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Research in the real world

Joe Marshall, our Senior Planner, lifts the lid on a client project that is using ethnographic research to capture deeper human insights into living with health conditions.

As someone with a degree in anthropology, I’ve spent years being confronted with blank faces. For most people, it’s something that exists outside of any normal point of reference, beside perhaps a vague association with Indiana Jones (although, to the best of my knowledge, raiding tombs and jumping off trains isn’t something that anthropologists tend to specialise in).

That’s why it’s been refreshing to dust off a little of what I’ve learned and apply it to a current project, in which we’re employing an ethnographic methodology.

Like all research, ethnography is the study of human experience. Where it differs from other methodologies is that it allows us to gain access into the lives of our audience, as they experience it.

In the past, this would have involved a researcher immersing themselves with a group of people for a prolonged period of time – months, or perhaps even years. But fortunately, technology now makes things a little easier (and a lot more cost effective); participants can download an app to their smartphone, which enables them to intuitively capture and upload content on a daily basis. We can also provide them with structured tasks, delivered via push notifications, to ensure that they’re providing focussed insights into the areas of their life that are of greatest interest.

Taking this approach can therefore provide us with a direct window into our audience’s needs, behaviour and attitudes, within the context of their daily lives. We can find out not only how they think and feel, but also what they’re doing today and what barriers exist when it comes to eliciting our desired behaviour change in the future.

Clearly, ethnography isn’t something that’s appropriate for every project. It won’t provide you with enough data points to identify clear, statistically robust trends. Nor will it offer the same level of reliable structure as focus groups or depth interviews.

But at its best, it can supplement more traditional quantitative and qualitative methodologies, providing the kind of deep human insights that can be more challenging to generate within other research contexts and which ultimately enable us to design more effective interventions.

is a Senior Planner in our Research & Planning team.