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Ethnography is Product Management

Lydia Timlin-Broussard, Senior Strategic Designer at BCG Digital Ventures, shares how ethnographic research can be used in the product development process to empathize with consumers, gain insight into their behaviors, and build better products.

Lydia Timlin-Broussard is a product and service designer for BCG Digital Ventures, an investment and incubation arm of Boston Consulting Group. Driven by a deep curiosity for human beings and their stories, Lydia got an ethnography degree after spending the first few years of her career in market research.

“It wasn’t like I loved to draw as a kid and immediately fell into design and design research from there,” she says. “I took the other approach of really loving people and trying to understand as much as I could about them.”

Lydia primarily conducts ethnographic research, which is a qualitative, early-stage research method where she conducts long-form interviews and interacts with users in real-life environments, like their home or office.

A typical ethnographic research engagement lasts two hours. Lydia buckets her work into three areas: needfinding, concept testing, and usability testing. When conducting interviews, she makes sure to let people know she’s trying to learn about them, not pitch them something. “When I’m in needfinding and ethnographic research mode, I spend a lot more time simply listening,” she says.

When you spend that much time observing and talking with someone, you learn some surprising things along the way that really challenge your assumptions.

“It’s interesting stuff that’s much more about how you make granular decisions that are at the core of your products, instead of very surface-level decisions that are about how many people said they wanted a green button,” she says, as an example.

Ethnography often generates a ton of insight into your product’s target market, use cases, problems, and opportunities. It’s often challenging to recap and synthesize findings into actionable data. Lydia focuses on capturing her findings immediately, whether that means writing them down or talking through what she heard with others. Later on, it’s important to gather stakeholders and have a day where everyone discusses findings, including what stood out and where the priorities lie.

“Sense-making and insight gathering is not only really important, but it does help you avoid the analysis paralysis feeling,” Lydia says.

In this episode, you’ll learn a lot about ethnography, customer discovery, and insight gathering.

Here are the highlights: 

  • The basics of ethnographic research (6:46)
  • Ways to structure the interview process and what types of questions to ask (10:33)
  • Advice for keeping users engaged during the long research process (15:55)
  • Lydia’s approach to creating interview guides (18:59)
  • How to turn hours worth of customer insights into actionable findings (23:33)
  • Tips for getting the most out of an ethnographic research assignments (28:22)

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