Ethnography In Business To Business Markets. A Guide On What, When And How

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” – Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird.

We researchers are always trying to understand the needs of customers. For this we have an established tool kit which usually involves the phone, online interviews or focus groups.

However, there is another way to explore the needs of customers that is often overlooked and could provide powerful insights. This whitepaper introduces the subject of ethnography, an increasingly popular means of getting closer to the lives and behaviours of customers by observation. Put simply, it is living a day in the life of customers by wearing their shoes.

Getting To A Deeper Understanding Of B2B Customers

Customers’ business lives are becoming more complicated. There are more choices and alternatives than ever before. This complexity has made it more difficult for customers to communicate their needs. Respondents may not know why they do something or why they value a certain service or product. We may not get the insights from traditional methods such as focus groups, online surveys and telephone surveys.

Ethnography is not a panacea. There will be occasions when it is simply not possible to sit next to a customer all day watching what they do. People working in hazardous conditions or sensitive areas may not allow a researcher to be at their elbow or get under their feet. It should also be recognised that ethnography is a qualitative research tool and as such, the findings are dependent on the researcher. Not least, even after hours of ethnography, it is possible that some insightful behaviour doesn’t happen either because the subject is inhibited or they simply don’t act in a certain way at the time. Ethnography can be risky in that you can never be sure that you will actually find something out.

Why Do Ethnographic Research?

The limitations of ethnography are balanced and frequently outweighed by three important justifications:

  1. Observing behaviour first hand: Seeing is believing. Ethnography allows the researcher to see what is happening in real time. This gives the chance to capture data through photographs and notes. It also provides the opportunity to quickly dive deeper into important insights as and when they emerge. As it is said, actions speak louder than words. Watching what people do can be more believable than listening to what they say.

  2. Providing real world contexts: Ethnography reveals how products and services fit into the context of customers’ businesses. It allows us to see how they use a product or service with other products and services. It gives us a holistic picture of their working lives.

  3. Giving a deeper understanding: Ethnography gets to the heart of how people really behave and not how they say they behave. It can provide insights into needs and behaviours that respondents find hard to communicate.

A Case Study

A manufacturer of hand tools wanted ideas for product development and decided to carry out an ethnographic study. Researchers spent hours trailing electricians, plumbers and builders, watching which tools they used and how they used them. As you can imagine, these weren’t easy visits to organise. The ethnographers needed to follow the same rules as the workers they were observing. They needed hard hats, goggles and Totector shoes. They also needed patience because not everything was evident in the first 5 minutes.

During the ethnographic research a lot of small actions were noted that were not always obvious. The researcher needed to observe closely what was happening and ask questions to build a good understanding of the problems which the customers faced.

In customer focus groups which preceded the ethnographic study, respondents were asked how the tools they were using could be improved and respondents found it difficult to come up with ideas. A study based just on focus groups wouldn’t have generated the more subtle ideas that arose in the ethnography.

How To Get The Most From Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research can be used in the exploratory phase at the beginning of a project or to dig deeper at the end. At the start it helps to develop and build an understanding of the topic which can aid the design of subsequent research. At the end it could build a greater understanding of personas, for example, following a segmentation study. The benefits of ethnographic research are enhanced when it incorporates an entry interview and an exit interview.

The ethnographic researcher doesn’t just turn up on the day and hang around, hoping something will happen. There is meticulous planning. The subject of the ethnography needs to be screened and understand what will be involved. Permission must be obtained for taking photos or recording events. A checklist of questions must be devised for the researcher as an aide memoire of what to look for throughout the day. If more than one researcher is working on the study, they must all be thoroughly briefed.

Entry interviews including open ended questions can help guide the researcher. These entry interviews can flag up things that could be important or that the researcher should look out for. Exit interviews are also useful to get responses to any unanswered questions that have emerged throughout the day.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Ethnography


  • Don’t dismiss anything – even the smallest details have the potential to be important insights.
  • Don’t just collect superficial information – always look for deeper meanings into why something is the way it is. Always ask ‘why?’.
  • Don’t stay in one place – if possible, walk around and observe from different angles.
  • Don’t rely on recordings or memory – write copious notes as something that seemed inconsequential during the day could prove to be important later on.
  • Don’t assume that ethnography can be carried out by just anybody – The best ethnographers are people with good observational skills who can spot and interpret the smallest behaviours.


  • Do keep an open mind – go in with the attitude of investigating and discovering.
  • Do feel free to just observe and be a fly on the wall – become the invisible person so that the subjects of the ethnography forget you are there.
  • Do ask questions – find out not just what someone does but why they do it one way and not another.
  • Do remember that a picture speaks a thousand words – take photos of everything and anything. They are a good way of capturing data. Pouring over them later may expose things that were missed during the observation.

Closing Thoughts

The case study that was referred to earlier had an interesting conclusion. The ethnographers noticed that some tradesmen kept their screwdrivers in a tool belt. When up a ladder, they would reach for a tool and sometimes pick out the Phillips screwdriver when they were looking for the one with a flat blade. This prompted the ethnographers to suggest marking the top of the handle of the screwdriver with a symbol to indicate the nature of the tip – an (x) for the Phillips and a (-) for the slotted end. It was a small and easy innovation that provided the manufacturer with a differentiating feature. No number of interviews or focus groups had generated such as idea.

Respondents find it difficult to articulate their complex needs and this makes it hard to develop a deeper level of understanding through conventional methods of research alone. To truly understand customers it may be interesting to walk in their shoes for a few days.

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