Qualitative research and innovation

Qualitative research is not generally considered “real” research, and this has terrible implications for innovation. Companies’ thirst for operational effectiveness begs for quantitative data. But quantitative data does not and cannot form strategy. Qual data are a key ingredient to strategy, or the development of new and differentiated products.

Many people are familiar with Michael Porter’s famous paper, “What is strategy?”  Porter famously argued that many companies mistake operational effectiveness for corporate strategy. Operational effectiveness, according to Porter, is about quality, productivity, and speed. It is about doing the same thing as others, but doing it better.

Strategy, by contrast, is about being different. It is about doing entirely different activities to deliver value to customers. Other authors have called this the “blue ocean” or finding a place in the market that is calm, unoccupied, and yours for the taking.  A “red ocean” is full of competitors, doing exactly the same thing as you are, and demanding ever higher performance.


Framed this way, it is clear that operational effectiveness relies heavily on quantitative data. How efficient are we? How do we stack up against the competition? How good are our products? How fast do we make them?

Operational effectiveness simply begs for quantitative data, and now that we have access to petabytes of passively collected data relating to productivity, quality, and speed, it is easier than ever to be operationally effective.

Or it should be. We know that quantitative data requires a great deal of cleaning, massaging, and managing, not to mention analysis, to make it useful for operational effectiveness.

The shift to data-driven operations has demanded a great deal of companies’ attention, mostly because data collection and analysis is not as easy as most think it to be.

But let us not mistake this for strategy.

There is nothing inherent to benchmarking performance that lends itself to strategic advantage. Quantitative data does not reveal how or in what ways customers are making their own workarounds. Quantitative data shows us how many products meet a particular standard, how many products are produced or sold, or how fast a company makes them. It can tell you the average satisfaction a customer may have, but it cannot reveal any of the detail behind that satisfaction.

In their insightful Harvard Business Review article, “An Anthropologist Walks Into A Bar,” Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen argue that qualitative research gives companies the ability to bridge the “complexity gap,” or what a study of 1500 CEOs revealed as their main challenge. Why do customers do what they do? You must do qualitative research to find out. And, by extension, you must do qualitative research to innovate.



Qualitative research is explicitly about revealing detail. Qualitative research shows how people are using products, or how these products sit and gather dust in the corner of the kitchen. Qualitative research, particularly field-based research like ethnography, offers that path to delivering truly different products.

Companies that do ethnography regularly uncover entirely new or different ways to deliver value to customers. Oftentimes, this is done unsystematically. Skillful product and brand managers know that observing everyday life can reveal the how and the why of product failure.

Nike is a great example of a company that is in touch with culture. Its marketers are largely acknowledged to be among the best in the world. Its product innovation is continual, and its brand equity is unparalleled. Even their lab-based researchers like the fabulously named Gordon Valiant are active members of the running community.  His lab-based practice is complemented by regular participation in running events, where he comes into contact with other runners.

Valiant conducts in-lab studies systematically, but observes human behavior in an ad hoc way. Imagine the advantage to companies that do this research systematically. Imagine having a steady stream of insight into real people and why they do what they do. Imagine having thick description of painful workaround work, and regular replenishment of unmet customer needs.

That can only come from systematic, regular, and rigorous qualitative research.

Compare that to a company tirelessly benchmarks its quality, productivity, and speed. The company with qualitative insight into human behavior will have almost limitless potential to do things differently, to deliver new products or services, to find entirely unexamined oceans of product innovations.

Yet we spend almost nothing on qualitative research.  Esomar, the international market research association, estimates that in 2013, corporations spent $6.6B USD on qualitative research, worldwide. The vast majority of money spent on qualitative research is on focus groups, but Esomar estimates almost $1.6B is spent on the more interpretive methods of in-depth interviewing and ethnography. This amount is dwarfed by the $32.4B USD spent on quantitative market research.

It could be argued that many companies need to start with operational effectiveness. Fair enough. But no company can survive on quality, productivity, and speed alone. It is too competitive a marketplace. Qualitative research, therefore, is a cheap way to guide the company toward different product offerings, and ultimately, toward innovation.


Design researchers must think fast and slow

Research into brain science some surprising insights for guiding research practice. These findings suggest that the scientific method constrains our natural creativity.
Too often, researchers take their cue from the scientific method. While this method undoubtedly changed the world and our knowledge of it, it is antithetical to the creative needs of a well-rounded researcher. It is especially problematic for design research, which requires creative solutions to existing problems.

Design researchers should embrace less structure and more openness at the early stages of product design, and rigor and structure in the mature stages of product sales. As sales drop off and the product loses its natural match to the culture, design researchers should once again embrace openness in their research approaches.

research phases

Generally, we think of research as the focused, systematic collection of data, over time, in keeping with a given framework or theory. In this view, research is intended to confirm or deny given hypotheses, and incrementally improve our knowledge about a given topic.

We know from the book Thinking Fast and Slow, however, that this research approach only serves one type of thinking. Thinking Fast and Slow author Daniel Kahneman tells us that “Type 2” or “slow thinking” is a disciplined, focused, kind of thought that roughly matches the deductive reasoning of the scientific method and other traditional forms of research. It is structured and deliberate, requiring the cerebral cortex.

But Type 1 or “fast thinking” is less structured, more instinctual, and involves the more reptilian parts of the brain. At first glance, fast thinking appears to be undisciplined or even lazy – the antithesis of the scientific method. But fast thinking produces creative and intuitive leaps that are impossible with the iterative, deductive, and controlled manner of slow thinking.

Design research both thinking fast, and thinking slow. Thinking fast entails creating novel combinations, unusual interpretations, or unique syntheses. Thinking slow entails systematic evaluation and the structured contribution to a body of knowledge.

Gifted researchers engage in both thinking fast, and thinking slow. As sociologist C. Wright Mills describes, a researcher must have her “files,” which is a set of unstructured, messy, and without order:



C. Wright Mills

…You will notice that no one project ever dominates [the files], or sets the master categories in which it is arranged. In fact, the use of the file encourages expansion of the categories which you use in your thinking. And the way in which these categories change, some being dropped and others being added – is an index of your intellectual progress and breadth. Eventually, the files will come to be arranged according to several large projects, having many sub-projects that change from year to year. [1, p. 3]


Anthropologist Branislaw Malinowski echoes this messy disorder when he describes what will eventually become his masterwork The Argonauts of the South Pacific:


malinowskiBranislaw Malinowski I estimate that my future publication will be voluminous, roughly three volumes of 500 pages each at 500 words per page. It will take me about two years to get the [manuscript] ready and see it through the press. My material is now a chaotic mass of notes. To work it out and put it into the right theoretical frame is perhaps the most difficult, exacting, and important stage of research. To work it out efficiently I must give it all my time. [2, p. 582]

Malinowski recognizes the “chaotic mass of notes” must be whipped into shape to become a manuscript, but he must first grapple with the disorder. This is precisely what psychotherapist Rollo May describes as the “creative encounter,” or the unstructured time an artist (or researcher) spends with her subject of study.



Rollo May

The first thing we notice in a creative act is that it is an encounter. Artists encounter the landscape they propose to paint – they look at it, observe it from this angle and that. They are, as we say, absorbed in itOr scientists confront their experiment, the laboratory task, in a similar situation of encounter.  [3, p. 39] P. 39


Consider also the “commonplace book,” or the kind of notebook great thinkers like John Locke and Charles Darwin used to organize their thoughts. As innovation author Stephen Johnson tells us, early modern readers did not read sequentially, but jumped around, setting the stage making creative connections.


Steven Johnson

The tradition of the commonplace book contains a central tension between order and chaos, between the desire for methodical arrangement, and the desire for surprising new links of association….Each re-reading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. [4, pp. 109–110]


In other words, researchers who allow themselves to read out of order, or to collect without regard for structure, are able to make creative, intuitive leaps. But researchers who fail to methodically manage their knowledge fail to close the loop of production. Researchers need to think fast and to think slow. They need to think broadly and think narrowly. Type 1 and Type 2 thinking translates into 3 kinds of research: exploratory (thinking fast), evaluative (thinking fast and thinking slow), and experimental (thinking slow).


Frequently, social scientists in particular focus on “rigor” as the solution to good research. But rigor without creativity adds little to our collective knowledge.  As Heideggerian scholar Carol Steiner argues, this “fore-structure” – or predetermined way of looking at the world – stops us from conducting innovative research and producing innovative things. Instead, innovative researchers, she found, are open to “Being,” or the ability to have experiences, people, and objects reveal themselves to them.

steinerCarol J. Steiner The innovators I studied seemed sometimes to be attuned to that old understanding of the relationship between Being and people…Losing faith in the scientific method has allowed them to understand themselves as other than knowledge-makers. Consequently, they often project an openness that allows them a different world to shine through for them, the public world. [5, p. 594]


In other words, researchers in particular must struggle against the “fore-structure” or their extensive theoretical and methodological training which interferes with receptivity. As Rollo May argues, being receptive does not mean lacking in rigor.

Rollo May The receptivity of the artist [or researcher] must never be confused with passivity. Receptivity is the artist holding him or herself alive and open to hear what being may speak. Such receptivity requires a nimbleness, a fine-honed sensitivity in order to let one’s self be the vehicle of whatever vision may emerge. [3, p. 80]


Rigor must be introduced later in the process – after the researcher becomes open to a vision, after the researcher grapples with the complexities of the data and their incongruence. Rigor often comes after a period of unconscious processing of the data.  Taking walks, playing, napping, and engaging in unstructured activity have all been shown to allow synthetic ideas to emerge.


Researchers should therefore use the scientific method with caution. Be aware of when you need rigor, and when you need creativity.






[1]      C. W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

[2]      M. W. Young, Malinowksi: Odyssey of an Anthropologist. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

[3]      R. May, The Courage to Create. New York: WW Norton, 1994.

[4]      S. Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2010.

[5]      C. Steiner, “Constructive Science and Technology Studies: On the Path to Being?,” Soc. Stud. Sci., vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 583–616, 1999.


A defense of private-sector ethnography

Below is the full text of my recent keynote at the 5th Annual Qualitative Report Conference! It was a 45 minute lecture, and the closing plenary for the conference. It was, in a sense, a preview of my book http://practicalethnography.com , which will be printed within six short weeks!

Here’s me presenting, via @techladytn



I then offered the reasons why private-sector ethnography is important.


Ethnographic research in the private sector is a critical step in creating products and services that work, that are meaningful, that answer real needs and makes real differences in people’s lives. The ethnographic method, many of you know, is more than simply a data collection method. It is, fundamentally, an epistemological position. Ethnography is about adopting the participant’s standpoint, to use Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith’s term. The participant’s standpoint transforms the ethnographer from a mere researcher to a person actively trying to empathize with another’s position in life.

It is about standing in her shoes and trying, deeply, to understand how she experiences the world. You are not studying the institutions so much as you are studying the participant’s experiences of those institutions.

This is why ethnography is important in general, but it is especially important in the private sector. Academic ethnographers have something private-sector researchers do not have: they have professional autonomy that is written into the cultural norms and sometimes even literally into employment contracts with universities. Private-sector researchers do not have this codification, neither do their colleagues who design, manage, and market products. There is nothing informally or formally encoded into private-sector practice that puts the CONSUMER first. But because ethnography has this unique epistemological position, it can shift that reality. It can make researchers, marketers, designers and product managers suddenly understand deeply the needs of consumers.

Ethnography necessarily involves empathy. Nursing scholar Teresa Wiseman defines empathy as having 4 attributes:

  1. To be able to see the world as others see it
  2. To be non-judgmental about what they see
  3. To understand another’s feeling
  4. To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings

Imagine if every product, made by every company was built primarily on empathy. We would have products that delight us, save us from harm, cheer us, calm us, identify with us. We would have products that value what we value, whether that be our children, our environment, our communities, or our parents. Ethnography gets us closer to that world where products fit with our values, rather than simply separate us from our money.


Ethnography does more than simply embed empathy into the product design process. It also has a very practical application. I use the practical specifically, because it refers to Heideggerian metaphysics. Heidegger argued that we have two ways of being in the world. Being “theoretical” is the use of specific methodologies, of rigid procedures, of closed, reductionist and myopic ways of seeing. He argued that “being theoretical” is to adhere to a theory about the world, instead of being open to what the world can reveal to you. Once you have a rigid process whereby you perceive objects and people, you run the risk of not discovering the world as it is.

By contrast, Heidegger argued we should be “practical.” By this he means being passively open to how objects and people inter-relate. This contrasts with the specialist’s way of being, which is determining beforehand how one should perceive things and people, not to mention measure or qualify them. Being practical is recognizing that things and people are assigned to other things, and are involved with other people.

This forms the basis of Heidegger’s philosophy of objects. When an object is “ready to hand,” we are using that object in its intended way. Its purpose in the world is revealed to us. Its meaning is not constructed by us or foisted upon it. The hammer only makes sense to us, Heidegger would argue, when we use it. The hammer is not just an object, created in isolation from the people who use it, and the wood that it hammers. The hammer gets it meaning from its context.

A hammer without people or wood means nothing. It is set adrift in a sea of meaninglessness. We cannot understand such an unhinged, decontextualized object. It might as well not exist.

Certainly we know of many products that are drifting in a sea of meaninglessness. Take, for example, pretty much any product from the incredible, existentially troubling magazine Skymall.


Skymall’s products are so titillating because they are so disconnected from the practical world. They trouble the very nature of our existence because they are so fantastically contrived. Skymall is an existential torture chamber because it brings us objects that have no connection to what we actually do in the world.

Not all products are on par with those in Skymall. No, most of them are just a bit out of touch with our everyday lives. They don’t fit into our houses. They have type that’s too small. They don’t connect to our other devices. They crash our systems.

Ethnography helps us escape from this existential torture chamber of meaningless products, because by its very nature, it appreciates the practical world. Practical ethnography brings to life the objects and people already in existence. It shows product designers where their product will live, and what it must do to fit there.

Practical ethnography is being both empathetic and embedded in the everyday world.


Jon Van Maanen is a veteran ethnographer. Many of you probably know of his work, particularly if you study organizations. In his book, Tales from the Field, Van Maanen noted in 1988 that ethnography was undergoing a shift. “Shifts within ethnography occur when, for example, new faces enter the filed, novel problems are put forth, funding patterns change or…new narrative styles develop.” At the time, Van Maanen was talking about the narrative style we’ve now seen in contemporary ethnographies like Gang Leader for a Day, the controversial ethnography of an academic entering the world of crime.

I would argue that we are at another juncture. Today we are seeing new kinds of problems relating to realities of a market virtually saturated with meaningless, useless, and even harmful products and services. It for this reason that ethnography has entered the private sector, to produce practical insights to help product designers, marketers, and even policymakers to produce better products.

Here I want to tell you a bit about what I and my colleagues do at Microsoft. This picture is me doing the pre-launch check, as it were, before entering an office. This study was an ethnography of startups. We recruited 19 companies, interviewed 32 participants, conducted 62 hours of observation and took 598 photographs. We visited four separate cities, and did iterative analysis after each visit. The project’s aims were to understand the norms, practices, and beliefs of startups, and to map their technological ecosystems.

The project lasted, from start to finish, just under 3 months. That included research design, fieldwork, analysis, and sharing of the report.

The goal of this project was to inform various teams within Microsoft Office about emergent productivity practices among startups. What we found was that startups were very strategic in their technology choices, and specifically, would choose technologies with open APIs, so that they might plug new tools existing their existing set of tools.

This has specific relevant results for Microsoft Office. My findings will be considered by designers when they are making design decisions about inter-operability. This is a real impact, from a real study.


Ethnography is practiced routinely in several fields in the private sector. Marketers and market researchers are conducted ethnographic investigations to communicate more meaningfully. Ethnographers are also part of a burgeoning “third sector” of social innovation, which is the goal of innovating products and services not just for profit but also for social good. And most especially, ethnographers are working in design. This is where I work. Design ethnographers work particularly in technology, which I’ll talk about, but also in industrial design.


But the major focus of applied ethnography today, and the brand of it that I practice, is design ethnography. Designers are often intuitive ethnographers, noticing systems that are broken, or dysfunctional. This is where great design usually comes from: the kernel of discomfort a designer feels when trying to use an existing product.

But notice I say what the designer feels. Designers are no different than most human beings – they have difficulty with seeing things from other people’s perspective. Their natural inclination is to be intuitive, but not necessarily empathic. Ethnographers can and do help designers have a more systematic and practiced method of reflection and standpoint. In my own work, for example, I champion the extreme user. I work directly with designers who are building prototype technologies, but who are continually challenged to avoid designing things they just think are cool. Instead, I take them into the field with me to see how lead users are currently hacking and modding products to suit their own purposes.

Many of these extreme users are not the norm, and will never be. It’s a hard sell to suggest that the average person will hack all of her products that she buys. Hell, she doesn’t have time to do that.

But my role is to give designers a sandbox to play in. I define the design territory for them. I uncover the objects and people that already exist out there, in the world, and I show them what kinds of new products will fit there, and which ones will not.


Now I know what you’re thinking. How is this ethical? How can an interpretivist sociologist defend corporate product design? That is an excellent question. And I have an excellent answer.

First, it’s a myth to think that academic ethnography is somehow more pure than practical ethnography. Academic ethnographers have something to gain from doing their studies, namely, journal articles, books, and ultimately tenure. If that’s not personal gain, I don’t know what is.

Secondly, the market deserves to be treated as the cultural phenomenon it is. Market activity is one of the purest forms of human expression, and simply because we think it is prone to the corrupting influences of capitalism does not mean that it should be disregarded wholesale. No, market activity deserves the same lens that everything else receives, and its actors deserve to be treated not as victims of false consciousness but as authentically motivated actors, enacting the cultural activities of their time, namely, market activities.

That said, however, there are limits to how market-based ethnography should be practiced. We must actively reject the notion of deceit. All too often in market research, stakeholders believe that to reveal the company name is to “bias” the result. Given this audience, I don’t think I need to tell you that being “unbiased” is truly impossible. It is the positivist preeminence in the private sector that creates such a view. Deceit is not required for good research, and worse, it can be corrosive. If ethnographers serve only to sell more products, they are not “being practical,” but being theoretical. Their theory is about making money, not about being open to the authentic meaning and experiences of average consumers. Deceit is self-defeating, so deceit cannot be defended in the private-sector ethnography.

As I discuss in my book, we should aspire to do more than “do no harm.” We should actively try to do good. Doing good like stopping sexism in advertising. Doing good like making technology that actually serves people’s needs Doing good by designing products that are sustainable.

In a sense, you could argue that it UNETHICAL to NOT do practical ethnography. Without practical ethnography, products and services have no context, no empathy baked in, and no way of fitting into real people’s lives.

So can ethnography be ethical if its goal is to pursue profit? Yes, provided that its primary goal is to elicit empathy with people and understand the world in which the product will live. If ethnography is perfunctory and merely pays lip service to these ideals, it is not ethical. But if it does elicit empathy, and paint a holistic picture of people’s worlds, and just so happens to achieve a profit? Well that’s gravy.

How private-sector ethnography differs


There are differences in how ethnography is practiced in the private sector. Two main differences come to mind. First, the timelines in the private sector are rapid. And second, it is practiced in a context where positivism reigns supreme.

Timelines are short. Typical projects last about 6 weeks. This means there is very little room for the creative expressions of data analysis that we’ve seen here, because every moment must be accounted for and managed. Project management is the quintessential profession of today, with its emphasis on scheduling and budgeting.

But also, the private sector also has a particular “truth regime.” I use the word truth regime, it’s a Foucaultian term describing the ways in which truth claims are made. The private sector – and most universities – have scientific truth regimes. Truth is spoken by experts with the right training. It is communicated in positivist terms, and in charts, graphs, and numbers. This is probably familiar to everyone here, but in the private sector you can’t just hang out with the cool kids like we are doing today – sometimes you have to deal with the nerds and the jocks. Positivism’s cultural dominance makes the outputs of private-sector ethnography more constrained.

So culturally, the use of creative collection and analysis processes are prohibited. But even in the academic sector, it’s practically prohibited, due to our increasingly “taut” time schedules, which are architected, constrained and controlled.

Does private-sector ethnography suck?


There are real problems in private-sector ethnography. It is often practiced by those untrained ethnographers, like designers and market researchers with no background in theory much less method. This means the norms set in the private sector, well the bar is very low.

Another big shortcoming of private-sector ethnography is that it rarely results in a full text, such as book or even a monograph. This creates a real challenge from archiving and knowledge building. The praxis of ethnography can be pushed and pulled and stretched in the private sector, but it will not be the source of new theoretical grounds.

Future directions


Future directions include using it in strategic decision-making, and even corporate social responsibility. But I need you to help here.

Reach out to practical ethnographers. Consider attending EPIC (Danny Miller did this past year and it was great). Encourage your students to go to the private sector. Send them to the AnthroDesign list. Get them working with designers, and start them with the idea that if you are forthcoming, honest, and seek to do good, working in the market context is not inherently bad or evil.

See more information on my book:

Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnographic Research in The Private Sector