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How to make ethnographic interviewing your superpower: 5 tips

Knowing how to talk to your customers is just as important as talking to them

By Matt Mueller

It’s time to innovate! Where do we begin? The first thing I did in my position as a corporate innovator was to understand the customers’ pain points. It makes total sense. First, identify the problem, then work to solve it. I would conduct a brainstorm session for half of a day, identifying what we believed to be the top pain points of our customers. What informed us? It was some of the past research we were told about, the conversations that we had with our families, of course our own opinions and a little bit of trends from “Big Data” sprinkled in. From there, we ideated to create solutions to those pain points and then tested them out. 

We thought we had had some great ideas that would disrupt the industry, but each one would fizzle out.

Why? We were too focused on:

  1. Our Opinions
  2. Big Data
Both opinions and big data are helpful to point you into the right direction. It will get you fishing in the right pond. But at this point you are fishing without any bait.

How do you know what customers really want?

Talk to them. I learned an amazing art form meets science technique called ethnography working with Martin Lindstrom, brand neuromarketing guru and author of Buyology. 

With ethnography we learned a lot about our customers with only a couple of dozen people across the country. How was it possible to know more about our customers with a small sample size and no statistical significance? It felt so wrong! But the results from the research and the session after, proved to work. Our concepts resonated more with customers. And it seemed like we finally were looking forward to where our customers were going rather than where they had been. 

I needed to learn how to do ethnography on my own, so I reached out to Boise State University and met with Dr Kendall House. The UXR program there was amazing, and I learned so much. 

How was it possible to know more about our customers with a small sample size and no statistical significance? It felt so wrong!

Here are the 5 tips that I learned that can have you making ethnography your superpower tomorrow:

  1. Be Prepared – Good preparation is key to good ethnographic interviewing. It ensures that when you are done with the interview you will have what you need to make sound business decisions. Before you jump right into interviewing people make sure to write down these four things: 
    1. What is the objective?
    2. What do you want to learn?
    3. How will you learn it? (interview technique and where to do it)
    4. And who do you need to talk to, to gain those learnings? 
  2. Be Ready To Listen – The most important thing is not your learning agenda or getting to your next question in the interview. The most important thing is to listen and let the respondent talk. We learn nothing from asking the question, we learn everything from listening to the customer. I approach this much like mindfulness. When I meditate I will notice my mind wandering and it is my job, in the meditation, to “begin again” and come back to the stillness. Listening is the same thing, my mind will wander about how I am going to respond. Stop this impulse and say in your mind “listen again.” Over time you will become a better listener and hear the insights flowing from your respondents mouth effortlessly.
  3. Be The Protege –  You might be the business expert in the room. And you can tell the customer all the reasons why your industry or company does the things that it does. But remember when in these interviews you want to gain insight on the customers thoughts and behaviors. Your opinions and your knowledge have no place in this interview. Look at the interview as them being your mentor and you the protege eager to learn the wealth of knowledge the customer has to share with you. They might tell you how frustrating it is that the water bottle cap feels flimsy and you might have the urge to tell them that is because of the sustainability initiatives to save on plastic. Don’t say it! Continue on asking questions on why that frustrates them.
  4. The Probe – The probe is your best friend on any ethnographic interview. When an interview begins to slow and you don’t know where to take it, use small sounds and phrases to continue the conversation. The audible sound of “uh-huh” can work like magic at keeping the momentum of the conversation going. The key in any interview is to keep them talking because the more they talk the more you get past surface level thoughts and get to the real nuggets.  For instance if I ask you about your eating habits when you first start telling me about it you will be representing your ideal self. “I eat healthy. It is mostly vegetables and clean protein…” a couple of uh-huh’s later we will get to last weekend when you ate at McDonalds and “wished” that you ate healthier.

When you get to a potential nugget of information, find the word that sets alarms off in your head and probe on it. Don’t let it go. It could be as simple as “tell me more about what you mean when you say ‘healthier’?” And you’re off to the races!

  1. Don’t Lead – A cardinal sin of any ethnographic interview is do not lead the interview to a place that you want it to go. If your company has a new concept-car that self-parks and want to learn what customers think of the idea, don’t ask them “what do you think about a self-parking car?” Instead ask them “From turning the car on to turning it off. What are some of the most frustrating things about driving?” And then probe your way to parking.

Performing ethnography

With these five tips you know how the groundwork to start asking better questions and picking up on the clues that will be meaningful to your innovation programs. For more background on how to execute ethnography and to synthesize all of your interviews check out more on this piece at Innovation Leader. Pairing this with the 2 golden rules of CX will have you being an ethnographic master mind for your organization in no time.

Innovator Matt Mueller

Matt Mueller

Thanks for reading! My goal is to provide an insightful, simplified, point of view on innovation, CX and insights to help you create positive change in everything you do. 

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