A Gradual Build

How ethnography and ideation can work
hand in hand to lead to customer insight

by Peter Merrill

When I perform innovation assessments on organizations, one of the most common problems I see is the failure to separate opportunity and solution. So many organizations think innovation starts with a great new idea. Part of the reason is because designers are frequently given a problem to solve and less often asked to find out what the problem is. You must first find the opportunity, define the problem and then seek an innovative solution.

Surveys and focus groups can show how people say that they use things, how many people use it and who they are. What people say and do aren’t always the same. We also ask customers for solutions or, even worse, we just ask them whether they’re satisfied.

The genba or gemba walkabout is the first step away from this. The Japanese term genba means “the actual place.” Japanese detectives call a crime scene genba, and TV reporters talk about reporting from genba. The idea of genba in business is going to the actual place to look for opportunities, which means problems are visible. To be user-driven, you must go to the user’s genba to understand problems and opportunities, using all your senses to gather data.

Genba has had its focus on the shop floor, however, and innovators must take a step further to actual customers or potential customers. You must broaden your thinking and step into the realm of ethnographic research.

Beyond VOC

Business ethnography identifies unmet customer needs. Traditional voice of the customer (VOC) asks, “What do you need?” Instead, you must ask, “Where do you have difficulty?” Even then, customers may be so used to the difficulty that they take it for granted. Ethnographic research considers the understanding of social change, which is a prime driver for innovation.

Quality professionals are accustomed to the plan-do-check-act cycle attributed to W. Edwards Deming, but its origins are found in Francis Bacon’s scientific method, and the full cycle is observe-plan-do-check-act. Ethnography is the observing—and takes genba to a new level.

Intel was an early adopter of ethnographic research and says its purpose is “to see people’s behavior on their terms, not ours.”1 Intel has designed PCs to appeal to markets in China and India. An ethnographer, for example, discovered that some Japanese people don’t use instant messaging on their PCs because interruptions are considered impolite. More strategic uses of ethnography helped Intel better understand emerging markets, such as digital healthcare and the digital home. Intel uses ethnographic research to plan its long-term strategy. A recent count shows that it employs two dozen anthropologists.

In the early 2000s, for example, Lego started struggling. Some children didn’t like Lego’s new designs, so the company decided to send anthropologists to observe them and their families as they played with Legos. After watching the play, Lego interviewed them and learned that the children’s meaning of play was about storytelling and whether a toy fit into a story. The children talked as they moved their toys. They were telling a story. In the end, Lego realized that toys don’t necessarily need many features. Playtime also was about learning skills and showing them to others. Lego changed its design direction by reducing the number of pieces to enhance the opportunity for storytelling and enable the learning experience.2

Ethnographic researchers observe and interact with participants in their real-life environment. It was popularized by anthropology but now is used to help a designer’s deeper understanding of a design problem. It helps identify unexpected issues.

Opportunities revealed

Ethnographic research reveals unarticulated needs, captures visual and emotional behaviors and builds a relationship with participants. It identifies user’s behavior in different contexts and finds the differences between what people say and what they do. As a result, you can identify market demand for products that don’t yet exist.

When I attended this year’s ASQ World Conference on Quality and Improvement, I stayed at a hotel in the middle of town. The hotel has a reputation for excellence, was close to the conference and popular. Previously called the Texas Hotel, this Hilton has a historic reputation, and clientele have grown to see it as a home away from home where they can relax and comfortably chat with business colleagues.

On my journey to Fort Worth, TX, I flew from Stockholm and had a stop at a hotel at Heathrow International Airport in London. Ethnography shows the two hotels had different functions for the people at each location. Airport hotel clients are mainly overnighters in transit with a grab-and-go mentality. The down-home style is too slow, and chatty check-outs can be irritating. Simple market data analysis would not necessarily reveal this. My Heathrow hotel was clean and basic, and—wait for this—had no closet. I was an overnighter, after all, and didn’t unpack my suitcase. More importantly, the Heathrow hotel cost last than half of what the Fort Worth hotel did.

The customer is the user

Business ethnographers study their subjects in the field where the customer is a user. They shadow their subjects and ask questions. Research can take place for weeks or months, and potential customers are aware that they are being observed. Interviews are conversational and can last for two-plus hours. Building trust and rapport is vital. You’re looking at the situation from the perspective of the customer, not the business.

Ethnography is about people’ relationships with products—not the products themselves. We look for what customers enjoy and where they have difficulty. For example:

  • Who are they with and what else are they doing when they use the product or service?
  • What is the social context in which they are operating?
  • How does the product make them feel?
  • What meanings do they attach to it?

It can take several months to run a study and interpret the results. It generates a vast quantity of photos, video, audio and interview transcripts that must be analyzed. Customer experience mapping, which is the same as process mapping, is a useful tool for laying out the findings.

Having gained all this knowledge, you must make sure you’re clear on where the opportunity lies and define it clearly. Most of us probably hate carrying bags when shopping, for example. That might be a typical ethnography finding. We’re all used to big retailers with large locations with on-site product. You are probably starting to discover what are sometimes called guide shops. They are a natural extension of e-commerce. Burberry, the British luxury fashion house, was one of the first when it designed its website to look the same as its stores. I shop at Charles Tyrwhytt, the British clothing retailer, for shirts and other items. I try on items, the store custom tailors to my specs, and the goods are shipped to me. I love it. Custom tailoring and no bags to carry.

Ideation activities

Many solutions seem obvious after the fact, but are not always immediately obvious—and that leads to ideation. This is where you define the opportunity and find alternative solutions to the opportunity. People must have a basic understanding of the issue, and we include people with different perspectives who have no experience of the problem. Everyone must feel safe and not open to criticism.

There are many methods for ideation, and all follow a similar approach. A group is comprised of about 12 to 20 people. Loosening up using ice breaker exercises is a starter in creating lateral thinking. People in the theater do this for improv.

From there, people are comfortable brainstorming. Research shows the average adult thinks of three or four alternatives for any given problem. People write down the three or four ideas of their own so that we have a body of ideas, which is hard to challenge. The various techniques have different methods to gradually share those ideas and build on them to move beyond the obvious into wild, off-the-wall territory.

The reason for this process is that it allows people to make crazy suggestions privately and avoid ridicule. Key to success is volume. As Linus Pauling said, “The best way to get a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”3 Variations on this process include:

  • Brainwriting.
  • Hiroshi Takahashi's NHK Method.
  • Clustering.
  • Round robin.
  • Brainstorm cards.
  • Collaborative sketching.
  • Storyboarding.

The key to getting a better answer is to ask a better question. Start by developing a series of questions about the challenge—and do not ask for solutions. Look at a challenge from different angles. Ask what’s working, what’s not and why it’s not. Look for when the problem didn’t occur. Define the problem in concept terms. Ask:

  • What are the assumptions in the challenge? Blockbuster used a public library model. Netflix questioned why a physical location was necessary. Mailing videos would be cheaper and more convenient. Then Netflix reinvented itself by streaming videos and becoming a content creator.
  • What pieces of conventional wisdom are ripe for contradiction? The creators of PayPal took an assumption that transferring money online was feasible and safe between institutions but not between individuals—and disproved it.
  • What conventional approach can be overturned? The Intel Inside logo turned Intel microprocessors into a branded product after it saw branded ingredients such Teflon and NutraSweet.

If the process stalls and you’re still building toward a solution, you may need to repeat this the following day and continue. The two sets of questions will overlap. 

  • Which other industries or situations have already solved the problem in a different context? Henry Ford solved the problem of moving components across a shop floor when he saw a meat factory hanging meat on hooks, for example. Velcro came from seeing burrs attach to a dog’s fur.
  • How can you connect products and services that have traditionally been separate? Industries have created solutions by combining offerings. As driving in traffic gets more stressful, BMW and Daimler plan to combine car sharing, car parking and tickets for public transport. A defense against Uber, you could argue. Apple and Nike’s Nike+ iPod Sport Kit enable Nike shoes to communicate with an iPod for tracking steps.
  • How can you turn limitations or liabilities into opportunities? Tesla doesn’t have a traditional dealership network and chooses to sell cars online and builds fewer stores staffed with salespeople paid a fixed salary—not commission.

As with Archimedes, when he found his answer of specific gravity, enjoying a hot bath and relaxing can be one of the best ways to release knowledge. Silicon Valley succeeded because folks hung out in bars and coffee shops and freely shared their knowledge. We must allow time to relax. Epiphanies are, in fact, the last piece of the jigsaw.

As you find alternative solutions, you also must collect data so you can later narrow your choices. You will need data on time to implement, cost to implement and probability of the solution working. You also need a measurement of how easily your solution can be copied by the competition.

So innovation is not just about new ideas. It must be new ideas that make people happy. We must find out what makes them happy only by going into their world and seeing them in real life.


  1. Ken Anderson, “Ethnographic Research: A Key to Strategy,” Harvard Business Review, March 2009, https://hbr.org/2009/03/ethnographic-research-a-key-to-strategy.
  2. Natalie Cheng, “Using Ethnographic Research in Business,” ChaiOne, Dec. 2, 2016, https://chaione.com/blog/using-ethnographic-research-business.
  3. Goodreads, "Linus Pauling > Quotes,” www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/52938.Linus_Pauling, 2019.

Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Inc., an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Innovation Never Stops (2015), Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009), and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ, previous chair of the ASQ Innovation Division and current chair of the ASQ Innovation Think Tank. Merrill also is head of delegation for his country to ISO Technical Committee 279 on innovation management.

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this article

Add Comments

View comments
Comments FAQ

Featured advertisers