The best way to find out what customers need is to just ask them, right? According to tech visionary, Steve Jobs, the answer is a resounding no.

Steve Jobs was adamantly opposed to creating products based on what consumers say they need. He said, “Some people say, ‘Give customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

The idea of not directly asking customers what they want may seem preposterous. But, here’s the thing.

It’s not that Steve Jobs didn’t believe in market research. He preferred to glean insight from authentic observation, or ethnographic research.

Jobs spent hours observing people in their natural environments (e.g. in the home, at stores, etc.). During this time, he captured data about what makes customers tick and what frustrated customers.

Then, he used that data to answer the questions that plague all market researchers: what do customers actually need to solve their biggest problems, and how can I make that product? 

Thankfully, with improvements in technology, capturing lifestyle data is much easier than following someone around their home 24/7 and trying to act natural. Let’s take a closer look at ways you can conduct the perfect ethnographic research study.

1. Look for contradictions and unmet needs

Conducting a successful ethnographic study involves observing people in their natural environment. You’re not looking for validation of what they say. You’re looking for contradictions in what they say and what they actually do. Finding these contradictions is the key to unlocking valuable customer insights and finding ways to meet real customer needs—not self-reported perceptions.

2. Don’t disrupt the observation

The best lifestyle research studies are those that don’t involve interruptions from the observer. This is one huge advantage of capturing data via a camera, lifelogs, and social media. When the researcher is removed from the project, they don’t have the ability to interject, which keeps the environment natural.

3. Rewind and hypothesize

Before social media, smart phones, and robust technological advances, the typical ethnographic study usually lasted around 4 hours. Today, market researchers have access to days of recorded data. This helps market researchers capture more data and also be able to rewind the recorded data as many times as necessary to get answers.

4. Involve other teams in the data analysis

Two heads are better than one. If you want to identify real customer problems, involve other departments in the research. The marketing team might see something different from your engineers, and your engineers might see something different from your product team. Adding team members with different expertise helps broaden the understanding of the data. You might be surprised and delighted at what someone from another department brings to your attention.

Remember this…

If you’re looking to capture authentic data from customers to help inform your business, take the time to capture and analyze ethnographic data. 

If you get frustrated in the process, remember two things. First, there are tools like Fuel Cycle at your leisure that help you comb through qualitative data more quickly and affordably. Second, remember how high customer satisfaction levels of Apple products are as proof that ethnographic market research works and is worth the investment.