Studying people in their changing contexts of everyday life
There are different methods to uncover the needs and aspirations of consumers. There are also different kinds of heuristics – rationales into thinking about what are we studying, and how we find out anything about it. There are differing and often implicit answers to what consumer behavior is and what affects it.
You often hear about going into the head of the consumer, standing in their shoes or even going under their skin. For me, insights don't lie in people's heads or under their skins, or in their shoes for that matter.
All of these may play a role in understanding consumers, but these metaphors only refer to individuals' internal thought processes, feelings, and sensations – all of which can be reduced to neurological functions that can be considered to explain all behavior. Social science takes a more holistic approach to people. To continue the analogy, it is like standing in people’s shoes, but also with them, and their friends – next to the shoe collection of Lady Gaga and together contemplating and observing how they relate to different shoe alternatives.
Viewing people as members of groups, societies and cultures allows us to understand them in all their relations and changing contexts of everyday life. It gives a viewpoint to their social construction of the meaningfulness of objects, symbols and activities; thus also serving as a lens to understanding how products, brands and services become a part of people’s everyday lives, and how they relate to each other.
For the sake of research, seeing people as cultural and social beings instead of as mere individuals means that even when conducting contextual interviews with individuals – listening and observing their life – we are still studying shared phenomena they take part in, experience, and relate to. Ethnography - the description of groups of people – is the empirical approach of immersing oneself into the everyday reality of the culture being studied.
Ethnographic research is about studying people in their physical and social environments such as homes, workplaces, supermarkets, parks, and coffee shops. It’s about taking people's viewpoint seriously, questioning with them, stopping to ponder the unthought, and observing the mundane from a new perspective of curiosity.
This is complex and doesn’t give easy and definite answers quickly. Human beings are complex and if we oversimplify consumer behavior into models of rational choices or spreadsheets of attribute preferences we may get the correct numbers, but still not understand the essence of what is meaningful for creating something people aspire to have or be part of.
Applying this framework, we take a business problem, translate it to social science research questions, and then conduct empirical research or connect the dots of existing research for the analysis. Analysis is then translated and packaged into applicable forms of consumer insights. These insights are structured to point out opportunities and problems to solve in order to provide value for the consumer in a way that will support the business.