Beyond the Voice of the Customer: Ethnographic Market Research: Ethnographic Market Research Can Help Companies to Generate Deep Customer Insights, beyond Those Offered by Surveys and Focus Groups

By Goffin, Keith; Varnes, Claus J. et al. | Research-Technology Management, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Voice of the Customer: Ethnographic Market Research: Ethnographic Market Research Can Help Companies to Generate Deep Customer Insights, beyond Those Offered by Surveys and Focus Groups


Goffin, Keith, Varnes, Claus J., van der Haven, Chris, Koners, Ursula, Research-Technology Management


Integrating the voice of the customer into new product development (NPD) is almost universally recognized by managers as a crucial factor in the creation of successful products (Griffin and Hauser 1993; Ulrich and Eppinger 2000). However, the techniques used by many organizations to gather voice-of-the-customer data are significantly limited. The surveys (either interviews or questionnaires) and focus groups that make up the bulk of market research efforts are, when used in isolation, ineffective for identifying customers' product requirements, particularly where customers are not really aware of their own needs--so-called hidden needs. In this regard, the service sector is even more challenged because of the intangible nature of service products, for which customers may find it difficult to articulate their needs. One effective way to overcome the limitations of the commonly used methods is ethnographic market research, which is based on the methods originally developed by social scientists to study tribal cultures (Goffin, Lemke, and Koners 2010).

Ethnographic market research comprises a range of techniques, but a key characteristic of all is the need to talk to customers in their own environments, where they tend to be more open and honest in their answers, and to directly observe them using products rather than relying on explanations of how they use products. Ethnographic market research uses open-ended questions to prompt customers to describe how they use current products and reveal the issues they face. Video recordings of customers interacting with and using products, when systematically analyzed, can help NPD teams generate both incremental and radical ideas. Case studies in companies using these techniques demonstrate how ethnographic market research can be used to understand customer needs and garner insights that can shape both product design and marketing.

Traditional Market Research Tools

The main element in the typical market researcher's tool set--the survey--has significant drawbacks. In responding to questionnaires and in interviews, customers often struggle to articulate their needs in answering direct questions because they are not consciously aware of the limitations of current products and cannot imagine the sort of products that will be feasible in the future (Deszca, Munro, and Noori 1999; Mariampolski 1999). The skill required to write effective questions is often underestimated, and as a result many questionnaires do not generate valid responses. Similarly, in interviews, companies often ask if particular features are important, prompting respondents to think about existing product features, rather than probing for their unresolved issues or unarticulated needs. Another issue with questionnaires is their low response rate. Superficially, the Internet seems to have solved the problem of response rate, as Web questionnaires can generate high numbers of responses, but whether the replies are representative or valid is questionable. Due to their limitations, surveys and interviews need to be complemented by new techniques, if the aim is to develop breakthrough ideas.

The second commonly used market research technique is the focus group; approximately 200,000 focus groups are held each year in the United States (Emberger and Kromer 1999). Typically, focus group attendees are invited to meet at a neutral location and a moderator guides the discussion. Such discussions can be more flexible than structured questionnaires, and focus groups allow the interaction between different customers to be observed. However, although focus groups offer flexibility to vary the topics covered and the ability to consider customer-to-customer interaction, they take place outside the customer's normal environment. This has two main implications: First, respondents behave differently outside their normal environments; they may be less open, or they might say things about how they use products that do not match the way they actually use them. …

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