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Ethnographies in the Front End: Designing for Enhanced Customer Experiences


  • *This work was supported by financial aid from the Center for Enterprise Leadership at Boston University's School of Management. Ron Pierce provided valued research assistance. Two anonymous reviewers of earlier versions of this article provided valuable comments and suggestions.

Address correspondence to: Stephen R. Rosenthal, School of Management, Boston University, 595 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA 02215. Tel.: (617) 964-4514. E-mail:


Ethnographic research, carefully planned and implemented, is an effective method for providing user-centered perspectives early in the product innovation cycle. This article contributes operational perspectives on ethnographic inquiry in general and, in particular, on its effective integration in the front end of the product development process. It also explores issues of cost–benefit analysis in deciding when and how extensively to employ this mode of inquiry in the product innovation context. Based on a review of ethnographic approaches, in-depth case descriptions of two projects of this type and a review of twelve other projects, this article addresses three questions: (1) What key process steps and alternative approaches lead to insightful identification of relevant customer experiences? (2) What critical dimensions of customer experience offer hidden opportunities for innovative product design? (3) How are ethnographic studies planned, executed, and leveraged in the front end of the product development process when defining new product concepts? An analysis of these projects and related literature suggests particular kinds of product insights expected to be achieved from ethnographic inquiry, along with lessons for planning, conducting, and leveraging ethnographies. A successful ethnography may call attention to design opportunities not obvious at the outset but arising instead through appreciation of unconscious concerns or desires of the consumer. Accepting the notion of initial ambiguity helps ensure that such studies incorporate a broad coverage of potential kinds of issues and provide time and opportunities for serendipitous learning. Successful planning for ethnographies calls for an open mind coupled with explicit procedures for screening for diversity in respondents, gaining access to the desired range of respondents, and selecting a suitable ethnography team. Ethnographies use multiple observation and inquiry techniques in the field, often in combination with other techniques traditionally used in marketing research. They require teamwork, capturing relevant visual accounts, flexible probing for insights when surprises arise, and skill in modifying the ethnographic guide as needed during the study. The findings from ethnographies in the front end may be leveraged through traditional market research, innovation workshops, and formal product concept development.