Qualitative research

Chemical experimentHow well do you know your customers, partners, employees and management? If your organization is like most, you probably have a good numeric understanding of them. You know how many there are, what they are buying from you, how often they interact with customer service and so on.

But you may struggle to articulate clearly what motivates them to do these things. You may have a mental model of how you think they feel about your product or service—but do you know whether it’s true? And how would you do things differently if you had a more detailed understanding of your stakeholders, about how they think and feel about your product or service as they use it in their day-to-day lives?

I offer small-scale, custom qualitative research to help organizations develop a deeper, more complete understanding of those they are trying to serve with products or services. Typically, this is done to support a larger innovation or transformation initiative, such as creating a new product or changing a core business process. The methods I use are based on aspects of ethnographic fieldwork, anthropology’s primary method of engaging research participants and gathering data.

Ethnography’s main methods are

  • Interviews: Semi-structured or open-ended interviews using a slightly longer time frame (useful interviews require 90 minutes or longer per participant) can result in surprising and enriching insights about the views, opinions and emotions of study participants
  • Participant observation: The act of shadowing study participants for longer periods of time (e.g. one day) as they go about their typical daily activities (whether those activities include purchasing or using a product/service is irrelevant) provides detailed behavioural insights
  • Visual ethnography: Optionally, taking pictures of participants’ spaces, objects and situations can assist in creating a richer understanding of their relationships and unique lived experience—and photography also helps organizations ‘see’ their stakeholders in their everyday surroundings (as opposed to just reading about them in a report). Another powerful option is to video-record study participants, either during interviews or as they go about their day. The resulting videos may become an internal discussion or training tool, helping existing and new staff members better understand their customers.

My aim with qualitative research is to help answer important questions an organization might have. Unlike academic research in anthropology (which is focused on knowledge production), I am ultimately hoping to provide practical advice based on the research data.

One thing I am mindful of is that ethnographically-informed qualitative research does not always yield the expected results. In fact, more often than not, it forces researchers to confront surprising new insights—answers to questions they were not initially considering. This is a well-documented aspect of doing this kind of work. Think of it as one of the most important ways this kind of research is different from what you’re used to: you aren’t hiring me to tell you what you already know.

I am particularly excited about offering this kind of research to help organizations make change—for example re-organizing, redesigning business processes, adjusting an organization to ensure that it is able to meet its strategic goals. The more complex our problems—and all organizational problems are complex—the more we need to clearly understand how others think and feel.