The increasing development of new service innovations and the growing risk of innovation failures require organisations to derive distinct value propositions that set them apart from competition. Increasingly managers realise the value of customer experiences to design distinct services. Yet, organisations feel challenged to capture the holistic nature of experiences. For example, a retail shopping experience might be influenced by how difficult it is to find a parking place – prior to the purchase – and to return a bought good – after the purchase. Traditional methods and approaches such as surveys and interviews are suitable to only limited extend as they fail to capture subtle conscious and subconscious influences across the entire customer experience journey.
Recently research found that customers are exposed to sensory stimuli (related to e.g., hearing, smell, touch, sight and taste) at all points of contact (i.e. touchpoints) with the service offering. Depending on their prior beliefs and expectations, these cues influence customers’ sensory responses and form experiences across touchpoints. The relative weight that is assigned to each conscious and subconscious sensory stimuli is uniquely defined by the customer and is very much context dependent. Ethnography is a useful methodological approach that allows investigating these sensory responses across touchpoints and link to the overall evaluation of the experience.
The above stated challenge was also faced by two research teams of the Service Science Factory (SSF) in the province of Limburg. One of the teams conducts research for the employment of long-term unemployed for a large manufacturer. The other project focusses on the alignment of interests of multiple stakeholders around a hospitality innovation hub in the region. For both teams it is crucial to gather user insights and understand their experiences with existing service offerings.
In a three-hour workshop ethnography was introduced as a methodology that enables researching even subtle cues of customer experience in more depth. Ethnography is method that is concerned with understanding humans and their behaviours through employing a multitude of techniques such as participatory observations, experimental interventions, and laddering interviews. The researcher takes an active role by building rapport with participants, conducting in-depth interviews in various forms, carefully listening to what is said and analysing his or her own role during the process. Distinct from traditional data collection methods in marketing and service research, ethnography requires the researcher to become part of the community he or she is researching in.
The goal of the workshop was to:
- Equip participants with knowledge and skills to conduct customer experience research by means of an ethnographic approach
- Practice different ethnographic techniques with a real life example
- Stimulate a discussion on opportunities and challenges that organisations are facing
- Sensitise ethnography as a rich tool for both academia and practice
The workshop was developed and conducted by Susan Stead a PhD Candidate at Maastricht University and Associate Partner PhD of the Service Design for Innovation Network (SDIN). The workshop steps included the following:
- What is an ethnographic approach?
In the first part of the workshop traditional ethnographic research was contrasted to modern ethnographic approaches, by highlighting key differences and introducing a diversity of successful short-term studies. In particular, the flexibility of today’s ethnographic approaches makes it a useful tool for a broad field of applications across industries for organisations and researchers alike.
- What is the value of ethnographic studies for research and practice
Distinct from traditional methods, in ethnographic studies the researcher takes an active role. In particular, the researcher gains an understanding of the phenomenon under investigation by participating, observing, listening and talking to participants in an iterative process of going in and out of the field. The combination of participant led, embodiment, self-reflection and active observation leads to richer insights on even subtle cues, because the researcher shares the participants’ experiences and studies phenomena until a level of saturation is researched.
- Which steps to take?
In a step-by-step guide the workshop participants got introduced to the most important steps in conducting successful ethnographic studies. The key topics that where discussed included how to get access and establishing rapport, the sampling process and representativeness, the timeframe involved, conducting successful participatory observations and in-depth interviews through establishing embodied sensory awareness, analysing and coding the material, and lastly dealing with ethical concerns.
- How to conduct an ethnographic study?
With a series of exercises, participants practiced on a real-life case how to carry an ethnographic study out. In sub-teams participants got each assigned to a different method or tool to investigate the research question: “How do students at the School of Business and Economics spend their break?” Each team constituted of a participatory observant, two in-depth interviewers and one person who interviewed respondents with the help of touchpoint cards. Participants realised the value of creating rapport and the power of listening by having a participant led conversation on the provided topic.
- What are surprising insights?The follow-up analysis and coding within the teams led to surprising insights in terms of very diverse, but complimentary, rich findings from each method that has been used. Within 15 min participants prepared a short pitch of their key insights and additionally reflected on challenges and opportunities that emerged from the mini workshop. The pitch was followed by a group discussion and reflection.
- What is the experience from own research projects?
As the next step, participants implemented ethnographic techniques in their two real life projects. After two weeks, a follow-up session shared insights and best practices of the project teams from the ethnographic research. It allowed also identifying the advantages and disadvantages compared to other approaches participants were already familiar with.
The following quote summarises the reflections participants shared about the workshop:
“I never thought that I might have asked the wrong questions in conducting my research before. Especially the reflection on my own experience while conducting my research enabled me to get a far richer understanding on the experiences of my interviewee. I can totally see the value for customer experience research in general” (Master student School of Business Economics).
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