Ethnography: Information you want is often invisible

Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

IT takes a lot of courage to know oneself. Just imagine how hard it is to admit one’s weakness to a prospective employer or business partner. Surely, you may stumble for answers. That’s because you failed to anticipate all possible questions that the other party may raise, during the interview or negotiation process. If you don’t know the answers, that’s because you don’t know the questions beforehand.

But this is not the real issue. What if an employer or business people ask the wrong question, then surely, you’re almost guaranteed to give the wrong answer? Let’s simplify this. Think about one simple household question. “Why do farmers, traders and retailers sell packs of okra, mixed with young and mature ones?” If you like to eat boiled okra like me, then most likely, you’ll choose the young ones that can be eaten and digested easily, unlike the mature ones containing yellow-white strings that stubbornly hang in between your teeth.

With that, I can’t resist asking the question—why don’t they harvest young ones right away and sell them in separate packs? Or if they’re sure that there are buyers of mature okras for sour broth, then simply have them separate plastic bags. Of course, they know that mature okras are often rejected by consumers. That’s why they have to mix them with the young ones. Sometimes, I tend to believe that farmers, traders and retailers form a mafia trilogy conspiring to fleece consumers of more money.

Another question: Why does Chowking hide the stems of kangkong (water spinach) under its green leaves in a small platter with bagoong (shrimp paste)? Between the stems and the green leaves, which are more palatable? What’s the point? Does it make it plentifully appealing to customers when it is not? Most people don’t have the time to pay attention to this detail, or even the inclination to think very hard and come up with these questions.

Who cares, anyway? That’s the trouble. We tend to focus on the part of the problem that adversely affects us, rather than talk about okra and kangkong, which we hated much when we were young. But now, that we’ve become mature, professional and business-oriented, we hate the idea of farmers, traders and retailers conspiring to cheat us.

Let’s consider this a bit more, using ethnography as a parameter. But first, what’s ethnography? It is a science that helps discover human actions and social behavior based on what researchers observe during actual fieldwork. When applied to business innovation, ethnography is the practice of observing how customers choose, consume or reject a product or service in the place where it is offered.

For example, how many kangkong stems do you see that are often left untouched by customers? How about the size of bagoong servings? Again, how many of the stems are left after a customer consumes all the kangkong leaves? By applying ethnography to one’s never-ending quest to improve a product or service, you can discover ideas and opportunities on how to cut costs, if not create separate packaging for young and mature okras.

Observing customers on a regular basis provides you with many ideas. For best results, however, you may need trained ethnographer to spot and collect qualitative data in the field and analyze the results for reporting to a client.

Another question: Have you experienced fixing a lavatory at the dark portion of your basement? Surely, you need a flashlight. The trouble is that you need both hands to complete the repair of your basement sink. If you don’t have any choice, chances are, you’ll end up holding the flashlight in your mouth (assuming that it will fit) or asking a family member to hold it for you (assuming that you have one).

If you’re an ethnographer hiding in the same basement, trying to collect data, you’ll notice the difficult situation of the would-be plumber, prompting you to propose that Black & Decker create a snake light—a flashlight that can hold itself or be worn in the neck of a person, which the company did.

That’s the objective of ethnography—to uncover and define unarticulated needs of the customers. It is a strategic approach of proactive business people to uncover not only the conscious, but the sub-conscious emotional and biological needs of the customers.

Here’s the trick. Whatever problem you’re trying to solve, make sure you’re not just attacking the harmful side of the problem. It’s equally important to define the often unasked question or problem. Or better yet, redefine the question or problem. You’ll discover new ideas that come from the customers themselves.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


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