Skip to main content
Search form
  • 00:25

    BEN JACOBSON: Hi, I'm Ben Jacobson.I'm one of Conifer's two partners.My background is cultural anthropologyand behavioral science.And out of school, I wound up gettinga job doing some similar work at a different kindof a consulting company, and eventually decided

  • 00:45

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: that it might be more interesting and funto do it on my own.

  • 00:49

    ANNE SCHORR: My name's Anne Schorr.I'm one of the partners and co-founders of Conifer.So that means I've been here since the very beginning, whichwas 19 years ago.Which seems unbelievable to me, but it's been quite the ride.So, Ben and I, we were at the same consulting firm prior.And you know, we were both on the research side, I think.

  • 01:15

    ANNE SCHORR [continued]: When we were looking-- this is, again, 19 years ago.We were looking at some of the shiftingtrends in the industry, and recognizedthat there might be opportunity to takethis ethnographic approach and apply it to a broaderset of business questions.Where the firm we were looking at

  • 01:36

    ANNE SCHORR [continued]: was really looking at high level,like C-level strategy, five, 10 years out,which is a great use of that.And we still highly recommend it,but we felt there might be opportunityto apply it to other types of business questions.And most importantly, because we were both really passionate

  • 01:57

    ANNE SCHORR [continued]: about the context and the holistic understandingthat comes with using an ethnographic approach.And I think we were both a little frustrated at timesto see that at the end of a project,there would be some of it that would go forward.But there would be all this others wealth

  • 02:19

    ANNE SCHORR [continued]: of insight that maybe didn't directlypertain to that particular opportunity it was going for,but could still have so much value within that organization.Really thinking about different ways that theywe could help companies get a better return on investmentby thinking a little bit more creatively about how you could

  • 02:39

    ANNE SCHORR [continued]: apply that data set, even that dataset that might have been for one question,but to other areas of the organization.

  • 02:45

    BEN JACOBSON: A basic definition isthat ethnography is the holistic description of a culture.It's often followed by a laundry list of different thingsthat might constitute culture, like art, religion, beliefs,various behaviors, practice, economy, yada,yada, which is all true.And there's lots and lots of ethnographythat focuses on various aspects of human culture.

  • 03:10

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: The other thing is that it's alwaysbeen an engine for interpretation,and it was never meant to just be purely an academic pursuit.The goal was always to be able to help people from one cultureunderstand the why behind how people in a different culture

  • 03:32

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: think certain ways, or believe certain things,or behave in a certain way.The not so glorious truth behind thatis that it was done during colonialism,so it was Colonial powers who wantedto know this about the countries that they were colonizing.And it proved a very powerful wayto understand, how is power communicated,

  • 03:54

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: and how are societies ruled, and whatmakes our economies tick, and all those kinds of things.So that's the roots of ethnography in academiaand so forth.They couldn't be more different.They really are diametrically opposed.Ethnography in academia, by and large,and I would say 98% of it, is based on a basic concept

  • 04:20

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: of curiosity and preservation.So we want to be able to go out in the worldand see and document ways of life, language, artifacts,and things like that.Partly because life is changing so rapidly that this is alldisappearing and will continue to do that.

  • 04:41

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: That's just the way culture is.It's constantly evolving, so there is a preservation conceptand basically, curiosity.That's academic anthropology, which is great.Anthropology in the business world is much different.It's about change.It's about creating, and fostering change, and directing

  • 05:02

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: change based on what you learn.And those two things are exactly and diametrically opposed.Everyone who hires us wants to create something new.They want to innovate.That's change.They want to change the way their companies function.They want to change their company culture.They want to change the way they go to market,so it's all about change.

  • 05:23

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: And so what we're providing are leverage points for themto do that effectively and ideallyfor the benefit of their end users and their consumers,not to the detriment of their end users and consumers.Field immersion goes all the way backto the beginnings of ethnography,

  • 05:44

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: where ethnographers often alone wouldfind themselves living for extended periods of timein another culture.And so this became a hallmark of high qualitythat essentially the longer you could spendin and among the people you were trying to understand

  • 06:05

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: and thereby interpret that for others, the better off youwould be in being able to do that.At Conifer and in modern business contexts,it's rarely possible to fully immerse yourselffor long periods of time in any given community or place.

  • 06:26

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: So what we substitute for that isa series of smaller immersions, meaning we go out,what we call, into the field, whichis essentially any place that's not here in our office.And we spend as much time as we possiblycan shoulder to shoulder, face to face with other people, who

  • 06:47

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: are trying to get things done, who are the ultimate usersor consumers of future products and services.And by that combination of observation,which we can talk more about later,and interviewing people about what they're doingand why they're doing it, we have a greater chanceat learning more deeply about what's important.

  • 07:15

    EVAN HANOVER: My name is Evan Hanover,and I'm a Director at Conifer Research.So ethnographic immersive research, which wetalked a little bit about.Ethnographic and immersive methods,going into people's homes, going out in the world,really becoming participants in the lives of the users

  • 07:36

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: is extremely effective.Because it's very rich.It allows you to understand and capturethe things that are tacit, that are unspoken,that may go unnoticed if you're just living your everyday life.But when it comes to bringing those data back,and when it comes to doing analysis here

  • 07:57

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: at the office, that's when you reallyfocus on those little details, which kind of maptogether to create a coherent narrative about why peopledo the things they do.In terms of methods being good for analysis,in some ways, the richer, the better.Because we are trying to understand things that peoplemay not be able to put into words

  • 08:18

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: of going out, and capturing, and video recording,and photographing everything we seeand everything that the participants may be usingis really, really important.Because it's the subtle cues that come togetherto really tell us at a deep levelwhy people are doing the things they're doing.

  • 08:40

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: So ethnographic research can be a little bit uncomfortableif you haven't done it before.There are three reasons why it's uncomfortable.The first one is you're going and meetingreal people face to face.And that becomes a social interaction that--you were trying to be as natural as possible.But each person has a different role,and sometimes the work you're doing

  • 09:01

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: may make you uncomfortable.So we did a project a few years ago for a non-profit thatworks with education for people who are seeing impaired,and we followed visually impaired people

  • 09:24

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: out into the world as they startedtheir first year of college.And we just shadowed them.And there are instances where the visual impairment createdsituations, which were uncomfortable.Because we didn't want to acknowledge and say like,oh, that's not really what that is.But when you are visually impaired,

  • 09:45

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: you need to navigate new spaces in a very different waythan people who have 20/20 vision may navigate.And so that made our clients very, very uncomfortableand made us as researchers uncomfortable.Because we don't want to embarrass someone.You never want to call out someonewho has some kind of disability, but that discomfort in itself

  • 10:10

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: is data.Because if it's uncomfortable for us as researchers,there's going to be other discomforts thatare created every single day for those people.Because college campuses are not designedfor people who are visually impaired,and so that discomfort becomes data.So that's one reason why ethnographic researchcan be challenging, because it can be very uncomfortable.

  • 10:31

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: The second thing is a lot of times,clients are just used to numbers,and they are used to first being able to quantify things.85% of people do that, 41% percent of people do this.Ethnographic research does not do that.We look for patterns, and we look for stories

  • 10:54

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: that back up those patterns.But it's never going to be quantified in that way.Additionally, ethnographic samplestend to be a lot smaller.You can learn a ton from 16 three hour interviewsthat you will never learn from 2,000 surveys,and the third thing is that thereare moments of deep ambiguity for ethnographic research.

  • 11:15

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: You are trying to recognize patterns, which may notjump out at you at first.And then you have to create a narrative.There's a huge amount of storytellingthat goes into pulling together why things are importantand why they are worth noticing on the part of the client.

  • 11:35

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: And you don't know the answer before you start.You have to sort of uncover it.You're not even testing a hypothesis.Ethnographic research is inductive.The hypothesis has to emerge, and thereare moments in our research when our walls are justcovered with Post-It notes.And we don't know what they mean.We know they mean something, but we

  • 11:56

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: don't know what they mean yet.And that ambiguity when you have a vice president breathing downyour neck about what's going on with this bigat the graphic project you did, those moments of ambiguitycan make it very unpalatable for peopleto do ethnographic research.

  • 12:18

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: Ethnographic research gives you this kind of nuance and detailthat you wouldn't get otherwise.And it's that nuance, and detail, and the storiesthat come with it that really stick with our clientsand allow an understanding of their customersto really become a part of the company culture itself.And that's really what helps to drive

  • 12:39

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: becoming more of a user centered organization, whathelps to drive actual innovation that will help peoplekind of get more out of their livesand enjoy the things they do better.People's behaviors and routines always have patterns.Like there's no one--as much as like the universe is tending towards entropy

  • 13:01

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: or whatever, as much as that's the case, likethere are always patterns in people's behaviors.And what you need to do often is kind of focus on the patternsthat are going to make the most impact.Certainly, there have been instanceswhere there are parts of people's experiencesthat we've struggled to really grapple with,

  • 13:22

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: and we've struggled to fit into an overarching narrative.The idea that people are creatures of habitis not just like, I put my left shoe on first and my right shoeon second every single day.Those habits are much, much more ingrained.The way people pattern their behaviors,

  • 13:44

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: the way people make the choices they make,the way they develop their preferencesand then act upon them, there's usually some sort of methodto that madness.

  • 13:55

    BEN JACOBSON: Well, first, you're absolutely right.There's no such thing as observing anythingwithout disturbing it, which is also true with high energyparticle physics.They call it the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, right?So that's true in all forms of science,and social science, and et cetera.So that doesn't bother me.

  • 14:15

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: And in fact, I think for our purposes, it's essential.We thrive on the interaction, not on the distance.So I always tell my students, you're not a spy.It's not your goal to disappear into the woodwork.

  • 14:37

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: It's your goal to have that human connectionwith another person or a group of people.And that part of this work and part of the methodologyis typically called participant observation.So it's about learning what it feelslike to be and do the things that the people that you're

  • 14:59

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: trying to learn about also do.And it's not really possible to do thatfrom a hidden camera, or a satellite,or in any of those remote technologies.So I don't think of that as a criticism.In fact, I think finding ways of doingthat elegantly and artfully are the right way to go.

  • 15:22

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: Because that is how we learn as individuals and as groups.We did a project for a textbook publishing company,and it was a long project.And as I mentioned before, we don't often get long projects,so this was a little over half of a semester.

  • 15:44

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: We followed college freshmen in their second halfof their second semester, and we gave thema series of remote missions.They were scattered all across the countryto document various of their activities,some seemingly directly related to studying inschool and some more related to just where they like to spend

  • 16:07

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: time, or how they spent their money, and thenthings like that.And ultimately, we followed up.And we spent time with them on their campusesand interviewing them in the midst of their daily lives.And that particular project was stunning,because we had so many different sources of information.And that's really one of our strengths

  • 16:29

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: is that I always tell my students, I said,if you rely on one source of information, one techniqueto get information, you're going to fail.It's pretty straightforward, right?If the only thing I'm going to do is interview you,then I'm probably going to fail.If the only thing I'm going to dois send you a disposable camera or askyou to take digital pictures and send it to me,

  • 16:51

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: I'm probably going to fail.But if I can begin to interweave the threads of different kindsof information, some that our end users and participantsgenerate themselves when we're not there,they get to tell us stories that matter to them, not storiesthat I want them to tell.When I show up, I get to ask themabout things I'm curious about.

  • 17:11

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: And often, there's interesting opportunitiesto cross pollinate between the two.In that project, one of the unexpected joys of itwas we had given people little stickers and key fobswith an 800 number.And we asked them to call us throughout the semesterwhenever they had a moment of truth about their schooling,

  • 17:35

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: and their studying, and all that kind of thing.And we would show up in the office in the morning,and there would be anywhere from eight to 10 voicemail messagesfrom people.And this went on week after week after week after week.So after a while, people forget that they don't even know you.And they're just going on, and on,and talking about how they completely just

  • 17:56

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: nailed it on this math test.And you're thinking, like you're a proud grandparentor something, you know?Or conversely, how they just completely bombed on something,and they feel horrible and miserable.They probably should have gotten some sleep,and not been out partying, and all that kind of thing.And so by the time we met these people face to face,we know a lot about them, and they knew some about us.Because we're interacting with them at a distance.

  • 18:18

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: And that kind of immersion breaks down barriers,even before you get to the "immersion" part, right?So now this isn't somebody I've nevermet before, I've never seen before,and now I'm supposed to have an authentic three hourexperience with them, right?So that was very powerful.And we were able to learn some extraordinary things

  • 18:42

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: about second semester freshmen and their use of textbooks.And at the time, textbook publisherswere being investigated by Congress,because they were so expensive.The textbook industry was just crashing and experiencingall manner of hardships.Because student populations were going up,

  • 19:04

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: and textbook publishing sales were going down.And they were like, how does that make sense?And they had described their business modelto us as just like the medical world,because professors are like doctors.And they write a syllabus, which is a prescription.And the student has to buy the book.Only the facts were that the students weren'tbuying the books, so their big question was, what's going on?

  • 19:26

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: And what they had done is they wound upcreating something that was so precious that itbecame a coffee table book and notlike textbooks of old, where you would open it up,and you would write in it, and mark it up, and dog ear pages.And instead, this was something that usually mom and dadpaid for.And at the end of the semester, you

  • 19:46

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: could sell it back and go on spring break, right?So if you didn't dog ear it, or highlight marker it,or whatever, it was worth more.And so that was eye opening to them,and they were in the process of figuring out what digital toolsthat they should be making.So that was a great immersion.

  • 20:07

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: In the beginning, all of our video was on tape,and we had to print photographs.Because digital photography wasn't quite where it is now,and we had to convince people that this

  • 20:28

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: was something worth doing.And we spent a lot of time essentially teachingpotential clients.We would have little educational seminars.We would run for them.And just selling a project required so muchessentially education and convincing peoplethat this might be worth their time.

  • 20:50

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: Today, everything that we do is digital from the audioto the video and, of course, the photography.We are leveraging a wide variety of remote resourcesthat weren't available.In the old days, we would mail people a disposable camerawith instructions.

  • 21:10

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: Sometimes, we even mailed them a video camera with instructions.And nowadays, people can do it all on their phones,so we don't have to pay FedEx as much as we used to.And people are way more comfortable doing that.This idea of self documentation is not weird or creepy.I mean, people are self documenting their lives

  • 21:30

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: ad nauseum every single day of the week, so the factthat we're asking them to do that is not anywhere near asstrange.And so that, I think, produces a comfort level, where peopleshare a lot of information that I would guess 15, 20 years ago,no one would ever have thought to do that.

  • 21:51

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: And it always felt a little bit strange to do so.And then finally, whereas in the past,I had to teach people what ethnography was.Now I get a request for a proposalfor an ethnography project.And they want three unmet needs and five insightsin a certain way, et cetera, et cetera.And so it's interesting to see that stuff come back to you

  • 22:15

    BEN JACOBSON [continued]: in that way.

  • 22:21

    EVAN HANOVER: Usually, our clientsare looking to do one of several things,and we have kind of a project typologybased on the types of questions they ask.For instance, there are some instanceswhere a company needs just foundational knowledge about,who are my target customers?What do they do?How do they live?There are some instances, where the client

  • 22:43

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: wants to sort of project into the futureand say like, what is the world going to belike in five, 10, 20 years?There are some that are about, how do you communicatewith your customers?How do you craft a message that resonates with how theymight fit into their lives?

  • 23:05

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: And there are some that are evaluative.I have a prototype.I have a beta test of something.I want to not just sit in a focus group room,and throw it down on a table, and say, hey,what do you think of this?Pretty cool, huh.I want to immerse that and put itinto the context in which it's going to be usedand see how people take that, adapt it

  • 23:26

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: in often unintended ways to put it into their lives.So there's a lot of different kinds of questions that we get,but they all kind of fall into the line of those categories.And frankly, the questions are ultimatelylike, why do people do the things they do?Why do they find meaning in the things they find meaning in?How do they derive value from the things

  • 23:48

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: they derive value from?And what keeps them from doing that in certain situations?What are their unmet needs?So the beauty of being an anthropologistis that if people do it, I can study it.I wish someone had told me that whenI was a young anthropologist tryingto justify being an anthropologist,but that's the way it is.So there are a lot of different businesses, really

  • 24:11

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: anyone with a customer.So currently, we might have insurance, financial services,health care, high tech home electronics, food and beverage.I've done stuff for hotels and hospitality.I did a project as a participant observer on a cruise ship,

  • 24:31

    EVAN HANOVER [continued]: so every kind of client imaginable.And the way it benefits them is the work we dohelps companies understand what it is that makes their productsor services worth spending people's time and money on,and what they may spend time and money on in the future.

  • 24:51

    ANNE SCHORR: One of the things wehear a lot about that runs counter quite frankly to someof the methods that are truly inspired through ethnography,it's all about speed, speed, speed, speed.We need to have this next week, next week, next week.And I think there are times whereyou can do things depending on the type of question it is.

  • 25:13

    ANNE SCHORR [continued]: Like if you want to just move a concept reallyquick by getting rapid feedback, thereis speed inherent to that.But if you want to understand maybe how a group of peoplemight be changing, like, for instance,how they purchase or even think about car ownership.Sometimes speed is actually an illusion,

  • 25:36

    ANNE SCHORR [continued]: so speed up front doesn't necessarilymean speed on the back end.And what are you speeding into?I had one client say, I don't want to speed into a wall.So I think, again, we're playing with like, how do we leveragesome of the good use of technologywithin that to help make some processes more efficient

  • 25:58

    ANNE SCHORR [continued]: but without losing some of the rigor of thoughtand allowing that moment for curiosityand real thinking about how foundationally things mightbe doing differently?And that can then see lots of different potential directions,so I think we're still in that mixof trying to figure out how those are allgoing to come together.But it's been interesting conversations,

  • 26:18

    ANNE SCHORR [continued]: and I'm looking forward to see how it evolves.I know that for us of what we've historically said,and I still believe, is that sometimes takinga little more time upfront to do quality research

  • 26:38

    ANNE SCHORR [continued]: will actually-- and doing so in a way where you are bringingyour clients along to have these impactful experiencesis actually faster in the end.Because once you get those concepts at the back end,you have key stakeholders who are already bought in.You're not starting from scratch to be like, well,here's why it's important.And then not really being able to connect

  • 27:00

    ANNE SCHORR [continued]: at that kind of visceral level about why it is importantor having designers that you're handing off to maybe notfully understanding the need they're trying to design to.So I think those kinds of things can reallyslow down the process and become very expensive.Because then you're doing lots of different testing.And a lot of time, you throw out everything at the end,because you haven't kept a strong connection back to,

  • 27:23

    ANNE SCHORR [continued]: what am I trying to solve for?And that that thing is something that's meaningful.That is something that is a real need,not just like a little tweak so to speak.


Co-founders and Partners, Ben Jacobson and Anne Schorr, and Director Evan Hanover, of Conifer Research, discuss using ethnographic methods to gain business insight and innovative change.

Video Info

Publication Info

SAGE Publications Ltd.
Publication Year:
SAGE Research Methods Video: Market Research
Publication Place:
United Kingdom
SAGE Original Production Type:
SAGE In Practice
Copyright Statement:
(c) SAGE Publications Ltd., 2020


Ben Jacobson
Anne Schorr
Evan Hanover

Segment Info


Segment Num: 1


Segment Start Time:

Segment End Time:


Things Discussed

Organizations Discussed:

Events Discussed:

Places Discussed:

Persons Discussed:

Methods Map


Ethnography involves the production of highly detailed accounts of how people in a social setting lead their lives, based on systematic and long-term observation of, and discussion with, those within the setting.
Using Ethnographic Methods for Business Insight & Change: Conifer Research

Co-founders and Partners, Ben Jacobson and Anne Schorr, and Director Evan Hanover, of Conifer Research, discuss using ethnographic methods to gain business insight and innovative change.

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website