Blog: Video ethnography

Catherine Sleep | 6 September 2004

I took part in a fascinating session last week at the Design Council on video ethnography, focusing in particular on how it could be used to assess the usefulness or otherwise of food packaging. For those of you who don’t yet know much about video ethnography, it’s a sophisticated market research tool which involves participants allowing researchers into their homes to follow their actions for several days with a video camera.

It is more sophisticated than conventional market research in that it looks at people in context in their real environments, not false scenarios. It also looks at what they do, rather than what they say they do, and is powerful in uncovering latent or unarticulated needs.

Video ethnography is typically used as an evaluative tool or a generative tool when developing new products. In the former instance, the research would seek to understand how a product is used in the home, or how the prototype of a new product meets the needs of a target consumer. In the latter case, it would be used when a product does not yet exist, to observe how consumers operate in the area in which the new product would compete, and help fuel a brainstorm. We did some exercises looking at video clips and even a superficial brainstorm around a table demonstrated how useful video material is in providing information about product use that the participants would almost certainly have been unable or unwilling to identify themselves.

Unsurprisingly, video ethnography is not terribly cheap, and it takes time. It is vital that the participants are agreed to be representative, and that they remain ignorant of the specific objectives of the study until the latter stages, when the researcher will interview them to ‘co-discover’ information and opinions. It also requires researchers who are unbiased and can mix with participants in a way that allows them to relax and carry on about their normal lives.

If you’re involved in NPD and you want to know more, check out the site linked below. Naked Eye is an ethnographic research company that led the session I attended, and its director Nick Leon is a veritable mine of information on the subject.

Naked Eye


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