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What is ethnographic research?

Last updated

19 January 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

Ethnography is a social science research method. It studies people and their behavior in a natural environment rather than in a lab. Anthropologists typically conduct ethnographic research by living in a small community and learning how people behave in their day-to-day lives.

In business, ethnographic research involves studying consumers in their natural habitat when using a product, and their journey and experience around it. This allows companies to gather extensive data about their target audience that helps inform a good and actionable persona.

Let's take a closer look at what ethnographic research is all about.

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What is ethnographic research in business?

Ethnographic research gathers consumer data by observing customer behavior in their natural environment in real-time. This research aims to understand firsthand how consumers use products instead of asking them questions or relying on subjective surveys or reviews.

By using ethnographic research, marketers and analysts gain valuable insights, identify gaps in the market, and discover inspiration for revolutionary marketing and development decisions. This method works for both B2B and B2C products.

Many consumers can't effectively describe what place a product takes in their lives or what changes might make the product more appealing. A professional who observes them in a natural environment can gather this information and draw actionable conclusions.

Organizations consider implementing ethnographic research when they need to:

  • Develop data-backed personas

  • Find out what the customer needs and wants

  • Study the consumer's behavior

  • Develop new products

  • Test new products

  • Test new product formats (SaaS, apps)

To conduct ethnographic research, companies can sometimes hire third-party professionals to:

  • Avoid internal bias or offense on the part of people who have helped design the product or whose salary depends on the success of the product

  • Avoid consumer changes in behavior (subconscious or conscious) when being studied by those who’ve built what they are using

  • Ensure a pure outside perspective and interpretation of collected data

  • Ensure successful data gathering since ethnographic research requires training and experience

Ethnographic research is a valuable tool that helps companies develop new products, adjust their marketing strategy, build stronger relationships with customers, and much more.

This method allows you to gather information beyond surveys or user testing findings. You gain native-party data that carries significant additional value, such as hidden opportunities or uncovering new consumer verticals.  

What is the difference between qualitative and ethnographic research?

Traditional qualitative market research involves conducting interviews, user testing, and presenting questionnaires to the consumer. By speaking to a consumer or client directly, or simply observing them using the product, it's possible to collect in-depth information about their needs, pain points, and requirements.

Qualitative data is often sufficient to gain valuable insights into customers' behavior and design an effective strategy. However, this information may be incomplete since it focuses more on a specific goal than the larger picture.

Ethnographers simply observe consumers in their traditional environment. This allows the consumer to act naturally and provide much more free-flowing data than during a more controlled interview.

Examples of successful ethnographic research 

Ethnographic research has been around for a while. Many large companies have been using this method to develop new products.

Intel's netbook 

One of the biggest companies that use ethnographic research is Intel. They began implementing this methodology in the 1990s to check if they could go from B2B to B2C sales.

The company had sufficient time and research to gather marketing data from various sources. However, ethnographic research and analysis allowed them to take the research to a new level.

According to Ken Anderson, Principal Researcher from Intel Corporation, the goal was to "see people's behavior on their terms, not ours."

Ethnographic research helped Intel develop a handheld netbook-type PC for emerging markets. The design idea came from how children carry pen and paper while walking around the classroom. An in-depth analysis of this behavior created insight into portability, flexibility, and convenience.

Miele's vacuum cleaners 

Another big success story related to ethnographic research involves a German company. A vacuum cleaner manufacturer, Miele, observed its target audience at home to note their cleaning habits. They noticed that people with allergies spent much more time cleaning their homes to ensure all allergens were gone.

This inspired the company to develop a vacuum cleaner with a special sensor. The sensor informed the user when the surface was dust-free. This cut the cleaning time significantly. 

Ethnographic research methods 

When you work with a professional ethnographer, they can suggest several methods to help gather the data you need. These methods can include:

Full participation 

The ethnographer participates in the process of using a product. To do that, they need to become a part of the group without revealing their goals. This comes with certain ethical issues and limitations.

However, in some cases, if the consumer knows that they are under observation, they may not act naturally and inadvertently hinder the results of the research.

Off-site observation

Off-site participation involves observing consumer behavior remotely. For example, they could be studying conversations on a shoppers' forum or recording interactions in Facebook groups. The observer doesn't participate in conversations but only collects data as a silent participant.

Full observation 

Full observation is similar to full participation since it doesn't reveal the observer's role in the process. People are unaware that they are being observed. This could happen in stores, street fairs, supermarkets, and other public places where consumer behavior is important.

If the observer reveals their role, consumers can adjust their behavior. Meanwhile, informing large groups of people about an observation experiment could be problematic.

Passive observation

Passive observation involves informing consumers about the role of the observer. However, the ethnographer studies the behavior silently, asking occasional questions about the consumer experience and encouraging the participant to think aloud.

This allows the observer to focus on gathering data without trying to maintain their role as a participant.

Active observation 

Active observation involves the ethnographer participating in the process more often than a passive observer does. For example, in a supermarket, they can come close to the buyers to listen to their discussions about choosing a product.

When you hire a professional for ethnographic research, they can decide which method to use to best achieve your data-gathering goals.


Once ethnographers collect the data, they work together with your marketing team to look for patterns, behavioral changes, and challenges that are encountered. The processing of ethnological data can be complex and time-consuming. However, it can provide unexpectedly efficient results.

Advantages of ethnographic research 

Ethnographic research can be highly advantageous for companies that need to develop new products or streamline their marketing strategies. The key benefits of this consumer research methodology are:

Native-party data 

Ethnographers help marketers build a perfect data-backed persona by gathering native-party data. It provides information about consumer behavior, preferences, attitudes, values, and motivations. Ethnographic research makes it possible to get pure data for in-depth analytics.

Valuable insight

When you gain access to the consumer's real-life behavior in real time, it's easier to gain insight into what they need and require.

The information you get is much richer than the data you receive from user testing, interviews, or surveys. It allows you to discover pain points that consumers may not even think they have (as in the case of Intel’s netbook).

True consumer needs

When designing a buyer persona based on zero-party data, marketers often end up creating solutions that cater to the customer's desires instead of their needs. Ethnographic research allows you to dig deeper into what the consumer requires.

This, in turn, can help you make important decisions about new product development, features for existing products, and models of service.  

More data

With a professional ethnographer at the helm, you can gather much more data than with traditional qualitative research methods. It's possible to find out new things about your target audience or even discover opportunities for new audience segments.

Some companies don't just gain insight for new product development; they reinvent their entire approach.

Testing opportunities

Ethnographic research provides valuable testing opportunities for new products. You can find out how your audience uses the products versus how much the products are liked or disliked.

Your consumers have the experiences, knowledge, and understanding to provide in-depth feedback about a product. Meanwhile, ethnographers can translate this data into efficient conclusions as well as actionable insights, new ventures, and opportunities to explore.

Disadvantages of ethnographic research 

While highly advantageous, ethnographic research for business purposes comes with several challenges.

Time issues 

The main challenge that comes with implementing ethnographic research is the time it takes to conduct it. It could take several hours to observe just one person. Ethnographers require quality time with your targeted users. Coupled with the time you need for analytics, the results will not come quickly.

In spite of its ability to capture insights far beyond what competitors could conceive, let alone act on, for companies that need to make fast marketing and business decisions, ethnographic research isn’t always the right fit.

Natural environment 

Creating a natural environment for consumers in which to behave normally isn't always easy. Not all customers are willing to participate in experiments in their own homes. Meanwhile, participating in consumer activities without revealing the ethnographer's intentions comes with certain ethical issues.

Cameras, notes, and questions can cause the consumer to act unnaturally and hinder the results of the experiment.

Professionals needed

If you want to conduct ethnographic research, you need a professional ethnographer to do it. However, having an in-house ethnographer, with an average salary of over $100,000, isn't always a possibility.

Companies may hire ethnographers and their teams on a contract basis, which raises the costs of the project considerably.

Digital ethnographic research 

To save time and money, some organizations take advantage of digital ethnographic research. It involves making videos and photos of the participants and keeping online diaries.

Digital ethnography uses a wide variety of methods to help achieve the same results as traditional ethnographic research does. Besides being less time-consuming and costly, this type of research can:

  • Encourage participants to agree to the experiment since they don't need to invite strangers to their homes

  • Allow ethnographers to review videos and photos to look for patterns and draw conclusions

  • Eliminate the need for physical presence

  • Provide an opportunity for long-term studies without the associated costs and efforts

Digital ethnography comes with certain downsides as well. It takes anonymity out of the process. Consumers are always aware of being observed, so they may not act as naturally as the project demands. Human-to-human interaction is always going to be more natural and true to nature than human-to-camera or recorder.

Meanwhile, ethnographers don't interact with the participants personally. Without the ability to ask follow-up questions or evoke guided conversations, they could miss valuable information, actions, and emotions.  

When to use ethnographic research 

Ethnographic research can be highly valuable for some projects but may not be worth the time for others. If you don't have sufficient consumer data to develop a new product, test existing products, or streamline current solutions to fit the customers' pain points, you can try employing ethnographic research.

Ethnographic research is advanced qualitative research that helps you improve your company's bottom line. If your traditional qualitative research methods are failing, you may want to consider working with an ethnographer in either a digital or on-site environment.


What is the meaning of ethnographic research?

Ethnographic research involves studying the behavior of people in their natural habitat. Businesses employ ethnographic research to study their customers' needs and pain points. It's also useful for uncovering hidden opportunities, testing new projects, or streamlining existing products.

What is the main focus of ethnographic research?

The main focus of ethnographic research is people's behavior and motivations. In business, it involves studying how people interact with a company's products. By focusing on consumer behavior and motivations, companies can identify pain points and offer relevant solutions to satisfy consumer motivations.

What is ethnographic research with examples?

Ethnographic research is the process of gathering consumer data while they are in their natural environment. For example, an ethnographer can observe what it looks like for a student to take an online course. Perhaps they imagine a quiet space with everything a student needs, but find the student attending to their children while cooking dinner with their laptops open to the course. The student can describe the better life she wants for herself and her children while bouncing a child on her knee. Unexpected and real human observations like this can help gather invaluable insights for business and humanize your product design process.

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