Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ethnography for Innovation

Business Week provides another example of the power of ethnographic methods in the innovation process. This article features a new product development project at OfficeMax. Here's an excerpt:

"In order to get beyond the survey data, OfficeMax asked GravityTank, a Chicago innovation consultancy, to study women who buy office supplies. "If you wanted to understand the behaviors of a long lost tribe in the Amazon, you wouldn't send them a census survey. You'd observe them," says Ryan Vero, OfficeMax executive vice-president and chief merchandising officer, who initiated the research. Ditto, he says, with consumers. "Ethnographies are a critical component of our innovation process."

Vero wanted to know more about the potential customers' underlying needs and values. How could OfficeMax offer something more valuable than an eco-friendly paper line or longer-lasting pens? What products would address their problems? What messaging would resonate? Did OfficeMax need to change the design or staffing of its stores to better address female customers? Gravity Tank's task was to paint a more complete portrait of women's lives and understand how office supplies fit into them.

The research team recruited a group of 10 women, all from the Midwest, who together represented a cross-segment of OfficeMax's customer base, which includes both small offices and big companies.

Over the course of two weeks, the Gravity Tank field teams, including a researcher and videographer/photographer, spent one or two days with each subject, arriving at the woman's home in the morning and shadowing her as she traveled to work and back. "We try to watch for workarounds. Things people don't necessarily perceive as a problem, because they've developed a way around it," says Shailesh Patel, a Gravity Tank partner who led the OfficeMax project.

For instance, the research teams repeatedly saw women trying to reuse file folders, often writing a new project name on a Post-It and sticking that on the tab. But because the adhesive was relatively weak, the Post-Its would often fall off."

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