In many Six Sigma projects, practitioners use traditional voice-of-the-customer techniques to find the specifications clients seek. But to get the full picture, they should also try a set of data-gathering methods known as corporate ethnography.

By Robert Cardone

It’s simple: To be competitive, businesses need to provide services that better meet consumer needs than what’s currently available. The provider that best satisfies customers’ unmet needs is usually deemed the most innovative, and is likely to win the biggest share of the market.

In many Six Sigma projects, practitioners use voice-of-the-customer (VOC) techniques, such as interviews and surveys, to find the specifications clients seek. Qualitative VOC research obtained using interviews and surveys often does not translate into products and services that customers really want, though, because businesses often do not know what inputs they need to obtain from the customer. Similarly, customers do not typically vocalize their requirements completely and accurately.

To learn the most possible about customers’ needs, practitioners should consider using corporate ethnography techniques as part of their VOC process.

What is Corporate Ethnography?

Ethnography is a branch of anthropology that provides scientific description of specific human cultures. In the corporate world, ethnography primarily uses observation and interviews to gain insight into when, where, why and how people use products and services. These techniques range from pure observation to complete immersion in the world of the customer, and offer a customer perspective rather than a business perspective. It is not about how a company sees and interprets customer behavior; it is about how customers see the company, and how they employ its products and services to satisfy their needs.

Why Use It?

Corporate ethnography allows a Six Sigma practitioner to gain insight into customers and their use of a company’s products and services. Information about unmet needs can then be transformed into innovative features and functions, increasing a company’s successes.

  • The research gathered through corporate ethnography is typically used to:
  • Understand how well a product or service is meeting customers needs
  • Determine customers’ desired outcomes and how they measure success
  • Recognize regional and cultural differences that distinguish how a product or service is used
  • Determine what innovations to pursue to enhance a product or service
  • Reveal evolutionary trends critical to staying ahead of the competition

Ethnography Techniques

Corporate ethnographic research uses direct contact and observation of people in their natural environments. The techniques employed depend on what kind of information is needed.

Observation is the main tool of the approach, but the amount of interaction the researcher has with the respondents while observing them can vary; the techniques can be categorized by interaction level. The span ranges from pure observation – where there is no interaction between observer and respondents – to guerrilla ethnography, where the researcher is immersed in the environment and is an active participant. Between these extremes is contextual interviewing, which follows a master-teaching-apprentice tactic. The details of theses techniques and how they are typically used follows.

Pure Observation

In this technique, the researcher is taken out of the equation and acts as an objective observer. Pure observation can give the researcher insight into how a product or service is used in its natural environment, and allow them to uncover needs that people may not verbalize because they think they are too obvious to state. It also shows how a process is initiated and played out. Pure observation is limited, however, in that the researcher only gets an understanding of surface behavior of the situation.

A researcher might use this method by observing how customers interact with an ATM, videotaping customers’ interaction with a point-of-purchase display or watching a client navigate a website and recording their key clicks and mouse clicks.

Contextual Interviewing

This method uses a master-and-apprentice approach rather than an interviewer-and-subject model. The researcher plays the role of an apprentice who is curious and wants to learn. The subjects are the masters who are “expert” at their work. The apprentice pays attention to the details in an open, nonjudgmental way and asks probing questions.

This technique is used for uncovering unstated details of a work process, new uses and features for a process, and actual versus intended use of a product or service. Because contextual interviewing provides the researcher with in-depth information about people’s thoughts and behaviors from their own perspectives, it is often valuable in user-interface design and usability studies.

Guerrilla Ethnography

For unfiltered, reality-based encounters, researchers can observe and talk with people in their natural environments without disclosing their intent. By chatting with a customer or sales person, the researcher can attempt to gain an understanding of the customers’ preferences, motivations and mind-sets.

Despite its benefits, there is some objection to this form of research; some people believe that no one has the right to involve someone unwittingly in a commercial-based interaction. Therefore, guerrilla ethnography is often used only in pilot research to help in the preparation of interview guides and survey question preparation.

Researcher Responsibilities

Because interviewers can inadvertently introduce bias by their verbal and non-verbal interactions with respondents, ethnographers must build rapport and trust with respondents and avoid bias in their questions and in interpreting respondents’ actions and words.

They must also gain in advance the consent of individuals and environments being studied. In the case of pure observation studies and guerrilla ethnographic studies, the researcher will typically warn potential respondents that consumer research is being conducted on the premises and advise them not to enter if they do not wish to participate. Ethnographers must protect the confidentiality of the information discovered and defend the privacy of the respondents.

The Right Information Leads to Innovation

Understanding the jobs customers want to get done and the outcomes they desire is fundamental to the systematic and predictable creation of innovative products and service. Although the exact mix of VOC tools used on a Six Sigma project depends on the information that must be obtained, independent insight gathered through corporate ethnography, when verified using qualitative methods (i.e., interviews, focus groups, surveys) and quantified with statistical methods (i.e., correlation, linear regression and designed experiments), can bring added knowledge to a project.

About the Author: Robert Cardone is an Enterprise Master Black Belt with Merrill Lynch Six Sigma Central Deployment Office. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author