As ethnographers, we are the instruments of data collection. While recording equipment and software packages like ATLASti are part of the collection process, we are ultimately the primary instruments of collection, analysis and dissemination. With that in mind, it is wise to think about the tools we use before we start our work.
It is extremely important to record all of any interviews you may conduct as memory is not a sufficient source for citation. Before a project is begun, decide for yourself whether you will perform full or partial transcriptions. The more you transcribe, the more protection provided for your research and analysis, not to mention better, more in-depth insights. However, the facts remain that full transcriptions are very time consuming and expensive, and the majority of your field session may not be useful for your research, at least not in a direct way. Therefore, partial transcriptions are good for transcribing only the necessary or most valuable parts of your interview. You may not know what is the most valuable information you receive when you hear it, which is why it is beneficial to take light notes during the interview and extensive notes of what you remember after the interview. Do not focus heavily on your note-taking so that you miss what your interviewee is saying.
Participant Observation Tools
A research journal for field notes is a very practical way to keep track of your observations. After an extended period, flipping through your journal, you might notice patterns that you had not realized were prevalent as you witnessed them in person (that’s right, you don’t see everything the first time). As memory fails it is very important to have detailed notes of what you observed; otherwise your observations are meaningless.
Journals are also valuable for realizing your own biases or prejudices. When it comes to examining specific design or business issues, it’s easy to focus too early on solving problems. That means an inerrant bias when sifting through data. The journal helps you identify personal assumptions and what’s actually going on. It is here that you might begin to question some of your interpretations, and here where you might realize possibilities that had not yet occurred to you. When conducting fieldwork, you should always question yourself to make sure you are not getting in the way of your own research. It can also be valuable if you are having trouble connecting to your interviewees to see what it is you are doing that distances them.
Always test your equipment before you go into the field. Fieldwork is a learning experience, however, it would certainly be more valuable if the learning experience was about your research topic rather than temperature at which tapes melt, hard drives fail or batteries are dead.
In the last week I’ve been getting deeply interested in the interplay between cultural interpretations of environments and the biological responses to things like signage and all things shiny. I was asked what store displays I hoped would vanish in the coming years and I mentioned the now-redundant, bombastic, loud promotional pieces found in so many stores. The Fox News of retail design is how I phrased it. But my one smart-assed comment had meaning behind it. Most retail design has become painfully loud and may in fact be having the opposite affect we want.
Human beings have a remarkable ability to concentrate and focus on tasks, movements, objects, etc. It is a built-in survival program of our distant ancestors that makes us “fascinated” by certain things. This involuntary attention is a primordial mechanism that alerts us to the environment even as it helps us learn and interpret what’s going on around us. It allows us to stick with a project and think through tasks, making modifications and developing advanced concepts. But too much concentration can be a dangerous when you’re often prey as well as predator.
For most of human existence (indeed, all existence), we have been hardwired to pay attention to those things in our environment that might kill us. Even now, when we are concentrating on reading for example, we have an automatic override that forces us to quit concentrating on our “higher thinking” and involuntarily notice what is going on in the world. It’s why we jump in slasher movies or when loud sounds come out of nowhere. And ultimately, this is a good thing when you consider the alternative. Violence is something that automatically grabs our attention. So does sex. So does food. So do beautiful or dangerous places. In the right environmental context, this system works wonderfully. But a good thing can sometimes be too much.
Death by Fascination
The catch is that there are limits to how much we can process. When Fascination is in control, we respond to what’s happening when it happens. The shinier, louder or more distracting something is, the more we respond. The more it grabs us by the guts the more we respond. Our attention bounces from one stimulus to another. Advertisers and retailers have been relying on this basic principle for years. When we are surrounded by an array of “me to,” explosive images, sounds, smells, etc., our ability to think clearly and make reasoned decisions drops. We grab what we need and we’re out the door. But culture often intervenes. Context and culture provide us with techniques to dismiss or at least push aside our animal instincts. To focus on what we deem important, to avoid overwhelming fascination with all things loud and shiny, we rely on Directed Attention.
Directed Attention allows us to step back, consider, make alternate plans, resist, refocus, put the current razzmatazz up against our values and goals, and in general advance from a rigid chain of stimulus and response into a more decision-based frame of reference.
Softening the Situation
But hard fascination has a flip side. It’s studious twin is “soft fascination.” We aren’t attracted to big, loud extremely noticeable things alone and our attention can be captured by quieter things. Soft Fascination is also a form of involuntary attention, but it relies on our large brains more than our guts. Our attention can be drawn in by small, often rhythmic, natural events and subtle changes in the environment. The sound of a softly running river, rocking a child, people walking on the street, the change of shadows, tinkering with a simple gadget they are all examples of soft fascination. This kind of fascination is often calming and enjoyable (whereas hard fascination can be decidedly jolting), and we can lose ourselves easily. One of the interesting things about it is that it can be time consuming and often deeply engaging. It produces “slow memory,” a kind of reaction that draws a person back to the same place again and again. Unlike hard fascination, with its short span of engagement and explosive nature, soft fascination produces something more meaningful and enduring. Additionally, whereas hard fascination is all about stimuli, soft fascination can and is run through the cultural interpretations we all carry. Not only is rocking a child soothing, it also feeds the need to be a good parent, demonstrates human caring and signals our need to break from the tasks of daily existence and embrace a simpler life.
So what does this mean for retailers. For many years, particularly in big-box settings, retailers have tended to shout at their shoppers. End caps jut into aisle transitions, breaking the flow of movement. Signs are bright, big and unavoidable. And that worked fine for a time. But there are two problems with hard fascination. First, the human brain can only process so much stimuli before it starts to shut these things out. It looks for patterns eventually all those stimuli simply become the backdrop to a cognitive frame that says “ignore the loud stuff.” That means the big, bombastic formats simply stop working, or in order to work they need to become so overwhelming that they drive people away. Second, this sort of retail format is designed to thrive on the need to procure goods. It is a one-off event rather than a long-term experience. Remember, the memory is of the various stimuli, not the environment in its totality.
What this means is that designing a retail for soft fascination produces similar involuntary responses, but it also produces memories that are inviting and enduring. That means you develop loyalty amongst your shoppers, who then become advocates. You create a sense of storyline that people can easily slip into embrace as their own. More importantly, you create a place that can be shared. Long-term customers do not shop alone. Consumers do, but not customers. The more people shop as a social unit, be it friends conducting retail therapy or parents having a family outing, the more likely they are to purchase. Not just once, but again and again. Soft fascination leads to a sense of destination. And that leads to sales.
Retrieving concepts from metaphors demands creative thinking. Contemporary theories have defined metaphors as a structuring of our cognitive system. Metaphors are a way of equating signifier and signified into a new symbols, or at least making parallels between a symbolic construct and something completely new. In other words, metaphors affect the way we perceive the world, categorize experiences, and organize our thoughts. Metaphors not only guide reasoning but also enhance innovative thinking. They allow the marketer, the designer, or the business developer to think unconventionally and encourage the application of novel ideas to problems.
When used to pin down abstract concepts or unusual details, the use of metaphor bridges a major gap of understanding. The use of metaphors helps structure the mind to identify and define similarities and differences, break away from binary thinking and start to examine to problem from the standpoint of a system (as opposed to a series of elements within a system). It is also helpful for explaining strategic decisions back to a client. Few client-provided specifications are all-inclusive, and you can expect questions when your judgment calls don’t match what they imagined. If you explain that you designed your strategy “like Company X,” you can more readily summarize a wide range of choices and elements of the strategic plan, as well as gain added authority by showing that your choices mirror those of a successful strategy.
In design, metaphors are viewed as heuristics that help organize design thinking and tackle ill-defined design problems. Metaphorical reasoning is an iterative process through which designers gradually increase their knowledge of a design situation. Basically, the use of metaphors aids in structuring problems. The same process can be applied to marketing and business development. We frequently take observations at face value, focusing on the product or service to such a degree that we can’t open ourselves to new possibilities.
Why does that matter? Because “innovation” has largely become a buzz word and doesn’t necessarily equate with creative thinking. The result is incremental thinking that is limited by conceptual walls we struggle to break through. Creative thinking enables one to perceive a problem from unorthodox and innovative perspectives. Creativity is a captivating and stimulating aspect of human thinking. It has been defined as the ability to restructure old ideas to produce singular inventions and to apply original thinking. It is the capacity to look critically at reality, explore unconventional alternatives, and perceive situations from unexpected perspectives. That leads to real opportunities.
As a qualitative research method and product, ethnography can be distinguished from three other ways of investigating and writing: quantitative research, public policy research, and journalism. The kinds of guiding questions which are addressed through these kinds of research are importantly different from those which can be addressed ethnographically.
- Quantitative research usually arrives at percentages (of people who believe certain premise or do a certain thing) or otherwise counts instances of a phenomenon, and as such deals less descriptively with a larger number of cases than pure ethnography does. One of its main methods is widely distributed surveys or questionnaires. For example: Which birth control methods are most widely used in Los Angeles, and how are birth rates affected over a five year period?
- Policy research, which might be performed either qualitatively or quantitatively or both, is generally geared towards providing information that helps policy makers decide how a certain phenomenon might be understood in terms of better or worse social outcomes. For example: What kinds of access do women in Los Angeles have to what kinds of birth control, and is this appropriate from public health, religious, and cultural standpoints? Should government do something to affect this situation, and if so what and how?
- Journalism attempts to provide objective (not interpretive) outsider news information in a quick, timely manner, often against a deadline. Journalists write for the kinds of audience that the newspaper, magazine, or other publication which hires them attempts to reach. General questions regarding culture are not usually considered crucial to the endeavor as they are in ethnography. For example: What is newsworthy about current family planning for the particular group(s) who are likely to read my story?
Reading ethnographic accounts can help us to become more accustomed to the kind of research method and research product that ethnography is as well as teach us how we can approach a certain question or issue ethnographically.
“Choice” is the obsession of our time. Marketers (and frequently UI designers, business developers, chefs, salespeople, etc.) respond to focus groups and surveys calling for greater choice only to discover that adding the 350th variation of essentially the same product or service produces no bump in sales. More variety should lead to more revenue. After all, that’s what people are calling for. Unfortunately, the concept of “choice” and biology eventually collide. Culturally, we are predisposed to talk about choice and demand variety, but out brains often get in the way because we can only process so much before we are overloaded. Consider a few aspects of the biology of choice.
Our working memory declines rapidly, often as quickly as 10 seconds, and studies based on working memory have proven that seven is the approximate number of items the mind can hold for a short time. The duration of short-term memory (when rehearsal or active maintenance is prevented) is believed to be in the order of seconds. Estimates of short-term memory capacity are 7±2 units, depending upon the experimental design used to estimate capacity. As distractions increase, the ability to process them and increase the number of units stored in memory decreases.
The practice of dividing numbers or items into easily understood groups is called visual chunking, which takes place in one of two modes: perceptual and goal oriented. Perceptual chunking happens unconsciously, and takes place through a series of wired-in shortcuts in the brain. An easy way to think about this is to look at a credit card or phone number. Ever notice how the numbers are chunked into groups of three and four? Without realizing it, the brain processes the information because it is divided into small, easily understood groups. Goal-oriented chunking is a more active process. Too much choice and we can’t categorize well, which leads to us giving up. Or at least gravitating to the object or service that is the easiest to understand, manipulate and apply to our daily lives.
Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system
The sympathetic system is our fight or flight response to stimuli. The parasympathetic system tells our body to respond to stimuli by relaxing and reflecting. Sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions typically function in opposition to each other. But this opposition is better understood as complimentary. For an analogy, one may think of the sympathetic division as the accelerator and the parasympathetic division as the brake. The sympathetic division typically functions in actions requiring quick responses. The parasympathetic division functions with actions that do not require immediate reaction. Most marketing, especially in a retail environment, is designed to scream at us, to affect the sympathetic system by bombarding us with a host of options. The problem is that we can’t process it well. Again, too many choices tend to overwhelm.
Multitasking vs. task switching
In today’s information-rich society, people frequently attempt to perform many tasks at once. This often requires them to juggle their limited resources in order to accomplish each of these tasks successfully. This juggling is not always easy, and in many cases can lead to greater inefficiency in performing each individual task. For example, using a cellular telephone to find prices while shopping can lead to confusion. In the brain, juggling multiple tasks is performed by mental executive processes that manage the individual tasks and determine how, when, and with what priorities they get performed. These executive processes act like a choreographer who orchestrates many individual dancers so that they can perform as a single unit, or an air-traffic controller who schedules many airplanes that take off and land on the same runway. If the individual dancers or airplanes are not scheduled appropriately, the results can be catastrophic. Too many choices lead to an inability to manage the number of decision mechanisms and to look for simplicity.
So, am I suggesting that companies do away with the number of choices they provide customers? Hardly. What I am suggesting is that they scale them back or at the least provide visual and categorical systems that help the brain do its job. It’s not enough to respond to what people tell you they want because what you want isn’t always what you need (yet more wisdom from the Rolling Stones). Knowing the mechanics of the brain and cognition is as important a step in understanding your consumers as learning to listen to what they say.
Ethnography is two things: (1) the fundamental research method of cultural anthropology, and (2) the written text produced to report ethnographic research results. Ethnography as method seeks to answer central anthropological questions concerning the ways of life of living human beings. Ethnographic questions generally concern the link between culture and behavior and/or how cultural processes develop over time.
In order to answer their research questions and gather research material, ethnographers often live among the people they are studying, or at least spend a considerable amount of time with them. While there, ethnographers engage in “participant observation”, which means that they participate as much as possible in local daily life (everything from important ceremonies and rituals to ordinary things like meal preparation and consumption) while also carefully observing everything they can about it. Through this, ethnographers seek to gain what is called an “emic” perspective, or the “native’s point(s) of view” without imposing their own conceptual frameworks. The emic world view, which may be quite different from the “etic”, or outsider’s perspective on local life, is a unique and critical part of anthropology.
Unfortunately, it is the element of time that is increasingly overlooked in business-focused ethnographic work. The two-hour interview seems to tell us everything we need to know, rather than expansive learning. While there are legitimate concerns over cost and time in most business structures, there is a point at which anything of real value is lost when we don’t push back with clients, internal and external, and relay the true value of a good ethnographic project – depth. Depth does not come from a shallow interaction, it comes from internalization, critical observation and reflection.
Think of it like the relationships you have in your own life. The first date, indeed the first few months, are giddy and exciting, often filled with moments you will never forget. But are they a reflection of the person with whom you are engaged or a brief moment defined by the context of dating. What we know after being involved with someone for a few months or years is significantly richer than what we know after a few hours. Why? Because we learn to understand the other person’s worldview along with our own. We learn to observe, ask better questions and think about things in we may not have noticed in the early days of courtship.
There is value in short interviews, whether you take an ethnographic approach or not. But there is as much, if not more value in taking the time necessary to really think, experience and reflect. It may not be good for the quarterly bottom line, but it is when looking at the long-term viability of a brand, product, or company.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity.”
Hunter S. Thompson wrote this, somewhat ironically, in a letter to the editor of the Vancouver Sun. He didn’t get the job he was asking for, but he got a different one. It was also a better one.
His words ring just as true for the Marketing/Advertising world. It’s an inward looking culture that has become a shallow meme of itself. The recession, such as it is, and the overall climate do no favors for those looking to make bold, innovative or interesting work relevant.
Instead, petty arguments by suits worried about offending possible clients or despairing bouts of manic re-writes obfuscate impactful images and neuter insights. If the message is simple, clear and insightful, get out of your own way. Thompson might have agreed, if you could pull him away from the whiskey and the gun range. Come to think of it, maybe you should try following that example instead of another meeting.
Everyday consumers buy into the concept of brands and their associated meanings – the perception of quality, a symbolic relationship, a vicarious experience, or even a sense of identity. Brands, like the products they represent, are symbols – we don’t sell advocacy or attributes, we sell systems of meaning. The extent to which consumers recognize, internalize, and relate to brand meanings is not only an academic question. These meanings contribute to “brand equity,” the financial value of intangible brand benefits that exceed the use value of goods, and impacts upon a firm’s financial performance. Therefore, the management of brand equity demands first and foremost the management of brand meanings, or semiotics.
Studying symbolism goes beyond the flights of fancy that people often associate with it. There is a discipline we use regularly to make sense of our symbolic lives. I’m thinking specifically of structural semiotics, a discipline that extends the laws of structural linguistics to the analysis of verbal, visual, and spatial sign systems, to shed light on the cultural codes and discourse of brands. It proposes that semiotic research should form the cornerstone of brand equity management, since brands rely so heavily on sign systems that contribute to profitability by distinguishing brands from simple commodities, from competitors, and engaging consumers in the brand world. In other words, it isn’t just the functional side of the product that makes the sale, it is the representational and the metaphorical writ large. Understand the symbolic side and manage it as carefully as you do your supply chain and you’ll see you profits grow.