A practitioner’s guide to running successful ethnographic research with clients present

31 May 2017
Tom Knoll

Author: Tom Knoll

Wannabe Ghostbuster. Dedicated Researcher.

As a researcher, I love ethnography. It’s a fantastic research method that gets me out of the lab and into a participant’s real-life environment. This allows me to gather rich feedback about context of use, which is not always possible to replicate in an artificial environment. Good ethno takes a lot of planning. There’s the logistics of transporting and setting up the necessary equipment in a short space of time and ensuring that you are respectful of the fact that you are in someone’s home or workplace. But one element that is often overlooked when planning ethnographic research is managing clients, and that is what I’m going to discuss here.

In this blog post, I’m not going to talk about the basics of ethnography or provide a ‘top 10 tips’ style list. For that there are numerous great resources out there (including an excellent podcast from our very own Richie Kennedy). Instead, I will focus on the best ways to run ethnographic research when you have clients attending the sessions with you. Clients are, of course, a vital part of what we do, but when it comes to ethnography, however good their intentions, clients can unknowingly interfere with the collection of reliable data.

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When a company commissions you to undertake ethno research, they’re often keen to send a few of their own representatives along to observe the sessions. Typically this will be the project owner or a few people from the research and design team. This should definitely be encouraged! Having clients present when the research takes place allows them to get first-hand experience of the kinds of challenges that their customers are facing. This means you will have valuable allies when it comes to reporting and defending the findings to senior stakeholders. In addition, clients are usually really excited to be a part of the research as it’s something that they don’t get to be involved with very often.

However, having clients present when conducting ethno research can be a double-edged sword. Often their enthusiasm can unknowingly put the research findings in jeopardy. In the past I have experienced sessions where the client representative has effectively (but unintentionally) tried to hijack the session for themselves by asking their own questions. This may not sound like too much of an issue considering that it is research for their company, but often these ‘off-piste’ questions are asked in a leading way or are unethical in nature. This kind of behaviour also has the potential to disrupt the flow of the session and can lead to the research team forgetting to ask vital questions.

It’s your job as the researcher to make sure this doesn’t happen! Ethno sessions can be tricky enough as it is without having to worry about a client whose behaviour (however innocent their intentions) is spoiling your rapport with a participant. Try to politely remind them that they are there to observe. You are the professional researcher and it would be best for the research if you handle the majority of the interactions with participants.

 

So, who should attend ethno sessions?

As already mentioned, it’s vital that clients are able to get involved and see how their customers interact with their product or service in the real-world. That’s why we run ethno research in the first place! But please also bear in mind that you don’t want to have too many people in attendance. Having lots of people in the participant’s home or workplace is likely to make them uncomfortable and could jeopardise the validity and reliability of the findings.

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Generally, I recommend having no more than three people attending ethnographic sessions, and this will normally include a researcher and their assistant. This means that there is typically only space for only one client. You should make your client aware of this early in case they were planning to send an entire team of people. It is also worth noting that you could offer the role of research assistant to one of the attending clients, which would mean that they can have two representatives present. It is also worth pointing out to clients that you will record the ethno sessions where possible and share these videos with them so that they can still observe.

 

Meeting the participant at their home or workplace.

So, you’ve worked out who is going to attend the research sessions and you’ve made it through the front door of a willing participant’s home. The first thing that you’re going to have to do is introduce everyone. I find it better not to mention to the participant which company the attending client is from. This helps to avoid biasing their behaviour during the session. Instead, I often introduce them as “a colleague, who will be taking notes during today’s session”. Please also ensure that everyone is respectful when entering a participant’s place of work or home. For example, remember to take off your shoes and do not take phone calls that are unrelated to the session.

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You’ll probably be offered a cup of tea by the participant (and if you’re very lucky, a biscuit!). I find it useful to accept this offer as it tends to give the interview the feel of a friendly chat rather than a formal interview. Also, whilst the participant is making the drinks, you can be setting up your equipment. You will only have a small window of access to participants (typically around an hour) so don’t be afraid to ask any attending clients to help set up equipment and stimulus materials. Remember, the quicker you are able to start the session, the more precious findings you are able to collect!

Before the start of the session, I highly recommend that you handle the signing of non-disclosure agreements and issuing incentives yourself, don’t rely on your client for this. If they forget, there could be serious implications.

 

Once a session is in progress

This is the part of the research where it is important to ensure that all attending observers know the role they will play. Your clients are going to have questions for the participants, but it is vital that you, as the lead researcher, control how these questions get asked. In order to make the most out of the sessions, I recommend following these guidelines:

  • In the weeks leading up to the research, you will have created a document that contains an outline of the topics you will cover and the questions you plan to ask participants (sometimes called a ‘study design’ or ‘task list’) and you will have shared it with your client for approval. Make sure that you gather input and feedback from your client in good time before the start of the ethnographic sessions. This will ensure that a high proportion of their questions will be covered during the sessions.
  • As you work your way through research sessions, your client is likely to come up with additional questions based on the findings that have come out so far. Make sure to check with your client prior to the start of the next session about whether they have any additional questions, so that they can be asked at the most contextually relevant time.
  • Let your client know that if a question comes to them while a session is in progress, they should write it down and try to wait until the end of the research session. This will ensure that you have covered all of the agreed material first.
  • Finally and most importantly, Ensure that you have briefed your client that if a participant is reluctant to answer a question, they must not put pressure on them to answer. It would be highly unethical to make participants to feel uncomfortable in their own homes. This is unfortunately something that comes up fairly frequently for this type of research and it makes the atmosphere very awkward and can lead to the participant terminating the session early. If you notice a client trying to pressurise a participant into asking a question that they are not comfortable with, you need to step in immediately and divert the conversation in another direction. I find something like “We can come back to that later…” or “Let’s move onto something else…” works quite well to get the conversation back on track.

 

Once the ethnographic sessions have ended.

Once a session has finished, don’t be afraid to ask your client to help collect all research materials, equipment and join you in thanking the participant for providing access to their home or workplace.

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Ensure that you make it clear during the planning stages that once the research session has finished and you have left the participant’s workplace or home that the client must not attempt to contact the participant again without first speaking to you! The participant will have already been incentivised for their time and may not want any further contact once their agreed participation has come to an end. Remember, if you have handled recruitment on behalf of your client, then they may not be aware that they are not supposed to contact participants outside of the research sessions, so make sure you remind them of this up front!

 

Final thought
Whilst this article may have come across as rather strong in places, I should emphasise that the vast majority of ethno sessions with clients go incredibly well, with researcher, participant and client enjoying themselves. The insights that can be gathered via ethno research are invaluable, especially where you are testing a product that will be used primarily ‘in the wild’. Through planning and careful consideration of the unique challenges of having your client right there with you during data collection, you can ensure that everyone leaves your sessions happy.

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