Innovation Strategies Summit: Ethnography and new product development

During the past year, I've heard some references to ethnography in the blogs that I read. But I confess that I never truly understood what it really means until I heard several speakers at the Innovation Strategies Conference explain how they're using it as a major component of their new product development processes.

During the past year, I’ve heard some references to ethnography in the blogs that I read. But I confess that I never truly understood what it really means until I heard several speakers at the Innovation Strategies Conference explain how they’re using it as a major component of their new product development processes.

Simply put, ethnography – as it applies to innovation – is the process of doing observational research, going into the field to watch how customers utilize your products. Often used in consumer new product research, ethnography is an excellent way to uncover new opportunities for product improvement.

For example, speaker Pam Rogers, who is corporate director of global customer excellence and innovation, explained how the inspiration for a pedestal/storage unit for its Duet front-loading washers and dryers came from observing a woman who had placed her Whirlpool dryer upon cinderblocks, to make it easier to load and unload it without having to bend over.

Another speaker, Becky Walter director of innovation design and testing for paper products giant Kimberly-Clark Corporation, explained how their products (toilet paper, feminine napkins, incontinence products) tend to be discreet – that is, it’s difficult to do first-person observation of customers using some of its products. To solve this problem, K-C has developed a device that looks like a pair of eyeglasses, with a small video camera and microphone embedded in it. This ingenious device enables K-C product developers to see what the consumer sees as he or she is opening up a package and using the product. Becky showed a brief video clip of a consumer trying to figure out how to open a package of femine napkins, for example. It was as close as you could get to “real” product use.

Why is ethnography increasingly favored compared to traditional focus groups? The speakers explained that consumers, when taken out of their normal context where they utilize a product, often can’t remember much when questioned about it. Watching them use the product in its normal context (for consumer products, usually in the home) yields much more useful data, and recording them gives the product development team valuable footage that they can show to senior management to justify investments in product and packaging improvements.

If you’d like to learn more about ethnography and new product development, here are some excellent articles that I found:

In short, ethnography is a critically important tool for new product development teams, especially for companies that market and sell consumer products.

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