In the slums of India, most Facebook users are teenage boys. Why? Where are the girls? Finding out things like this is what we ethnographers do.

There are lots of ways to find out about what your users think: surveys, interviews, focus groups, market research. All of them can provide great insights. But if you want really rich, thick insight into the social context in which users live and the space where they use products, that’s where ethnographic research gets big wins.

Innovations succeed when they’re designed around users. In this 3-part miniseries, we will look at Xerox’s approach to user-centric design by examining the three parts of the process – discovery, ideation and evaluation – and we’ll introduce you to some of the researchers in our innovation team.

In this first post, ethnographer Nimmi Rangaswamy tells us why it’s crucial to understand the environment in which people live, work and use a product.

One example: When we were investigating Facebook use in India’s slum communities, we found there were virtually no teenage girls or women using it. But we could only work out why by being there, observing people’s lives, and how social media fit into them.

Here’s what we found: Young men were accessing Facebook on their mobiles using pre-paid packets. They’d learned how to buy the data and use social media from their friends hanging out on street corners. This kind of learning isn’t really possible in the small slum houses with their lack of privacy. But for teenage girls, who are far more socially and economically constrained, street corners, phones and data packets simply aren’t accessible.

Ethnography in action

As ethnographers, we get to be the voice of the young men currently using a product – and, more importantly, help champion the voice of the young women who don’t yet have access to it.

We do this by getting into real-life situations and seeing what people do, how they do it and what external, social factors influence them. It’s about discovering the relationship between users, products and processes in the specific context in which they interact.

Taking ethnography into the workplace

 Some people think research like this is only interesting to charities and non-government organizations. But they’re just as useful in business. In fact, we apply the exact same ethnographic methods we use in Indian slums – shadowing, observing people’s day-to-day lives, speaking to them in unstructured interviews – as we do in offices, call centers, banks, or any workplace environment to find out what’s really happening on the frontline.

Nimmi Rangaswamy

“We apply the exact same ethnographic methods we use in Indian slums … as we do in offices, call centers, banks, or any workplace environment to find out what’s really happening on the frontline.” – Nimmi Rangaswamy, Area Manager, Human Interactions, Xerox Research Centre India

My colleague, Antonietta Grasso, has a great example of this. Back in the 90s, many companies aspired to paperless offices. But they never became a reality. So Antonietta and her team, along with research teams from other Xerox labs, set out to learn why.

They didn’t just ask about the ways people used paper, they also went into the workplaces to watch what people actually do: the shortcuts they take, their daily pain points, the reasons behind their actions. (Take it from an ethnographer: What people say they do and what they actually do isn’t always the same.)

Antonietta’s team found out a lot about paper use in offices: People still read and make notes on printed paper; printed sheets are still very common for meetings and other events. But they also identified a new social signal related to paper: Some people cover their desks in piles of it to demonstrate how busy (or important) they are.

That’s a great insight in itself, but it has concrete implications for businesses: If you want to reduce paper use, you have to understand all the attitudes and behaviors associated with it – not just the obvious ones. Antonietta’s research helped influence the Xerox Print Awareness Tool, a widget for changing office behavior by gamifying paper use.

Xerox researchers create the future today. Learn more about innovation at Xerox.

Ethnography in the age of big data

There’s no doubt that big data is changing innovation in a really exciting way, and ethnography has a role to play.

There are all sorts of ways ethnography and big data can work together to help us understand users better.

For example: Xerox was developing a transportation app in India for users to work out the quickest, cheapest and safest routes for travel.

The problem with Indian road systems, though, is they’re really difficult to map. The big data of live Google Maps might calculate the best route from a bird’s eye perspective, but people on the ground know better: They use a whole network of shortcuts that the mapping apps can’t see. So how do you access their street smarts to build a better app?

That’s where we come in.

My team and I went out with people day-to-day to learn about the routes they took, and to crowdsource coordinates from people taking the shortcuts unknown to Maps.

We started by shadowing them and teaching them to use our technology to keep track of their journeys. Then we sent them out on their own so they could tell us not only where they went, but also answer a range of other questions: Was the shortcut safe? Are there streetlights? How busy is it at 9 p.m.? Are there shops and restaurants nearby?

Some of these insights shaped an app called Bengaluru Go, built by researchers at Xerox Research Centre India and launched in June 2016 on Google Play. The app is similar to the Go LA and Go Denver mobility market place apps launched earlier this year.

So this isn’t about a quantitative versus qualitative approach. It’s about using ethnography to enrich big data and get the best insight possible on a user environment to make sure products will work in that space.

What comes next?

Ethnography doesn’t work in a bubble. Once we’ve got our insights, the next challenge is to make sure they’re taken into the development phase.

But we know that when we can give researchers, data scientists or product developers great ethnographic insights into where, how and why a customer uses a product, we can achieve real innovations. That’s what makes my job so exciting.