5 reasons why ethnography is not going to become mainstream anytime soon

It seems that since design thinking and lean startup methodologies have a “talk to potential customers to validate” component, it may seem that ethnography is becoming mainstream.

It isn’t.

In my opinion, of all the innovation techniques available to an innovation practitioner, entrepreneur, marketer or business leader none is more important than getting out on the field and observing people in their domains. And, we have ways to go before this ever becomes mainstream.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • We must overcome the belief that spreadsheets lead to innovation. Most executives like graphs. The problem solving methodology known as design thinking (mainstream) has brought ethnography to the fore. I would say that ethnography, in a more natural way that any non-researcher can act, will only become mainstream if executives do it. Still, that is a tough challenge to crack because executives have always preferred looking at excel worksheets, presentations with numbers and the like; not observations made on the ground.
  • The illusion that Big Data holds all the answers. Again, even though ethnography dominated methodologies like design thinking and Lean Startup have entered the C-suite, Big data is dominating the agenda right now. On top of it, executives may start to believe that investing in automation is a more viable strategy than empowering people to become innovators.
  • Innovation isn’t about coming up with cool stuff. Innovation isn’t just about technology, and I would argue that it is where should be less focused on. The way brands interact with people is severely disjointed and does not fulfill people’s needs the way they expect. Going out and understanding how disjointed an experience looks is the job of a person who wants to understand people.
  • Everyone wants innovation, but not many want to take the steps to nurture it. Short-term thinking is to assume and build strategy inside the walls of a conference room. Again, the steps one must take to innovate is to get out of the building and have contact with the customer.
  • Silos incorporated. If only a few people in the organization go outside the building, why should anyone else do it? Silo thinking is still pervasive. Social business isn’t
    going to change that anytime soon.

The bottom line is that, just like experimentation, going outside the building and observing people in the natural habitat is an activity only a special few do consistently.


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  • Kevin McFarthing

    Excellent article, Jorge. Observing and understanding consumers is the real key to generating insights which in turn provide inspiration for innovation. I agree that executives should get out and about, with one caveat – it should be routine, not a one-off. Otherwise the executive believes that the one observation they make, often out of context, becomes the insight on which a major innovation is developed.

    The companies that do what you describe above will get it right, and be one step ahead of their “big data” competitors. Data is important, but insights differentiate. A blog on this coming soon….


    • Hi Kevin,

      Thanks. You are right, it should be continuous, part of the daily conversation, and expected.

      Looking forward to the blog post. Let me know when it is up 🙂



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