One of the problems with market research is that asking people questions about their preferences, wishes and needs may not give the full picture. For many reasons people often say something different to how they actually behave. For this reason a useful addition to the market research toolkit is ethnography. This is a collection of methods originally developed in the field of anthropology through which observations are made about how people actually behave in context. It doesn’t bring preconceived theories to test but rather develops explanations out of what is observed.


Many different techniques exist for carrying out ethnographic studies including observation, getting people to keep diaries (and increasingly using video and other tools to help that process) and even assigning market researchers to live out the lifestyle of their target population! (When Toyota was developing the Lexus as a luxury car brand it sent some staff to California to try and gain first had experience of the lifestyle – and through that important design clues – of their target consumer population.


Unobtrusive hidden needs analysis is becoming increasingly important – for example see the case study of Tesco on the Portal which describes their use of ethnographic methods to refine the design of their new stores in their entry into the US market. Michel Bartl describes the use of online communities as another source in a process of netnography.


For more on ethnographic methods see:

 Useful review article

NESTA introduction and video