KS&R Blogs


I collect snow globes. And so does my 8-year old friend Ann Wallace. We think they are magical. You can hold a miniature world in your hand that is fascinating to observe when you turn it upside down and shake it.

I try to pick up a snow globe wherever in the world I find myself on assignment for clients. Colleagues, friends and family faithfully respond to my plea "Bring me back a snow globe!"…even though it's become a lot tougher (just try to get a snow globe through airport security).

The first snow globes were created in France in the 1870s, an off-shoot of glass paperweights. Enormously popular in Victorian England, snow globes made their way to the US around 1920.

I acquired my first snow globe at age 5, a gift from my father returning from a business trip to Niagara Falls. It is the center of my ever-growing collection. Among my favorites are a "sand globe" from Dubai (souvenir brought back by Scott Woodward, a KS&R Senior Research Analyst) and one from Paris that rotates while playing "Non, je ne regrette rien" ("No Regrets").

The parallels between my fascination with snow globes and my passion about ethnography are not lost on me.

Adapted from sociology and anthropology, ethnography is a method of observing people in their cultural context. It is a unique and powerful tool that evaluates a consumer's or businessperson's world and behavior in extraordinary detail and intimacy.

Our clients use ethnographic outputs to discover new opportunities, optimize product lines, identify consumer "hot buttons," communicate more effectively with customers, and solve tough problems.

The purpose of ethnography is to develop an "insider's view" -- to not only see what is happening, but also to feel it. It typically involves three kinds of data collection: interviews, observation, and documents, such as memos, advertisements, correspondence, other written items.

In a recent ethnographic study KS&R conducted for a regional drug store chain, the methodology went like this: rigorously-screened respondents agreed to allow KS&R interviewers to follow them around for hours while they shopped in drug stores, documenting the minutiae of the shopping experience and gathering information on everything from the lighting and color scheme of the cosmetic aisle to the respondent's emotional engagement with the pharmacist. The interviewers also kept tabs on how long respondents lingered over certain products; eavesdropped on discussions with sales clerks; and collected the Sunday newspaper circulars respondents had marked up.

If you are considering using ethnography to help your business gain a competitive advantage, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Begin by clearly defining the scope of your research project. Don't let the open-ended nature of ethnography – one of its real strengths – become a weakness. It is important to stay focused.
  • Allow sufficient time. Respondent recruitment, fieldwork, and analysis and reporting take time - typically four to six weeks.
  • Validate and triangulate findings by using multiple sources, observers, and methodological tools. New technologies like micro cameras, video diaries, and webcams give us more resources to investigate consumer and business activities.
  • Since ethnography relies heavily on up-close and personal observation, interviewers need to be able to develop a rapport with respondents, and require creativity and improvisational skills.
  • Be disciplined and descriptive in note taking. As soon as possible after the interview or observation, review notes for clarity; elaborate where necessary and record additional thoughts and observations.
  • Use verbatims, photographs, videoclips, diagrams, and artifacts in reporting. They are very powerful and help the report come to life.

So as I pack for my next assignment to observe consumers in their native habitats, I am careful to keep a small corner of my suitcase empty. I'm not willing to pass up a snow globe that catches my eye.

All the best,
Lynne Van Dyke