Digital ethnography: The next wave in understanding the consumer ...

Download Digital ethnography: The next wave in understanding the consumer ...

Post on 02-Jan-2017




1 download


  • A R T I C L E R E P R I N T

    Davis Masten, Principal, Cheskin

    Tim Plowman, Design Anthropologist, Cheskin

    Reprint # 03142MAS75This article will be published in DMI Journal Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring 2003Fusing Design, Strategy, and Technology

    Copyright Spring 2003 by the Design Management InstituteSM. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may bereproduced in any form without written permission. To place an order or receive photocopy permission contact DMIvia phone at (617) 338-6380, Fax (617) 338-6570, or E-mail:

    The Design Management Institute, DMI, and the design mark are service marks of the Design Management Institute. The DMI Journal is a trademark of the Design Management Institute.

    Digital ethnography: Thenext wave in understandingthe consumer experience

    Design Management Journal

  • The increasingly rapid migration oftechnology across geographic andsocioeconomic boundaries is a funda-mental constituent of the times inwhich we live. It is a process that takessubtle and numerous forms. Parentscan check in on their kids at daycareover the Internet by using X10 technol-ogy. Russian teenagers organize rovingraves through globally oriented blogs.American teens use Pringles potatochip cans to enhance the range of theirwi-fi-enabled PCs and warchalk thelocation (that is, mark on walls andsidewalks to indicate wireless accessareas). Students everywhere are learn-ing to surreptitiously text-message eachother in class using their cell phones.

    With the ever-lower prices of chips,disks, and memory, the continuing

    broadband revolution, and the devel-opment of new protocols, a newdomain for the elaboration of self andculture has emerged, and it is worthstudying. There has been considerableresearch on the social aspects of digitalcommunication, online consumption,and the Web as a social phenomenon.Social scientists, marketing profession-als, and product designers, however,have paid less attention to the opportu-nities presented by digital technologyfor understanding the lives of users andconsumers.

    We propose using the digital andwireless communication revolutions asplatforms for rethinking ethnographicprinciples, methodologies, and analysis.Our goal is to produce new, deep, con-tinuing, and rapid insights into peoples

    S U P P O RT

    In the search for market insights, Tim Plowman and Davis Masten maintain thatthe pathways to information should include PCs, cell phones, Webcams, globalpositioning equipment, digital cameras, and a growing number of other technologies.Structured creatively for self-reporting, passive observation, and participantobservation, these media can yield facts businesses can analyze to shape individualand strategic design decisions.

    Digital ethnography:The next wave inunderstanding theconsumer experienceby Davis L. Masten and Tim M. P. Plowman

    Design Management Journal Spring 2003 75

    Davis Masten, Principal,Cheskin

    Tim Plowman, DesignAnthropologist, Cheskin

  • lives and needs. We call this convergence andupdating of traditional methods with digitaltechnology Digital Ethno. The tools on the cus-tomer side are as ubiquitous as cell phones,PDAs, email, Webcams, SMS, GPS, and digitalcameras. For anthropologists and, specifically,for ethnographers, all these tools can fall into theclass of remote sensing devices.

    Remote sensing

    According to Paul Saffo, the director of theInstitute of the Future, in Menlo Park,

    California, this is thedecade of remote sens-ing. Computers andsensors are beingembedded in manydurable goods as amatter of course.Appliance manufactur-ers are embeddingcomputers into refrig-erators and ovens and,with the imminentadoption of newInternet protocols suchas IPv6, many of thesewill be Web-enabled

    and connected. As more and more of these toolsare produced and used, the price inevitablyplummets. Only a few years ago, the basic chipset for a hand-held GPS (global positioning sys-tem) receiver cost $3,000 or more. Now, its justa fraction of that price. With manufacturingcosts this low, GPS systems are being built intomany devices that we consider everyday tools,such as wrist watches and cell phones.

    This cost/volume relationship holds true for arange of personal technology and sensingdevices. Ubiquity and affordability make thesetechnologies more realistic as research tools.

    The Internet connection

    Many of these devices have been designed forstand-alone and single-task purposesmeaningthat when a motion-sensing plastic frog,designed in the US and built in Taiwan, calls outto you as you near the backyard pool, it is notconnected to anything. However, many nationsare moving into the deeply connected world ofthe global, networked economy. According toJohn Chambers, CEO of Cisco, the wired

    countries will be the ones with the fastest-grow-ing and most-productive economies. What thismeans is that many of the products and devicesthat we think of as stand-alone will achieve newfunctionality and utility by being connected to anetwork.

    We are only just starting to see examples ofthis networked world. These days, you can emailthe pictures you take to anyone with an emailaddress. In Hong Kong, your cell phone willnotify you when you are within range of aStarbucks and offer you a discount on a cup ofcoffee. In this case, your phone is tracked by thecellular ground station antennas, whichtriangulate on your location. In a striking andrecent example, T-Mobile Sidekick users aresharing their daily experiences via their hip-topdevices and the Web site, Hiptop Nation( As the Web andbroadband capabilities become increasingly likethe water and power utilities of today, remotedevices and similar technologies will be builtand connected into more and more commodi-ties. And, as the world becomes increasinglywired, it will become ever easier to conduct thetype of research we are proposing. There arealready at least 35 million Japanese using cellphones that are Web-enabled.1 Imagine if justone percent of them were participating in asponsored contest to uncover the next bigthing in street fashion, and as a result wereengaged in collective trend-watching. Or imag-ine if another one percent emailed pictures fromtheir camera phones to the local governmentand local media, visually and powerfully illus-trating a safety complaint plaguing their neigh-borhood while they were currently describing itover the phone. The paring away of institutionaland social distance and abstraction might havevery positive effects in a variety of contexts.

    Business discovers ethnography

    During the past five years or so, ethnography hasbeen widely embraced (and to a degree uncriti-cally co-opted) by the business world, and vari-ous attempts have been made to reconfigure itstechniques to suit business purposes. Butbecause these reconfigurations are still basedupon the ethnographic methods of anthropolo-gists like Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski,

    Fusing Design, Strategy, and Technology

    76 Design Management Journal Spring 2003

    1. Source:

    We propose using thedigital and wireless


    revolutions as platforms

    for rethinking

    ethnographic principles,

    methodologies, and


  • Alfred Kroeber, and A.R. Radcliffe-Brownpractitioners whose work is nearly a centuryoldinnovation within commercial ethnogra-phy is limited to its application in novel con-texts. Moreover, commercial ethnography as it istraditionally practiced means large-scale, com-plex projects, usually involving a multidiscipli-nary team made up of ethnographers,technologists, psychologists, and the like. Theseprojects are typically done for short periods oftime, given that it is very costly to establishbehaviors and accompanying analyses over peri-ods of much longer duration. Although Cheskinand a few other firms are fortunate enough to beinvolved in large-scale, global ethnographies,these studies, often done simultaneously innumerous countries, are frequently impracticalfor the industry at large.

    After developing a thorough inventory ofethnographic techniques appropriate to busi-ness-based ethnography, Cheskin divided theminto three categories of data-gathering: self-reporting, passive observation, and participantobservation. We then developed digital equiva-lents to these traditional methods, as well asentirely new methods of data capture.

    Introduction to Digital Ethnography

    In essence, Digital Ethno is the modern, digitalequivalent of traditional, Malinowskian ethno-graphic forms. The critical distinction is thatwhile traditional ethnographers physicallyimmerse themselves in distinct places and theircultures, digital ethnographers capitalize onwired and wireless technologies to extend classicethnographic methods, like participant

    observation, beyond geographic, as well as tem-poral, boundaries. This method is ideally suitedto documenting the fluidity and flexibilityalready distinguishing contemporary culturesand communities. Participants communicatetheir experience via the Internet and other digi-tal technologies. Digital ethnographers gatherthese details, whether theyre in the form ofwords, images, or audio files, and determinetheir significance as they are played out in thecontext of participants lives.

    Despite the fact that there is now a growingacademic literature and practice of what hasbeen called hypermedia ethnography or cyberso-ciology, we have largely had to forge our ownway in developing Digital Ethno.2 Much of thisprevious work concerns online ethnographyusing data-gathering methods such as site perus-al and online interviewing. These are generallytext-based techniques transplanted on to theInternet. They are not inherently digital.

    Digital Ethno concentrates more on howethnographic data gathering can be extended tothe Internet and wireless communicationdevices in new and creative ways, especially inlight of recent software, hardware, and protocoladoption. An extranet and WLAN can be keycomponents in the task of data gathering andanalysis. An extranet, for example, can serve as aplace to download and upload data quickly andeasily and provide a virtual locale and repository

    Digital ethnography: The next wave in understanding the consumer experience

    Design Management Journal Spring 2003 77

    2. Notable exceptions do existfor example, the Digital

    Ethnography Workshop at the University of California at

    San Diego, run by Edwin Hutchins (see


    Many people with access to the Internet are already engaged in elaborating their identity through new media: putting their lives on displayin both textual and visual terms. This combination of cultural and identity politics and new media has produced some interesting new cultur-al forms. Extreme examples include performance-art Webcasts of surgeries, births, and other intimate moments of peoples lives. A moremundane example might be pictures of a wedding. Digital photos from family vacations are published on the Web every day.

    On a more dubious note, the spread of reality-based entertainment, such as Survivor and American Idol, as well as thecontinuing proliferation of confessional and sensationalistic talk shows, coincides with the advent of technology adept at documenting anddisseminating peoples most intimate life details.

    Amid the confessional and identity-constructing activities occurring through digital media, the question of privacy forcefully emerges.There are still many issues to be sorted out with these new technologies, not the least of which is the question of the protection of ourprivacy. In using and advancing Digital Ethno, it is clear that the respondents have the rights to data outside our very limited uses. Theirlives are their own; we are only visiting with their permission. However, we are just at the beginning stages of determining what is appro-priate around the world, and issues concerning respondent privacy are being formally worked out, with reference to guidelines set forth byprivacy organizations.

  • for the project at hand.One complaint frequently heard about the

    potential of Digital Ethno is that the bandwidthis too narrow and thus, researchers miss the crit-ical aural, gestural, and kinesthetic cues of face-to-face interaction. As the price of remotesensing devices has fallen, so too will the barriersto getting at content-rich data. And this willhappen sooner in commercial ethnography thanin academic ethnography. The innovations thatare occurring on the data-gathering end areequally present in terms of deliverables:

    The potential for integrating visual and written

    media within the same technological environ-

    ment carries significant implications. It allows

    ethnographers to make the step from thinking

    of the visual merely as illustrative of argumenta-

    tion spelled out through the printed word, to

    seeing it as itself constitutive of meaning. This is

    an observation that visual ethnographers have

    been trying to press home for years. In fact,

    we need to consider seriously what hypermedia

    can do that a well-illustrated book or a well-

    produced film cannot. There are potential gains

    to be derived from exploring how ethnographic

    representation can simultaneously be a verbal

    and a pictorial, a visual and an aural activity.3

    While the above paragraph focuses on academicethnography as product, there is no reason whysimilar innovations cannot take place with regardto data gathering for commercial purposes. Themarket is awash with software and sharewarethat lends itself to the process (MacroMedia,NVivo, Shockwave, PhotoShop, Media Maker,Director, iMovie, CoolEdit, and so forth).

    Valentines Day: A case study

    In February 2000, Cheskin piloted the first non-proprietary Digital Ethno project that was donefor public consumption. The project focused onValentines Daya common cultural event, oneshared by North Americans throughout theUnited States and yet often hotly contested in itscultural meanings and personal significance. Inorder to test the method, we selected eight peoplefrom the San Francisco Bay Areasix involved inrelationships and two unattachedin order todigitally observe their Valentines Day prepara-tions and practices. In particular, we focused onparticipants attitudes toward and behaviors asso-ciated with contemporary Valentines Day icons:

    hearts, candy, flowers, and kisses.The team included two ethnographers. We

    used a wide variety of techniques includingemail, cell phones, digital cameras, chatrooms,online questionnaires, and digitized audiodiaries, among others to gather the data. Whilesuch a study would have been highly appropriatefor Tokyo or Rio de Janeiro, where distance andtime differences are major components, wedecided to keep the complexity to a minimumand scaled the project accordingly. A weekbefore Valentines Day, we asked the respondentsto fill out an online questionnaire gauging theirreactions to the four icons. We then sent themprompts via email over the course of the nextweek that asked them to engage in numerousactivities documenting their Valentines Dayexperience.

    Ethnography participants were required tohave access to email, a desktop computer, and acell phone. At the outset of the project, each wasgiven a digital camera to help gather critical visu-al data. All these tools were used by Cheskin torelay project-related tasks to the participants andfor the participants to submit their findings, visu-

    Fusing Design, Strategy, and Technology

    78 Design Management Journal Spring 2003

    3. Bruce Mason and Bella Dicks, The Production of

    Hypermedia Ethnography. Retrieved from

    I found a cupcake and a box of heart-shapedchocolates on my desk when I arrived atwork. The cupcake was from a co-workerwho bakes something for every holiday;the chocolate came from my manager.

    A basket full of socks, given tome by my girlfriend: a practical, iflast minute, gift. I think she musthave been wrapped up in someValentines Day survey and forgotabout Valentines Day.

  • al and textual. At no point did the researchersmeet face-to-face with participants. All interac-tions were conducted via email, telephone, or cellphone. The study proceeded as follows:

    Day 1

    Online Web survey of attitudes regardingcommon Valentines Day symbols and icons

    Email prompt for participants to locate anddigitally photograph (or download from theWeb) their ideal versions of the ValentinesDay icons and email them back, with briefdescriptions, to Cheskin

    Day 2

    Impromptu telephone interview via cellphone asking participants to share memoriesof Valentines Days past and the roles of theValentines Day icons

    Day 3

    Email prompt to photograph the ValentinesDay icons in their common contexts andemail these back with descriptions toCheskin

    Day 6Valentines Day

    Email to prompt participants to phone in averbal description of their Valentines Dayexperience and any Valentines Day iconsthey used or observed

    Day 7

    Repeat of the original online survey to tallyattitude change

    Online chatroom to discuss findings andinsights on Valentines Day practices andicons

    After Day 7

    Email survey asking each participant toreflect on his or her experiences of the study

    Summarized resultsOne noteworthy aspect of this study was theextent to which the respondents engaged in theirown analyses of Valentines Day. Participating inthe study forced them to think perhaps moredeeply than usual about the significance of theholiday. Accordingly, the study not only capturedrespondents ideas about Valentines Day, it alsoinfluenced their observations of the holiday.Moreover, the use of Digital Ethno techniquesmade the respondents true partners in the datacollection processmore consultants thanrespondents. While respondent partnership wasa clear goal in this particular project, digitalethnographers will need to manage for this typeof interaction in the future. It is easy to imaginepeople using their digital camera/cell phone atthe behest of a permission-based, randomizeddigital prompt, without knowing why they aretaking the pictures, thereby avoiding the respon-dent bias.

    Despite the small number of respondents andthe experimental nature of the methodology,Digital Ethno was able to provide rich insightsinto peoples experience, allowing the team toform notable conclusions. In brief, ValentinesDay is a paradox. It is seen as offering a meansby which we may demonstrate affection and truesentiment, but the very symbolic tools withwhich we are provided generally undercut anymeaning to our sentiments by virtue of theirclichd and commercial character. ThusValentines may be regarded as simultaneouslytrivializing love and enabling it.

    Those who celebrated the holiday generallyfound creative ways to circumvent the holidays

    Digital ethnography: The next wave in understanding the consumer experience

    Design Management Journal Spring 2003 79

    I chose this heart picture because of thetemporal nature of the hearts presentednot because of the larger temporal nature ofromantic love, but because if I found myselfcelebrating Valentines Day, it would bewith just such a gesture, and not bybuying things.

    the heart-shaped cookie[Richs] wife made. He gave us allthese adorable cookies with pinkfrosting. He said he tried to helpout but he botched them up andshe asked him to leave thekitchen. Its probably a way for hiswife to stay in touch with hiscareer/workplace while also doingsomething out of the ordinary.They looked cute, but I didntthink they tasted really good.

  • over-commercialized sensibility. They madetheir own objects or gave unusual ones. Theyessentially reinvented the holiday for their ownpurposes and to some extent ended up takingownership of the holiday. Thus, those whorejected the celebration of the holiday did so ontwo levels: they rejected the commercial version,and they also refused to reinvent the holiday.Those who were inventive in their celebrations(for example, I hide candy in my boyfriendssock drawer) were regarded by others as pro-viding tips on how to take control of the holidayand make it their own. The chatroom discussionallowed rejectors to see how the holiday mightbe made more meaningful through small actsnot usually associated with Valentines Day.

    Benefits of Digital Ethno

    By putting the power of participant observationin the participants hands, Digital Ethno enablesparticipants to convey the real-time richness oftheir own lives and environments. In theValentines Day study, we saw how a brokenbowl of oatmeal soured one respondents subse-quent Valentines Day experience, which herecounted the next day in a long, tragic digitizedvoicemail. To capture the meaning of a kiss,another respondent photographed herself kiss-ing her cat, Buster, which, she explained, ismore relevant than any other nonfamilial kiss ashe has outlasted many relationships. Two dayslater, we learned she had just parted with herboyfriend.

    Digital Ethno also realizes the possibility ofremote and simultaneous research. Researcherscan conduct the projects from a centralized loca-tion while the participants fan out into theirenvironments to observe their own practices, aswell as the practices of those surrounding them.Likewise, researchers can remotely observe allparticipants at essentially the same time, in thecase of our project, during the week prior toValentines Day. In this way, Digital Ethno is

    scaleable, even to transnational proportions.Time and place, not research constraints,identify the opportunities.

    The opportunity for scaleability should beunderscored here. While immediacy and contex-tually fueled reporting is a clear result of thetechnology and methodology, it can also provideongoing deep behavioral observation that wasnot efficient or even possible before due to thephysical constraints of the research observers.For example, highly-focused, longitudinal stud-ies might be designed around regular productinnovation cycles for a relatively low investment.In other words, the digital nature of the data col-lected can allow for deeper and richer analysis.Companies can develop Digital Ethno databasesfor their consumers, which can provide wonder-ful guidance for innovation over the long term.

    In addition, Digital Ethno has the capacity toinform strategy and design decisions at a morefundamental level. Companies routinely findethnography useful because it provides context-sensitive insights regarding existing processes,products, or services. One advantage of DigitalEthno is that it further enhances the benefits ofthose insights by allowing a company to investin comprehensive research further back in theproduct development process. Beyond an initialproject investment and equipment costs, DigitalEthno allows for radical expansion of scope withprototypes and stimuli at varying levels of fideli-ty. Typically, ethnography is expensive and labor-intensive. Digital Ethno enables a broaderunderstanding of factors such as culture, geogra-phy, and life-stage differences because of reducedfield costs. A company can use Digital Ethno to

    Fusing Design, Strategy, and Technology

    80 Design Management Journal Spring 2003

    As it stands, I work in a very creativeenvironment. This picture refers to the firstValentine card I received from one of my co-workers. She made some cards by hand andgave them out. I wont throw this one out.

    Interpretation: Theres something aboutflowers in a steel washtub that appealsto my sense of the absurd. Maybe peo-ple grow flowers in steel washtubs. Idont know. I like hokey combinationslike this. What does it say about humanbeings/love/Valentines Day? Perhapsthis arrangement appeals to peopleseeking a down home look forValentines Day, something thats nottoo pretentious. Homely, like a straydog? A little bit of class, a little bit ofHee-Haw?

  • robustly refine segmentations or even develop apowerful segmentation from scratch around alow-fi prototype in order to inform design strat-egy at a point well prior to commercialization.For example, embedded sensors and otherunobtrusive data-gathering tools could be usedfor a very large group of life-stage-differentiatedalpha testers to see how people are interactingwith a product on a continuous basis. Thismeans deeper insights sooner rather than later.

    Finally, Digital Ethno brings the participantback into the research process. Rather thansimply acting as sources of data, participantsactively share their findings and their insights onthe topic at hand. They become invested in theoutcome and, as a result, become more-activecontributors to the project.

    There are some drawbacks to Digital Ethno.Until consumer digital technology products likecellular phones, faxes, and digital camerasbecome common household items, we will tacklea steeper learning and logistics curve bringing theparticipants into the research process. Likewise,by putting the tools into the hands of the partici-pants, critical privacy issues must be tackled asthey arise in each distinct context (see sidebar).

    In an era in which mass production is givingway to mass customization and personalization,the benefits of Digital Ethno are evident.Increased consumer input into the design,product development, branding, and marketing

    processes will lead to greater production effi-ciency, more frequent innovation, competitiveadvantage, and perhaps even more responsibleconsumer, as well as corporate, behavior. Thesooner the inevitable merging of citizenship,politics, and consumption is recognized, the bet-ter off we will all be in our personal, as well asour professional, lives. Digital Ethno will onlyenhance the process whereby people vote withtheir dollars for designs and products they like.Those not listening to these new, more-relevantpolls will be left behind in the marketplace.

    Reprint # 03142MAS75

    Find related articles on withthese keywords:

    Suggested readings

    Correll, S. The Ethnography of an ElectronicBar: The Lesbian Cafe. Journal of ContemporaryEthnography, vol. 24, no. 3 (1995), pp. 270-298.

    Marcus, G.E. Ethnography in/of the WorldSystem: The Emergence of Multi-SitedEthnography. Annual Review of Anthropology,vol. 24 (1995), pp. 95-117.

    Nunes, M. Baudrillard in Cyberspace: Internet,Virtuality, and Postmodernity. In Style, vol. 29(1995), pp. 314-327.

    Paccagnella, L. Getting the Seats of Your PantsDirty: Strategies for Ethnographic Research onVirtual Communities. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication [On-line], vol. 3(1997), no. 1. Available at:

    Turkle, S. Virtuality and its discontents:Searching for community in cyberspace [40paragraphs]. The American Prospect [Onlineserial], vol. 24 (1996), no. 4. Available at: prospect/24/24turk.html.

    Digital ethnography: The next wave in understanding the consumer experience

    Design Management Journal Spring 2003 81

    I found it difficult to capture kiss-es. They are very intimate in gener-al. This is a picture of me kissingmy cat Buster. I must kiss him atleast three times a day, and wevebeen together 10 years. This is awhole lot of kissing! My kissinghim is more relevant than any othernonfamilial kiss, as [he has] out-lasted many relationships. And Ilove him a bunch, so its definitelyappropriate.


View more >