Ethnographic Market Research for innovation that touches the customer’s heart!

Ethnographic Market Research for innovation that touches the customer's heart! | Intercai (Schweiz) AG

Ethnographic Market Research for innovation that touches the customer's heart!

Have you been in the situation where your company spends time, money and resources in customer interviews, questionnaires, focus groups and the findings are mostly what you already knew or expected to hear? How come that these techniques do not bring us more information? Companies know that targeting the right customer groups is essential. However, the methodology used to generate the customer needs is often not the best one. In this short blog I will discuss about the method to identify hidden customer needs based on a training I took by Prof. Keith Goffin. Furthermore, the blog will also include my experiences before and after applying these newly learned methods.

Limitations of traditional Market Research Techniques

Companies often ask customers about their current product and services in the hope to find out what features the product and services are missing. Some companies even hope the customers can tell them what the next big innovation could be.

Thinking back I have to admit that this is exactly how I previously conducted market research. In one of my previous companies my team and I had the task of conducting a big focus group study to identify the most important requirement for the next product we wanted to offer our customers. Without any exception all the focus groups had difficulties to start the conversation. After a short introduction of the idea some customers started to articulate their thoughts. We could observe that a small group of customers were doing most of the talking and some customers were not very keen with sharing their opinions. After a couple of hours we had 2 flip charts filled with requirements. We asked the customers to support us with prioritizing them. This part of the task took us even longer than defining the requirements. Here we had the same pattern again, a small group was discussing and the rest contributed little to none.

What we did not realize was that some customers could not articulate their needs due to the new information overload we presented. Others did not want to admit in front of the big group that they were facing challenges with some of the products.

The most fascinating part was the active group. They said that they would like to have certain features but in reality we were not sure if these requirements would bring us to the next Big Bang product. Why? Because it seemed that what ever popped into their mind was a requirement and it was a very important feature. The outcome of the focus group gave us some good information about the customers needs but unfortunately we did not manage to develop the next revolutionary product.

Limitation of the perception of the customers

What I did not realize before the training was that, from an emotional point of view, the customers do not like to admit that they are facing a challenge. Often being interviewed they are not in their own protected environment and might say things that are not entirely according to their behaviour.

A second group of customers say they do not face a challenge when you clearly see that they do. These customers have often been facing the challenge for such a long time that they have gotten used to it and cannot imagine that they might be able to do the task more efficiently. Some customers are more creative and find workarounds to reduce the challenges they are facing. When companies ask these customers about their challenges in a questionnaire or interview, they will for sure get the answer, "I am satisfied with the product, I do not face any challenges".

In my previous position I had the opportunity to observe some specific trauma surgeries. I noticed that most of the surgeons took quite some time to define the entry point where they wanted to insert the implant into the bone. What was even more interesting, not all of the surgeons were using the instrument that was provided from the companies to ease this important step of the surgery. When asking the surgeons about the specific step some said: "This step is not challenging, I have many years of experience and I have developed my own technique. I do not need an instrument". Other surgeons were either not aware of the instrument or did not fully understand it. The surgeons with their own technique had developed a workaround in their workflow and were not aware of the fact that they were provided with an instrument that could help them reduce the time and x-ray used for this important step.

How can companies find out these hidden needs when even the customers themselves do not know about them?

The traditional market research tools are often inefficient when it comes to hidden customer needs. A very interesting tool to overcome this is Ethnographic Market Research* to conduct in depth studies of their customers. The main and crucial differentiation of this method is to be with the customer in his/her own environment. Gathering information from watching and observing them directly when they are consuming the product or services. This will give you an in-depth understanding of their usage, needs, behaviours and emotional attitude towards the particular product.

Ethnographic Market Study has two main methods: Systematic Observation and Contextual Interviews. I will give you an example of how I used the methods after the training with Prof. Goffin.

Systematic Observation

My team and I had the task of identifying our customer's hidden needs in order to innovate a new product that would secure our market leadership. We decided to observe and record 30 surgeries executed with our own and competitor products. It was crucial not just to look at the implant and instruments in use but also to identify the broader aspects and challenges in the operating room. We had four cameras installed and observing different angles of the operating room. We made sure to record the surgeon, the medical assistant, the scrub nurse and the circulating nurses. Next to observing the use, misuse and the workarounds the recorded audio gave us the insight also to the emotional environment in the operating room. For instance when we heard the surgeon whistle or mumble a song we knew that he was not facing difficulties. However, when he was quiet or when suddenly the medical staff got quiet we knew that the surgeon was facing a challenging step.

Contextual Interviewing

Directly after the surgery we conducted an interview with the surgeons. Many of our questions were predefined, but we needed to be flexible and adapt our questions according to the situation. It was noticeable that the surgeons were comfortable and willing to share. Since all the instruments were still on the operating table they were able to demonstrate a certain movement or describe a specific challenge. During the interview it was mandatory for us to understand why the surgeons did or did not chose to use a certain instrument. We kept the questions open in order to reduce the risk of getting answers that we already knew or wanted to hear.


With the support of the external company our marketing and R&D team analysed the videos and the questionnaires.

To systematically analyse all the videos we divided the surgery in different steps and analysed the recordings according to the defined steps. The result gave us the exact information for each step, about the time consumed, the discussions that occurred, the challenges faced, the number of x-ray shots and the instruments that were in use.

In the analysis we concentrated on identifying the use, misuse and the workarounds of the surgeons. After combining the findings of the video, audio and questionnaires we had a clear and in-depth understanding of the context the products were used in. We were able to identify the gaps in our and competitors systems. This made it easy for marketing and R&D team to crystalize the real challenges our customers were facing. These challenges were then developed into ideas for the next solution, prototypes were made and presented to management.


Looking back at the experience and the findings we were able to achieve with the Ethnographic Market Study I cannot imagine going back to the traditional way.

Yes, analysing the video and the questionnaires was time consuming but the findings were remarkable better in insights and details compared to the traditional market studies I had done before. Visiting and observing our customers in their own environment when using our products told me so much more than an interview. I was able to identify the challenges they had even before starting or after using our products and identify what really matters!

I truly believe that companies that use a customer-centric approach, such as Ethnographic Market Study have a big advantage in identifying the customer needs. You might say that this approach is too complex or too much time consuming. But it is worthwhile to spend more time in the beginning identifying the hidden customer needs and then fairly quickly developing the right product that could give you the competitive advantage you need to be a market leader.

Take a camera and follow one of your customers for just one day. Observe him in his environment when using your product or service. You will get an idea of the potential power of Ethnographical Marketing Research.

*Ethnographic Market Research has its origin from social science, where ethnographic study was used to study tribal cultures (Goffin, Lemke, and Koners 2010)

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