The Big Impact of Small Data: Problem Solving through Ethnographic Research

You’re probably familiar with the iconic Heinz Ketchup glass bottle. Maybe you had them in your home as a kid, or maybe you’ve just seen them in diners.

Either way, ethnographic research is the reason you don’t see them much anymore.

Heinz wasn’t looking to change their bottle design, but while they were conducting in-home observations of families at dinner, they noticed that the kids were struggling to get the ketchup out of the bottle. The parents took over, dishing out a small dollop onto the plate.

The Heinz folks knew that kids consume 60% more ketchup than adults, and suddenly realized that the glass bottle design was creating a major barrier for their key customer. Using this information, their design team created a plastic bottle that was easy for children to use, and voilà! Their sales went up 12%, and within a few years the new package was so popular that the glass bottle was discontinued at retail.

Heinz would never have known to make that change, if they hadn’t directly observed their customer in a real-world environment.

This is the heart of user experience design (UX) – making sure that the products (or services) that we’re offering the world are meeting true customer needs, not hypothetically but in real-world situations.

Even if you have the most creative, thoughtful designers and developers, the best way to be sure that you’re getting it right is to observe real people in real-world situations, what we call ethnographic research.

Here are a few ways we go about it.


Immediate Feedback

Digital diaries offer an opportunity for respondents to record their immediate experiences of your product (or service), in the form of uploaded pics, recorded audio files, videos, etc. In the past few years – in the past year, especially – people have become increasingly comfortable capturing and sending digital snippets of their lives, which makes digital diaries an easy tool for ethnographic research.

The power in digital diaries is that you’re afforded a detailed look at a real-time experience. Let’s say you’re interested in developing a better electric toothbrush. You’ll want to see how they handle it, any awkwardness they experience turning it on or changing the settings, whether they actually use it as instructed, if they notice any pain or tickling, etc. And you’ll want to ask them questions in real time about their experience – all of which can be done via a digital diary.

Additionally, you get to see the respondent using the toothbrush in the privacy of their own home. That may be not be critical when it comes to dental hygiene, but it can be very important when you’re trying to get information on particularly sensitive or personal subjects (ask us about our feminine hygiene study sometime, or click here and scroll to “The time we customized an app…”).

So, an electric toothbrush is a very simple example. More complicated products reap even greater benefit from seeing how people interact – or don’t – with various features. The information you glean can help you take a good prototype to a truly great final design.

Another way to get immediate digital feedback is through text surveys, short surveys sent via text message, triggered at a particular time of day or by specific actions. Using precise geolocation tagging, they can even be sent out when the respondent’s smart phone pings that they’re shopping a particular store.

Text surveys are great for tracking retail experiences, clearly, but the applications go beyond the commercial sector. For a social services nonprofit, for example, a text survey could be sent to a client immediately before and after they utilized a service, asking them to answer a few simple questions about their feelings, expectations, and satisfaction as they move through the process. Because the client is responding more or less in real time, you end up capturing details they may forget or let go of if you tried to survey them later.

This information can be used to improve the service itself, uncover barriers to access, and identify any points in the process that may cause confusion, frustration, or even shame. All of which can be critical for allocating hard-won resources effectively and providing the most benefit to clients.



When we want to measure actual behavior, rather than stated behavior, we turn to biometrics.

For example, we use eye-tracking tools – usually special glasses – to follow exactly what people are looking at as they scan an item, and how long they stay focused on a particular spot. These tools are used to monitor engagement with websites, apps, ads (both print and video), and retail shelves.

For example, in the booming and highly-competitive financial technology industry, success is dependent on the creation of secure, informative, user-friendly apps, that provide the right set of services without being overwhelming.

Eye-tracking can show fintech designers exactly where their app is attracting and engaging the user (literally eye-catching), and where they may be getting bogged down. It can also monitor points where their eyes are flicking across the screen, searching for something that is unclear or may be missing entirely.

Combined with direct questions about the respondent’s experience, eye-tracking provides powerful data to advertisers and UX designers, especially when it comes to making videos, websites and apps more compelling and user-friendly.


Time-Tested and True

You may have heard about supermarket psychology. If not, the basic premise is that supermarkets use as many tricks as casinos to keep you happy and moving to the center of the store, where you’re likely to spend more money on higher-margin items.

One of our mentors – Leo Shapiro – helped pioneer supermarket psychology, when he created a “mood meter,” a device that would allow respondents to indicate precise moments when they felt happy while shopping the store. This data allowed him to help early supermarkets design layouts that would take a customer along a subtle emotional journey, resulting in a higher spend.

This was used in conjunction with a shopalong, a time-tested method, where an interviewer and a respondent go to a retail store together. The interviewer hangs back, allowing the respondent to browse as naturally as possible. At certain points throughout the excursion, the interviewer will ask the respondent targeted questions about their experience, getting real-time feedback on what they’re thinking and feeling as they shop. They can design their stores to make them easy to shop and easy to spend.


A Final Story

Observing how people use your product and service in real-world situations can have exceptional results for customer loyalty and purchasing, and for solving problems that you might now know your clients are facing.

A few years ago, pediatric dermatologists noticed that they were seeing babies over and over for the same condition, a rash that was easily treatable by a prescription cream. The doctors were puzzled, because these were clearly attentive, caring parents, but for some reason, they weren’t applying the cream consistently enough to help the rash clear up.

So, the doctors got curious and studied the problem.

The answer turned out to be simple, but not obvious. The prescription was for one large tube of cream. But the lived experience of caring for a baby involves home care, and daycare, and grandparents, and multiple bags, and god help you if that one tube gets left someplace, or lost in the shuffle.

What parents really needed was several smaller tubes: one for each setting or bag, and a couple extras in case one went missing. That way, they’d always have a supply on hand.

An incredibly simple solution, which – if implemented – could significantly improve lives. But it took fully understanding the real-world implications to get there.

That’s the power of ethnographic research.

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