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Practical Paths to Primary Research

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If the term ethnographic research, observation, or contextual research conjures up thoughts of anthropologist Margaret Mead living among natives in the Samoan jungles, then the idea of undertaking similar research for your brand or product can be intimidating. While the classic ethnographic study requires complete immersion into a culture or environment, there are plenty of ways to get the benefits of in-depth research without a passport or parasites.

At its core, contextual inquiry is an approach to gain insights into how customers behave and why. Unlike some other research methods, it uses the researcher as the primary tool of data collection. Here are a few research methods we use at Red Privet to gain unique insights for our clients:

Contextual Interviews

This method involves conducting one-on-one interviews with subjects. These interviews can be structured, semi-structured or free-flowing, but the end result is to understand the subject’s existing mental model, vocabulary and behaviors. What’s most important is that we try to conduct the interview in a place or time that allows the subject to demonstrate or otherwise “show” the researcher what they use, how they do things, or actually perform the action. Interviews can be recorded and transcribed later, or basic ideas can be captured by the researcher during conversation.

When to use it: when direct observation is difficult, too time consuming, dangerous, or otherwise impractical. 


Intercepts are a variation on inquiry that recruits research subjects from a specific time or place, such as a physician’s waiting room, pharmacy aisle, or basic “man on the street”. Subjects are then briefly interviewed or observed within the context of their current environment.

When to use it: when you don’t have the time or ability to recruit participants, when you need fast feedback, or when you’re surveying a general audience

Contextual Observation or “Shadowing”

This is the purest form of ethnography. When using observation as a research technique, the researcher theoretically takes a “fly-on-the-wall” approach, observing the research subject with no interruptions and no judgment. The researcher is simply a witness to the subject’s process. Often to gain further insights and texture, the researcher takes observation a step further, with the researcher asking clarifying questions throughout.

When to use it: when your project involves a tangible product or observable process, when you are optimizing experiences, or when understanding behavior is most important.

Diary Studies

Diary studies are a subject-generated data collection method in which the subject records their perspective through a diary, a video journal or photography. Subjects are given instructions to record specific behaviors, thought processes or feelings in their own words.

When to use it: when it is difficult to directly observe the user, the lifecycle is too long or private to be observed, or you want deep insights to the subjects’ emotional dimensions—how they feel. 

While the research methods listed above range in cost, all can be flexible to accommodate more modest budgets. All are worth the investment as they can pay huge dividends in breakthrough strategic insights or getting the “why”. By understanding the full range of your customer research options, you can create a qualitative research plan that adds depth to your design strategy without adding significant cost.

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