Monday, September 28, 2009

What is ethnography and how does it provide customer understanding?

Years and years ago me and a mate (he now runs dotcom startups in Silicone Valley) joined NOP to set up a unit called, DSi. It stood for, this is the honest truth, 'Department of Silly Ideas'. You see, in 1993, video taping people was a truly silly idea to most researchers. Today it's an essential part of any agencies array of tools.

Today, NOP and GFK are as one and they have an ethnographic unit which is no longer called DSi. I stumbled across their website. My instant reaction? Wouldn't it be great if we could all agree on what ethnographic research is and how it works for clients?

Some of what is explained on the site is good, but I don't agree with most of it and I haven't got the time to explain why because I need my sleep for an all day project kick-off workshop in Paris tomorrow. No this isn't a copout.

So stay tuned for my full response or let me know what you think ethnographic research should be to clients.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Good idea of the week

Varinder, my wife, has disappeared to the UK with our baby daughter to help the accountants with various... let's say accounting things. She has driven to Kent from our home just outside Brussels in our VW Touran all by herself.

I have been left home alone to school, feed, homework assist, bathe, arbitrate, dress and transport our five year old twin sons to school in our Toyota Prius.

While she's away I have decided to surprise her and buy a cot for our daughter from Ikea. She has been sleeping between us since her birth 4 months ago. So I went online and browsed what was available. Some great cots, very reasonably priced. I want to go and buy one. The only problem is that I'm not sure if everything will fit in my Prius. Will it? Won't it? What if I go all the way there, pay for it and find it's just too big and have to come back home empty handed?

So I thought to myself, wouldn't it be great if next to each product was a silhouette of the smallest sized car the item would fit into. Even better if I could drop everything into a basket and then find out the minimum sized car they could all fit into.

I call this an unarticulated need. Something I would never have shared with anyone because it was trapped in an anxiety/distress bubble rather than a 'solution' bubble.

Is Ikea reading this?


(UPDATE: I bought the cot and managed to fit it into my Prius. See picture. Pure chance.)

The day I became a film producer

A few years ago a client approached us about conducting ethnographic research on the subject of black skin. The markets were to be South Africa, Brazil, UK and USA. At that time, and given the sample size, it was the largest project we had ever undertaken.

As soon as it was confirmed, I flew to NY for the Kick Off session. Surprisingly, despite writing a proposal with objectives and outputs, there was no clear brief. Well, there was a brief, but nobody could really agree on what the essence of brief should be. So I was asked to re-propose to include a 2 week exploratory trip, alone, to each of these markets. I was to meet and interview a range of potential subjects, experts and commentators in order to come up with a final 'brief' we could all agree on.

Four weeks elapsed and I returned with a presentation around 30 slides thick incorporating the most amazing brief which I knew they would fall off their chairs for. I presented it to a room full of agency planners, clients and agency creatives.

They all hated it.

Nobody said it, but it was clear they felt I had wasted 2 weeks and £20,000 to come up with a bad idea. I even thought they were going to ditch us and had a very depressing flight home.

But they didn't ditch us. Together we finally came up with a brief and the next step was to begin recruitment. While waiting for the client to approve our screeners, I had a call from two of them to say they didn't think our subjects would be 'interesting off' to follow. But surely if they were all interesting they wouldn't really be representative, I countered. And we would effectively be making a documentary about black skin rather than conducting an ethnographic study.

The same late evening I received an email stating that, after careful consideration, they now wanted us to make a documentary. What this did to my ego and cockiness still reverberates to this day. People in South Africa still call me, Siamack Salari the film producer!

The project did become sticky towards the end when no one could agree on a final edit/story. But what a wonderful client to have worked with. Generous, flexible, creative and incredible bright.

Here is the final output/films (go to Skin Stories and 'Watch skin Stories'. And above is a rather self indulgent film I made of my briefing generation trip. The music, by the way, is Iranian.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Should you slice or dice your ethnographic film?

This question came up during a new business phone conference today. Let me explain. You have spent 3 days with each of 6 respondents conducting video based participant observation. You had clear objectives. You have even generated your themes (I'm trying to keep this bit simple) and now you want to edit together your findings/insights. Question: Should you edit your films by household? i.e. create a 'best of' for each household with clear signposting so you can walk clients chronologically through the time you spent with each one? Or do you present your insights by theme. Taking the 'best of' from different households and cutting together a thematically navigable presentation.

The answer isn't as obvious as it seems. As a rule, presentations by household are more effective for immersing clients into individual household/respondent realities and priorities. They inspire, earth/reality check and emotionally engage clients. Presenting by theme is more effective for getting a line of reasoning across and leading clients to actions and implications. So what do you do if you need a bit of both?

Above is an example from a piece of work completed for a Media client. We spent 16 days with 4 households and disentangled around 12 themes or headlines from the filming and co-discoveries. We needed to convey our thinking clearly in a set of theme driven films which would include the best of the rest from all of the households. However, we also needed our audience to engage with and understand each individual respondent's life up close and personal. Our solution was to create short household introduction films for each and every respondent and follow these up with the themed presentation. Simple with four respondents. But imagine if you have conducted explorations in 4 markets times 6 respondents in each. Even if each household intro is cut back to 2 minutes, you will still have 48 minutes of introductions to get through before you even get to the steak of your debrief presentation.

What do you do?

Great 'ethnographic' editing.

That's what you do.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Interesting conversation with Australia

We are looking to open an office in Sydney early next year. Partners have been found, discussions had and agreements reached - by phone. This is a summary of one particular conversation:

Potential partner: You know what, Siamack? EverydayLives isn't a brand. You are the brand.
Me: That's not right... EverydayLives is a very well known brand all over.
Potential partner: No, you are the very well known brand all over...
Me: *speechless*
Potential partner: If you don't believe me, just Google 'EverydayLives' and then 'Siamack Salari' to see which one gives the most results.
Me: Siamack gives the most results...
Potential Partner: I rest my case. And look, this is my point; you are the bottle neck in your organisation. YOU are bigger than your organisation. So I'll bet everyone wants YOU to work personally on their projects.
Me: Yes...
Potential Partner: So how can you grow?
Me: And EverydayLives needs to be bigger than me?
Potential Partner: Exactly. And that's the challenge we will have when we kick things off in January.

So I can't wait to see what they do with us a a brand in January. Will keep you posted.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sneak preview

It's no secret that we are developing an ethnographic app for iPhone. Well, at first it will be for the iPhone and before long for Android and Blackberry too.

So here (left) is a screen grab of one the pages. It has taken us an age to put together the graphics mainly because I am such a useless writer of graphic design briefs. In the end I resorted pulling together an artboard of images, textures and styles that I liked. I assembled them on a page and emailed it to the designer. Again his interpretation was awful. Not because his work was awful but because I had completely crushed his creativity with my numerous incongruous instructions and confused ideas.

In the end, he arrived at a place I feel very excited about. Can any readers tell me the inspiration for the above design? If you guess correctly and own an iPhone (ideally a 3Gs) I'll give the app. away to the first 5 replies.

We should launch the app. late September.