thing is to listen and let the respondent talk. We learn nothing from asking the question, we learn everything from listening to the customer. I approach this much like mindfulness. When I meditate, I will notice my mind wandering, and it is my job, in the meditation, to “begin again” and come back to the stillness. Listening is the same thing — my mind will wander about, planning how I am going to respond. Stop this impulse, and say in your mind “listen again.” Over time, you will become a better listener, and hear the insights flowing from your respondent’s mouth effortlessly.
  3. Be The Protégé. You might be the business expert in the room. And you can tell the customer all the reasons why your industry or company does the things that it does. But remember, when you’re in these interviews, you want to gain insight on the customer’s thoughts and behaviors. Your opinions and your knowledge have no place in this interaction. Look at the interview as them being your mentor. You’re the protégé, eager to access the wealth of knowledge the customer has to share with you. They might tell you how frustrating it is that the water bottle cap feels flimsy, and you might have the urge to tell them that is because of the sustainability initiatives that help you save on plastic. Don’t say it! Continue asking questions about why that frustrates them.
  4. The Probe. The probe is your best friend on any ethnographic interview. When an interview begins to slow down and you don’t know where to take it, use small sounds and phrases to continue the conversation. The audible sound of “uh-huh” can work like magic at keeping the momentum of the conversation going. The key in any interview is to keep the person talking, because the more they talk, the more you get past surface-level thoughts and down to the real nuggets. For instance, if I ask you about your eating habits, when you first start telling me about them, you will be representing your ideal self. “I eat healthy. It is mostly vegetables and clean protein…” A couple of uh-huh’s later, we will get to last weekend, when you hit the McDonalds drive-through, but “wished” that you ate healthier.When you get to a potential nugget of information, find the word that sets alarms off in your head and probe on it. Don’t let it go. It could be as simple as saying, “Tell me more about what you mean when you say ‘healthier’?” And you’re off to the races!
  5. Don’t Lead. A cardinal sin of any ethnographic interview is, do not lead the interview to a place that you want it to go. If your company has a new concept car that self-parks, and you want to learn what customers think of the idea, don’t ask them, “What do you think about a self-parking car?” Instead ask them, “From turning the car on to turning it off, what are some of the most frustrating things about driving?” And then probe your way to parking.

Bringing It All Together

By the end of a set of interviews, you should have a better understanding of how your customers think and behave in the context of your business objective. To help you wrap up any project, I believe in using a simple exercise to sum up your learnings using four questions.

  1. What do my customers SAY?
  2. What do my customers THINK?
  3. What do my customers FEEL?
  4. What do my customers DO?

I will take my notes and address these four questions. I use evidence like quotes, pictures, and stories to support each of these questions. Very rarely do the answers to these four questions ever sync up perfectly. Remember the customer who purchased shredded cheese, and said she purchased based on versatility? What she actually did was purchase based on price. What we say and think are conscious thoughts that come from the rational sides of our brains. But often, what controls our impulses, and our purchase decisions, are our irrational sides, and subconscious drivers of the things that we feel and the things we actually do. With these tips, you will get to know your customer better, and unlock your ability to create powerful customer experiences that resonate with their true needs.


Matt Mueller is a former Innovation Strategist for Boar’s Head Brand. For more useful tips on ethnography, check out his site The Mindful Innovator. InnoLead welcomes contributed pieces from current corporate professionals; our guidelines are here.