The Introduction of Ethnography of SEEDATA What is "Business Ethnography"?

Academic ethnography is research on the behavior of a group and a society, it refers to only qualitative data. Academic ethnography also means the ethnographic description.

Instead, business ethnography is the word when ethnography is used in business. Ethnography in business is for problem-solving for customers, and it extracts the essence of academic ethnography for the purpose of identifying problems. 

Human-centered started being used for UI design in the 1980s, and “design thinking” was established mainly by IDEO (design farm in the US), at the time, ethnography started appearing in the business world.

It is possible to compare design thinking (right brain thinking) with logical thinking (left brain thinking). Basically, the design was considered a professional skill only for creative people, such as a designer. However, the methodology of design thinking was coded, and the spread of the area which design handles led to the current situation where thinking method of designers became the skill for many people like a businessman to acquire. As a result of this stream, method, and view of ethnography which observes people just like the method of human-centered design process became popular, and it began being used mainly for product development in business.

Why is Ethnography Payed Attention in Business?

Ethnography enables us to find problems from unconscious behaviors of target unlike other research methods such as interviewing since it involves behavior observation in its process. In that sense, it can be said that ethnography is better than other research methods.

The concrete reason ethnography is popular can be considered two points mentioned below.

First one is the identification of unconscious behavior. Especially in research in an interview, it is hard to find interviewee’s unconscious behaviors, because they cannot appear in questions and answers in the interview. Therefore, identifying problems through behavior observation is one of the effective way.

For example, when conducting research on tissue paper, there are many cases that you receive the answer that tissue paper is for blowing nose when you question the purpose of using tissue. Yet, in the case of behavior observation, it is possible for you to find meanings of those.


The second one is interviewee’s idea out from his/her frame. While Interviewer prepares many questions before interviewing and they find new questions in the interview, it seems to be difficult that they guide interviewee to reach idea completely out from his/her frame.

What is the difference of ethnography in business and academic?

In academic ethnography, it is normal that researcher gets in a community and a group, investigating behaviors of the target, which is called “participant observation”.

Business ethnography, however, is more likely to be closer to “behavior observation” in comparison with participant observation. It sometimes happens that conducting participant observation like academic ethnography is difficult in business because of the limit of management resource, namely cost, time, and man. Therefore, in IDEO, quick method, such as Rapid Ethnography, is mainly used.

Although it is necessary to be quick as mentioned before, the relaxation of tense relationship is the key for the sake of target replicating his/her actual behaviors. This is why it is important to break the ice between researcher and target, and construct a trusted relationship in a state as relaxed as possible.

Moreover, those purposes are obviously different. The aim of academic ethnography is “try getting closer to a truth” through the research on a community and a group. Instead, in business ethnography, we aim at “finding the inspiration and idea” for product development and marketing.

This is how those purposes are not same, and thus we should understand that what we find in those two ways is different and there is a gap in research design itself.