Ethnography Primer for Startup Founders

November 2, 2022

by Tony Brinton

How observing customers in context can help you deliver more value and foster deeper connections.

Ethnography, a research method long used in social sciences like anthropology, has gradually crept into various disciplines of design, but has only recently begun to be formally adopted by marketers. It is especially useful in product design. Because so much of digital brand marketing crosses over into the world of product design, ethnography has proven to be a powerful method to gain a deeper understanding of target audiences in order to deliver value to them. This article aims to provide a brief overview of ethnography and how it can be used to increase the success of your digital brand marketing programs.

What is Ethnography?

Ethnography is a method of field research that involves observing users with compassion and empathy in the context of their daily lives, in order to develop a deeper understanding of their values, frustrations, pain points and the things they hold dear. It generally leads to more meaningful insights than can be derived from other methods traditionally used in market research, such as focus groups or surveys.

Everyone Should Be an Anthropologist

Conducting an ethnographic study doesn’t require a special degree or a large budget. In fact, some of the most savvy marketing strategists believe that everyone needs to be an anthropologist—especially clients. Anyone with a keen eye and a curiosity about people can perform a meaningful study. It helps, however, to have some knowledge about how to approach a study.

Planning Your Ethnographic Study

When planning your study, list your objectives. What is it exactly that you hope to learn? A good list of objectives helps define the scope of your research and can help contain run-away budgets.

Next, determine where and with whom you will conduct the study. The goal is to identify subjects that represent your target audiences and interact with them in environments that are most relevant to your brand. For example, if the purpose of your product is to help someone do their job better in some way, it would be most relevant to observe your subjects at work during the course of a normal day.

Finally, do your homework up front. Review any background information that you have or can find, to help you understand the problem space that you’re entering. The more you know going in, the better your chances will be of unearthing valuable insights. Background information will also help you form one or more theories that will act as a basis for some of your evaluation—more on that in a minute.

Tips for the Field

While in the field, applying a method called “triangulation” can help reveal patterns in behavior and attitudes, that can then be modeled into user archetypes, or personas, which are typically the final deliverable of the study. Triangulation is performed by conducting three different types of actions while applying three different types of filters.



It is important during your study to ask questions. Generally the more the better to get as much information as you can. Just be sensitive to how your questions may influence or interrupt the natural behaviors of your subjects, getting in the way of important observations.


Observing the details of your environment is one of the most important aspects of a good ethnographic study and is what really separates this research method from others. So much can be learned from just watching people in various contexts relative to your brand. Pay attention and take notes, photos, and video—whatever is appropriate. Bear in mind how your recording method may influence behavior though. Try to stay out of the way and be non-intrusive.


Practice empathy by putting yourself in the shoes of your target audience. Actually try the products or tasks at the focus of the study. You may be surprised by the experience. Often things appear differently when observing them versus how they feel when you’re actually doing them.



The “child” filter requires you to approach your actions through the relatively naive eyes of a child. Attempt to abandon all of your preconceptions when applying the child filter. Another way to view it may be to ask “dumb questions”—knowing full well that there is no such thing. No question is too simple and make no assumptions when in child mode. What you uncover in the process may be surprising.


The “native” filter is another way to practice empathy and walk in your target audience’s shoes, so to speak. Do what you can to blend in, think like them and act like them. Put yourself through their process and see how it feels. Understand how other people react to you and interact with you. What does it feel like to be completely immersed in your target’s environment?


The “theory” filter provides a reference point for the study. Bring a theory with you to the work. Based on research you do prior to the ethnographic study, which could involve reading books, conducting stakeholder interviews, etc., develop a list of principles relative to the scope of the project that you believe to be true, then evaluate your observations against your theory. Just be careful not to confuse your theory with a hypothesis—you don’t want to enter your study with strong presumptions about what your target values.

To expose more opportunities for true innovation, it’s imperative that you get to the heart of what your audience thinks, feels and cares about. To augment your traditional research methods, consider an ethnographic study. It doesn’t have to be elaborate and in almost all cases, it produces some “aha moments” and eye opening insights that can have a significant impact on how you approach your business.

To learn more about ethnography, consider these helpful resources:

Ethnography Primer from the AIGA

Ethnography for Marketers: A Guide to Consumer Immersion

Human Centered Design Toolkit and Field Guide from IDEO

by Tony Brinton

Tony is a strategic design leader with 25 years experience in brand strategy & development, user experience strategy & design, advertising, creative direction, graphic design, writing, performance-based digital marketing, sales enablement, account planning and management, and design management.

After holding design leadership positions at several firms in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, and teaching design thinking, disruptive innovation and strategic management as an adjunct professor at Parsons The New School for Design, Tony opened Brinton Design in 2015.

He's passionate about art & design, teaching, storytelling and humanizing technology. Tony works at the intersection of business, design and technology to improve people's quality of living and create new value for organizations.

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