Ethnographic Thinking

Reviewing a breakthrough book by Jay Hasbrouck


Ian H Smith

Ethnography is the structured study of people and cultures. Jay Hasbrouck is a strategist and anthropologist who brings innovative ideas to business with his new book - Ethnographic Thinking.

What is striking about this book is it's challenge to conventions, such as data analytics and an over-reliance on Big Data as the abiding truth about how people truly behave. In the context of better understanding customer behaviour in consumer marketing environments and other digital innovations, Ethnographic Thinking offers new ways to better understand what is the irrational behaviour of people and their preferences.

This review is a lengthy blog post and I think that anyone who is engaged in business or tech innovation should read this book by ethnography expert Jay Hasbrouck. For me, Ethnographic Thinking is a way to deepen and enhance Design Thinking in the world of tech innovation - across all industries and practices.

As industry segments such as digital agencies, IT services and systems integration commoditise, introducing social sciences into the talent mix is key to defending value over price. Of course, design is eternally important to maintaining value, but introducing ethnography can lead to a real difference in the innovation process too.

Being Ethnographic

Many people have identified and practiced Design Thinking as a powerful way to solve problems in a people-oriented way. As Jay Hasbrouck recognises early on in this book, Design Thinking also has its detractors. A familiar argument quoted here is that you need to change the core culture of an organisation, if any lasting effects attributed to the best of Design Thinking are to be achieved. This is where the concept of Ethnographic Thinking is introduced as an aid to this challenge.

The question I have interpreted from this book is: how can ethnography drive a deeper, more meaningful value outcome in business - a kind of deeper Design Thinking? Here an important distinction is made in the book:

"Design Thinking integrates observation, collaboration, and iterative prototyping within a strategy, with the ultimate goal of refining and homing-in on a design solution - an inherently reductive  process. On the other hand, ethnographers are more inclined to open-up new frameworks and perspectives, in an effort to uncover the dynamics of social interactions and their formation. In short, ethnographers tend to ask 'why?', while designers aim toward 'what?'."

I think that Jay Hasbrouck is throwing out a fundamental challenge here to deepen Design Thinking with Ethnographic Thinking - adding 'why?' to 'what?'.

Being Curious

Somewhat more controversially, the book goes on to suggest that designers - e.g. user experience (UX) designers — when engaged to undertake user research (e.g. with consumers) - invariably leads to their findings being unquestionably adopted by teams building new products and services.

Here, Jay Hasbrouck argues that market research adopts "the ethnographic gaze of late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century anthropology." This implies that the questions posed by researcher are limited to "comfortable questions", when in fact, what's needed is a focus on the "uncomfortable questions".

To quote further from the book: "Ethnographic Thinking ... asks not not just what consumers want, but why the organisation is solving for that particular challenge in the first place."

What business-oriented designers and managers need here is a pragmatic illustration of the real world difference between what comfortable and uncomfortable questions might be - in the context of their user research challenges. Perhaps the answer here is 'curiosity' - informed by what Jay Hasbrouck describes as the "open-ended curiosity of Ethnographic Thinking".

With the familiar approach to referencing 'use cases' and real world projects, the book provides examples of how "Discovering Unexpected Opportunities and Rethinking the Familiar" depends on curiosity. The book goes on to point out that organisations need to be better structured to take advantage of the insights that come from a deeper curiosity applied to user research.

Being Aware

According to Jay Hasbrouck, ethnographers look beyond the obvious in their user research engagements. In the book, this recognises the complexity of observations and made up of many "cues". This competency is described as requiring 'visual literacy' and 'layered listening'. And with layered listening this means searching for an 'internal voice' - the cultural meaning beyond the actual statements people make. In the jargon, this is 'detecting cues'.

Going back to the point about asking 'uncomfortable questions', the book contrasts the simple, everyday experience of dining out with a friend in an unfamiliar neighbourhood with a deeper Ethnographic Thinking that leads to observing the cars in the car park of the restaurant, which make statements about wealth and tastes, and as common in USA, reading the bumper stickers on each car, thereby sensing the political opinions of the other diners.

Simply put, the book talks about what is "sayable" and "unsayable". By being more 'context-aware', ethnographers discover hidden truths.   

Being Patient

Jay Hasbrouck highlights the need for "Deferring Judgment" when applying Ethnographic Thinking. He goes on to talk about how ethnographers have open minds in observing and interpreting what may be regarded as everyday behaviours of say, consumers, or businesses. This is where people behaviours - in the jargon "cultural logics" - are better understood in any user research situation. Here the ethnographer achieves a better awareness of the cultural differences of all stakeholders, when working with particular problem-solving, user research or innovation project is applied.

As part of the book's overriding theme of challenging assumptions, it goes on to describe how ethnographers and therefore, Ethnographic Thinking, leads to the value accumulated from "Dismantling Intuition and Challenging Judgments".

In particular, 'intuition' is valid for "one lens for understanding culture based on personal experience and immersion within it." Jay Hasbrouck goes on to explain that ethnographers avoid the 'confirmation bias' that reaffirms existing beliefs with narrow audiences, and instead, select a broader, more diversified group of stakeholders in user research engagements. Again, this points to applying more patience, taking more time - researching deeper and wider.

To quote more from the book: "In contrast, ethnographic insights are built on a systematic process of value-neutral interpretation to discover the collective meaning behind observed patterns in behaviours, interactions, and perspectives - among a diverse range of research participants".

Being Adaptive

As the reader progresses through Ethnographic Thinking, the author Jay Hasbrouck talks more and more about the techniques and behaviours of the ethnographer, where I see great parallels with the best approach taken by the true sales professional in new business development activities. In borrowing from my own sales coaching and mentoring tools, this book talks about the need to maximise empathy with the stakeholders engaged in the user research and related studies. The book talks about the ethnographer being 'adaptive'.

In the context of being more adaptive, whilst the ethnographer operates with structure and purpose, equally they need to ‘think on their feet’. This also means recognising “spaces between” (what’s not explicitly said or recorded) and, again, as in sales, this creates a need to build sufficient trust from receptivity and rapport with stakeholders to go “off-script” when surprising answers emerge in the research.

As with sales people, this is where ethnographers practice great "participatory observations". This naturally leads to generating greater insights and revealing hidden truths. The ability to be adaptive, and adopt the right behaviours with each stakeholder - at the right time - is key to achieving success with Ethnographic Thinking. What comes to mind here is the concept of the 'agile ethnographer'.

Being Transparent

As Jay Hasbrouck says, Ethnographic Thinking is particular useful in understanding organisational behaviour. This is where participatory observations will expose informal and unspoken ways in which power flows through organisations. He goes on to stress the importance of being transparent about intent and purpose - effectively, conferring trust in the stakeholders participating in the user research engagement.

The book talks about the inherent advantage of informal networks, when identified through Ethnographic Thinking, which then leads to faster "organic" innovation - again, best served by the ethnographer being truly transparent with the stakeholders and participants in user research.

Being Structured

Ethnographers rely on a multiple of tools to record their work: audio and video, sketches, written notes, photos and maps - all contributing to the process. Then comes Ethnographic Thinking applied: what Jay Hasbrouck calls "Sampling, Scaling and Substantiating". This means that the ethnographer must interpret diverse, overlapping and sometimes, contradictory data.

Data collection in user research undertaken by the ethnographer means that they must see the relationships between these findings as 'expansive and networked' - not 'linear'. In practice, this means recognising patterns emerging from what initially appears to be very disjointed data. Whilst structured, it is important to expose different points of view - and eventually, create a 'holistic' view.

Being Holistic

I was especially struck by the idea of applying Ethnographic Thinking to complex supply chain scenarios, where in the book it was the fishing industry that provided the use case. In reading this, I was reminded of my own experience of dealing with another complex supply chain: integrating health and social care. What Jay Hasbrouck recalled here was how the ethnographers set-out to understand the very different motivations of each stakeholder type in the value chain (e.g. fishermen, processor, distributors, storage companies, and buyers) - but over time, find the optimal patterms that lead to highly-collaborative, cooperative outcomes.

The outcome of interpreting the research of the complex fishing industry supply chain started with interpreting findings through different disciplinary lens. What was needed was the creation of common ground - a holistic approach. The pragmatic answer here in achieving a holistic outcome was based on setting-up boards to post quotes, observations, images and artefacts from each field visit - and then finding patterns among and between the data.

This work in question meant engaging in iterative storytelling, scribing and reviewing transcripts, diagramming and clustering - as the patterns and insights progressively emerged as the holistic view across the entire supply chain in question. The result was a solution design that all stakeholders could relate to - recognising that each participant in the supply chain had started out with both differing and similar challenges or motivations.

Being Innovative

As everyone knows, 'Innovation' like Design Thinking is an 'in' topic for the business world today. But, as Jay Hasbrouck points out in Ethnographic Thinking, most organisations find it hard to move ideas beyond the lab and into the marketplace. According to the author, the problem is due to a lack of Innovation Strategy, or interestingly, where such a strategy is not framed in cultural terms and as the book explains: "They narrow their focus on a specific set of customer needs without integrating perspectives from others who influence how (or if) ideas move into the marketplace."

As Jay Hasbrouck goes on to say, an Innovation Strategy informed by Ethnographic Thinking helps organisations communicate with internal audiences about how innovation initiatives align with their everyday practices, enhance their goals, and build on the organisation's core value propositions. The book reveals insightful points about this also helping to identify key alliances, to achieve clear channels of action, to avoid potential obstacles - and influence areas more open to change within the organisation.

Being Empathetic

In this review of Ethnographic Thinking by Jay Hasbrouck, I see the ultimate join with Design Thinking: Empathy. What's emphasised here in the book is the importance of empathetic storytelling with Ethnographic Thinking. This is step one in the five-step Design Thinking process advocated by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (

Here, the book talks about "Strategic Storytelling", which means moving beyond stereotyping of each stakeholder or 'user persona' identified in the research process. In the context of Ethnographic Thinking, storytelling is all about setting context, indicating values, demonstrating flows of power and signifying intentions. As Jay Hasbrouck wisely says: "Storytelling may integrate elements of logic, reason or rationality, but the ultimate strength of stories rests in their imagery, emotion, and personal experiences". 

Being Engaged

By being 'well-framed' author Jay Hasbrouck argues that Ethnographic Thinking integrates all perspectives of a project: including ensuring the best outcomes for flows of influence, potential or current alliances engaged, and dealing with tensions and other dynamics at play.

It is interesting to see Jay Hasbrouck talk about how Ethnographic Thinking is integrated with Design Thinking in the action-oriented steps of Ideate and Prototype. To quote: "In the Ideate and Prototype phases of innovation work, designers and engineers tend to take on a more active role. During Ideation, Ethnographic Thinking helps prevent projects from narrowing too quickly, or rushing to 'solutionize' in ways that inadvertently prioritise personal judgements from members of the team. During Prototyping, Ethnographic Thinking adds value by ensuring that different models are testable to determine cultural fit." 

Being Authentic

In reading Ethnographic Thinking my mind was turning to the idea of ethnography being more than its stereotypical image of the study of ethnicity, of human 'tribes' and more towards a deeper exploration of people and their behaviours, and their preferences across much broader 'user persona' categorisations.

The role of the ethnographer - who asks 'why' - with the designer - who focuses on 'what' - suggests that these skills could be brought together. This might be a learning path for 'next generation user experience (UX) designers'. Jay Hasbrouck talks about how Ethnographic Thinking adds more depth, more patience to innovation projects.

In digital innovation, and when trying to reach and retain the attention of customers, it is often the unspoken things that matter: maybe the 'atmosphere' generated by a particular brand. Do people think that a value proposition is 'for real'?


In summary, I would say that Ethnographic Thinking can add more authenticity to innovation work, and counter any negative outcomes from an otherwise 'reductive' Design Thinking process.  




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