Ethnographic research for design explains how to use advances in ethnographic research of social media to design products, services, experiences… anything—while getting better results at lower risk. Ethnographic research of social media is breakthrough for designers in the “design stack” in which I’ve includedArchitecture/Interior Design, Product Design, User Experience Design/Interaction Design, UX Strategy, Service Design and Customer Experience Design.
Designers in all fields lament clients’ resistance to funding robust research. Traditional design research methods are often grounded in asking proposed users explicit questions, and self-reported responses vary significantly from actual behavior despite respondents’ best intentions. Similarly, shadowing, service safaris, “a day in the life,” and other analog research methods are costly and slow. Sample sizes are necessarily small because scaling analog methods greatly multiplies the budget and length of the research phase. Ethnographic research of social media changes the game because it studies proposed users’ actual behavior in digital public when they’re having heated discussions about the outcomes they want when the proposed product, service, or process is useful to them. It enables deep, broad understanding of users, at a much lower cost and time commitment than any other research method.
Even more interesting, ethnographic/social combines deep qualitative results with quantitative findings.
Use Case Goals and Rationale
Designers use various research methods to understand users, so they can design products, services, buildings and business processes that are distinctive and memorable. Moreover, designers increasingly include social media data in their research processes; however, ethnographic research of social media (hereafter ethnographic/social) represents a significant improvement in traditional social media research because it applies the design process itself to the analysis and incorporates behavioral analysis, which results in deep qualitative results from a relatively large number of people. Many designers use analog methods like interviews, which provide rich qualitative data on very few people, which engenders significant risk. At the other extreme, designers of digital products often minimize research, rationalizing that they can test their ideas extensively under real-world conditions.
All designers mourn low research budgets and time costs, and ethnographic is a new way because it’s much faster and less costly than analog methods, and results can be reused by marketing, communication or product teams to promote the product/service/process when it’s released.
Ethnographic Research of Social Media for Design
Design has rapidly increased its prominence during the 21st century as firms and organizations have seen that people—customers, constituents, influencers, employees for some—like and use things that have design in their DNA. Apple epitomizes the design trend; Steve Jobs’ second leadership of the company had a strong design ethos; the whole iLife concept had a service design feel and practicality for “the rest of us” who didn’t care as much about how products worked as much as how to use them to do important things. Designers increasingly find themselves in the boardroom, asked to address business strategy.
Today, designers are grappling with the good fortune of sudden popularity and stature. The field is exploding and splintering into product design, user experience design (UxD), interaction design, user experience strategy, service design, customer experience design… the list is endless. At the other end of the spectrum, design is being popularized with “design thinking,” which most designers regard as too superficial to be meaningful.
I have no formal design background, but I’ve designed things throughout my career because I usually end up doing things that haven’t been done before, and I prize efficiency. I love collaborating with designers and appreciate their difference. In my career, I’ve worked intensively with software engineers, product engineers, network engineers, bankers, marketers, management consultants, lawyers, brokers, chief executives and people in many other fields and disciplines.
In my experience, design is distinguished by its human-first approach, which starts by understanding the user, what s/he is trying to, and designing something to support him/her. The design process includes hypothesizing and testing. Many designers explicitly try to develop empathy with proposed users, and they focus on users’ emotions. They have high emotional intelligence due to their focus. This stands in sharp contrast to the professionals in other fields with whom I’ve worked, who tend to be more focused on their product or service and consider users later in the design process. They rarely talk about users’ emotions. Executives in business and government like to entertain the idea that people are primarily rational decision makers, when emotion wears the pants of the family. That’s why people respond so well to products, services and processes in which designers have had a prominent role.
Ethnographic research removes much of the risk of design because it studies users’ behavior within the context of the product, service or experience being designed. This is why it de-risks design; it offers deep and broad insight into user scenarios when the proposed innovation is most important. Stakeholders (users and others) are people who have the biggest impact on the adoption of your business. They have group conversations in digital public about the situations in which the proposed product/service/process is relevant to them. Stakeholders have desired experiences and outcomes for which they use processes, tools, products or services. They pursue outcomes in a sequential process called a workstream (akin to a journey). Ethnographic research of social media studies online communities and their stakeholders, workstreams, and outcomes to understand stakeholders and their needs for innovations.
Since design is a large and growing practice, here is a brief description of types of design arranged by capital expenditure/inflexibility—the “design stack”—along with how experiential/social can evolve the research processes and mitigate risk in each one. I’ve arranged them roughly in the order of the most to least constrained. One important detail to keep in mind about those with “experience” in their names: most thought leaders and practitioners I know assert that no one can “design” an experience because people have experiences. Experience is created by the user. Designers of all kinds try to affect people’s experiences by using affordances and other features.
- Architecture and Interior Design—Good architecture and interior design have always been grounded in the concept that users are interacting with a building’s exterior (interior) forms and features, but the pervasiveness of digital interfaces, games and virtual reality have made it even more obvious. Architects usually approach design from a community perspective, which is focused on people’s activities and interactions. Buildings are one of the most constrained things humans create because they are material and carry those physical limitations, and they are large and complex. It’s exceptionally difficult to make significant changes to buildings once they are completed. Therefore, research is exceptionally important when designing buildings. Ethnographic/social researchers increase the depth and breadth of research in architecture because they study proposed users (residents, employees, community members) of the environment in which the proposed building will be built. Working with the architects’ clients, researchers identify and prioritize users, then study them online. Their analysis significantly improves the effectiveness of subsequent analog ethnographic research of the proposed site (interior) and community around it. Researchers observe how proposed users move, interact, work, live, and amuse themselves in buildings of similar types and communities. They get qualitative and quantitative data on users’ frustrations with buildings, correlated with their outcomes and workstreams.
- Product Design—Today “product” can refer to an astounding range of things, but for our purposes here, I’m referring to a physical product that’s usually produced in large numbers once its design is complete. Products’ physicality and production process carry significant constraints that digital or virtual things and services do not, so it’s more difficult to flex and iterate, and teams depend on research to identify as many of the nuances of users’ use of it as feasible to minimize costly adjustments after production has begun. Ethnographic/social researchers study proposed users when they are having rich conversations about the outcomes they have when the proposed product adds the most value. Even when the product is a completely new type, users are helping each other overcome their frustrations and victories of that outcome (job to be done) and their workstreams (journeys) toward that outcome. Few social media data analysis tools provide in depth information on workstreams and outcomes; they specialize in relatively superficial mentions and sentiment. Ethnographic/social can study each phase of the workstream discretely to address all phases of the user experience. Since researchers focus on interactions that feature large numbers of users talking about outcomes and workstreams, results are less biased because they rarely interact with users, who set the context of the interaction. Also see Ethnographic Research for Product Management.
- User Experience Design (UxD) and Interaction Design—After architecture/interior design and product design, UxD has the largest number of designers, and corporate UxD positions are being created in large numbers as organizations are starting to understand that anything can be designed. UxD as a role can apply to a wide range of digital and analog products, services or experiences, but here I’ll constrain it to digital interfaces. It’s usually practiced within silos, focused on the interface of a system or device. Since the Web emerged in the mid-nineties, it has created the need for millions of web designers who are usually known as UxD people now, and mobile and smart devices explode the trend still further. Interaction design usually has a digital context, too. Digital services have the advantage of being far easier to adjust during the service management life cycle, compared to physical products. However, in terms of competitiveness, all players have that advantage, so it doesn’t differentiate in itself. Time to market is often crucial as is achieving critical mass to attain the status of one of the top three competitors in the category. Ethnographic/social researchers can boost the chance of a digital service’s fast successful adoption by discovering and validating proposed users’ desires and frustrations in the situations the digital service aims to address. Because SHs are engaged in many-to-many discussions, researchers discover and mine extensive tacit knowledge; SHs are very practical and transparent about what their outcomes are and every nuance of their workstreams, and they question and help each other, en masse, in digital public. This enables researchers to develop empathy with users, and it discovers unique ways the proposed digital service can add value. In addition, ethnographic results are holistic, which helps UX designers to see outside of their interface into many parts of journeys.
- User Experience Strategy (UX Strategy)—UX strategy applies the UxD practice at a more abstract level to address a much larger scope of the user experience. Where UxD is usually focused on a particular interface, UX strategy addresses a more holistic view of the user experience. Its business cases are often more explicitly tied to business strategy and profit, and they address multiple SHs and journeys in the value chain. Ethnographic/social researchers add even more value to UX strategists because they get qualitative and quantitative data on outcomes and workstreams of multiple SHs; for example, if the UX strategy team is driving omni-channel, researchers study customer experiences at multiple touchpoints as well as outcomes of retail management and staff in stores. Therefore, results de-risk design in numerous parts of the experience like mobile apps, websites, kiosks, stores, customer service and warranty. In addition, researchers can help prioritize investments because their quantitative data on multiple parts of the user’s experience indicates what users value the most.
- Service Design—Service design is more abstract and holistic design than those above. Service designers design processes that connect digital and analog touchpoints across the user experience. A “service” is any kind of request a person (customer) makes of another person (employee) or a machine or even a building. Service designers explicitly design services to serve people outside the company (customers) and inside (employees). They are increasingly being asked by clients to design entire businesses. Ethnographic/social research is transformative to service design: as with UX strategy, ethnographic researchers can address the entire SH workstream, and their findings are based on many more proposed users than traditional service design research. Researchers discover tacit knowledge about all phases of SHs’ workstreams and outcomes, which designers can use to build services.
- Customer Experience Design (CxD)—Customer experience design is like service design for the entire customer experience, so it’s the most abstracted and strategic of the group. It’s a rapidly growing design focus because product and service firms increasingly find themselves commoditized, so they need to compete based on experience. The Chief Customer Officer is a new corporate role in (mostly) mature firms that find themselves lacking in competitiveness because customers are not happy with parts of the experience. Customer experience as a practice recognizes that the siloed approach to firm operations doesn’t work: customers’ opinions of a firm are drastically affected by the weak parts of the organization because they sabotage the overall experience. CxD, therefore, addresses the organization as a whole and tries to align it with SH workstreams and outcomes. Ethnographic/social research is a necessity to CxD because it de-risks investments in all parts of the the organization where it affects customers’ experiences. Moreover, ethnographic results quantify customer pain points, so CxDers can prioritize investments. Firms that undertake customer transformation and digital transformation initiatives will find ethnographic indispensable to reduce their risks. Researchers study internal and external SHs because firms’ effect on customers’ experiences are the result of the holistic system. Moreover, ethnographic researchers study specific SHs’ experience with individual firms and compare them to competitors and substitutes.
Ethnographic Research for Design, Step by Step
- Diligence stakeholders—Launching a product, service or process often requires prolonged commitment, so make sure you understand who your stakeholders are, and rank them in importance to your business strategy. Who are the niches of people who affect your business the most? It’s often useful to think in terms of customers/users with the highest lifetime value, or donors, sponsors or volunteers if you’re a nonprofit. Perhaps key employees if you’re a rapidly growing technology firm. List and prioritize 3-6 stakeholders. It’s best to have a long list from which to choose; some of them won’t be discussing what you want in digital public; adoption is uneven among people. Note that your stakeholders are probably online, but they may not be talking about the workstreams you want in public. If they’re not in digital public and you have internal data on them (i.e. customer/donor/employee records), you can use ethnographic research to study internal data like CRM data, texts and emails.
- Stakeholder profiles. If you’ve done persona studies of some of your stakeholders, they can be a useful input, but most I’ve seen are too general. Otherwise, query people in your firm who know the stakeholders the best, and this is best done in groups because people can brainstorm with each other, and you’ll get better info. Include colleagues who have been stakeholders themselves. Describe their characteristics as best you can. Create stakeholder profiles. Aim for 4-8 profiles.
- Workstream profiles. You have selected stakeholders due to a powerful connection between them and your business. Customers buy more of your products/services when their outcomes are well served by your products/services. They want to get more value than what they paid you, even though they can’t often explain the value if you ask them; much of their experience of using your product has little to do with product functions and features. For example, they might use your product along with other things that frustrate them and compromise their overall customer/user experience. Their desired experiences and outcomes drive their workstreams. For example, someone considering plastic surgery wants to feel better about herself, to look better, to find a new romantic partner, and reaching the outcome requires the workstream. Create a workstream for each stakeholder profile. Outcomes roughly correspond to jobs-to-be-done, which is often used by design firms. All people who are involved with your product/service have their own outcomes and workstreams, and most are talking about their workstreams online. Stakeholder and workstream profiles should be a “minimum viable” effort that only serves as your starting point.
- Test/iterate profiles—Next, engage a colleague who is adept at working with keywords and SEO, or your SEO provider. His/Her role is to translate the profiles into complex searches that can filter digital social public and identify each stakeholder and workstream profile discretely. I have conducted hundreds of these processes, and it’s impossible to predict the outcome, except there are always surprises. Stakeholder and workstream profiles look like time-lapse photography because they get clearer with each iteration. You’re filtering the entire Internet within a language (sometimes across multiple languages, but I recommend starting small and addressing discrete markets/languages). Aim for simplicity because you want to pilot and iterate and scale based on real-world results.
- Locate and rank communities—Workstream profiles will show you where in the world (literally) stakeholders are talking about their outcomes that are most relevant to your products/services. Stakeholder and workstream searches will lead you to where conversations are deepest and richest. Select 6-12 communities, and study them. Note people’s aspirations, worries, and behavior. What do they say? Observe how they mirror and challenge each other. Use a social bookmarking system like Pinboard to save and tag individual interactions. Use mine as an example.
- Analyze findings—At this point, you’ll have hundreds of catalogued interactions that reveal stakeholders’ workstreams and outcomes, and you’ll know how your product/service/process can support them in attaining their outcomes in the most distinctive way. In your analysis, also note stakeholders’ attitudes towards products/services/innovations like your proposed one. What are their biggest frustrations and dreams? You’ll see your stakeholders as you’ve never seen them before.
- Ethnographic/social’s unique value for design—Ethnographic research of social media produces breakthrough results because it studies experiences and outcomes of your most valuable stakeholders, but it avoids the trap of most design research, asking people directly and forming hypotheses from small samples. It studies people when you’re not in the room; even though they know you’re there, they have created the community themselves, for their own reasons, so you’re a visitor there. Stakeholders by default are focused on their experiences and outcomes. Think of outcomes as the “what”; workstreams are the “how.” The how is more changeable, and it involves your proposed product/service/innovation.
- Using ethnographic/social to strengthen traditional design research—Ethnographic/social is biased toward stakeholder experiences and outcomes, so when you start with it, you understand their context. Use the results to inform the design of surveys, user tests, service safaris, interviews and focus groups, so you get more stakeholder-focused results. In addition, many brands build their own online user/customer communities to solicit customer feedback, and these can be useful; however, since the firm sets the context, such communities are biased toward the firm. Go to where stakeholders talk among themselves for emerging information; it’s the most stakeholder-focused information available, and it’s real-time, continuous, and scalable.
- For background on how I developed CSRA’s approach, see the Ethnographic Research of Social Media executive summary.
- Also see Ethnographic Research of Social Media for Product Management, for Social Media and for Business Innovation. For more use cases, see the Social Network Roadmap‘s use cases.
- More how-to information on using stakeholders, workstreams and iterating profiles in the Ecosystem Audit.