Editor's note: Amanda Ford is a project manager at Applied Marketing Science Inc., a Waltham, Mass., research firm.

As a marketing researcher you may have conducted ethnographic research in the past to uncover insights about a consumer’s use of a product or service. While ethnography is the traditional term for this method, you may have heard this type of research referred to by other names such as consumer safaris or contextual observation. However, at the time of your research engagement, you may have been limited to when or where the observation could take place, who or what you could observe or the length of time you could observe. As advancements in technology continue, researchers are exploring new digital techniques to enhance their ethnographic research. These digital techniques have the potential to change the way we think about and conduct ethnographic research.

The term “ethnography” emerged in the 1920s as a word to describe the practice of systematically studying human cultures and behaviors by observing people in their natural setting for days, weeks and sometimes years.

Today, in marketing research, ethnography is often used as an alternative to traditional face-to-face, in-depth interviews. It is used to gather insights for product and service development and improvement initiatives. This observational research approach involves listening to and observing consumers in a natural setting for as little as an hour or up to several hours, depending on the nature of what the researcher is trying to observe. The technique can yield important insights into how consumers use and interact with products and services – insights that may be overlooked in a traditional face-to-face interview. Ethnography is an effective way to uncover important insights and latent consumer needs to drive business decisions or innovation strategy. These latent needs are often difficult for respondents to articulate...