Don’t Just Listen, Observe

We all know how important empathy is, but what does it look like in action? By definition, it is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” ( Ethnography is “the systematic study of people and cultures” ( and it helps us empathise by observing clients rather than just listening to them. It would be far too easy if customers told you what you needed to know. Most the time, what they say and what actually occurs are two entirely separate things. People are social animals, stop listening to what they say and start watching what they do.

Ethnography in product design

Here are two examples where, by observing, organisations have created successful products which would not be possible without ethnography.

Surprisingly, Intel are the worlds largest corporate ethnographer. The department consists of some 100 social scientists and designers led by a Dr Genevieve Bell (, Natasha Singer). When moving into the consumer market they found that observing real-time behaviour was key to producing a successful product. One product that was produced out of their ethnographic programme was a handheld netbook PC for emerging markets ( It was designed to be portable, flexible and durable reflecting how children use a notepad and pen around class. Children cannot effectively articulate the type of technology they need so listening to them would be futile here. By observing them, they gained insights that otherwise would not be possible.

Moreover, Miele, a German household goods manufacturer, have plenty of examples of where ethnographic research has allowed them to produce products that they had not thought of before. One I found particularly interesting is how they targeted a niche market of people with allergies. It had observed that people with allergies were, naturally, very obsessed with cleaning – particularly with laundry. Therefore, a washing machine was produced that had a setting which had a rinse process that removed detergent residues (, David Burrows). By observing and empathising with your consumers you begin to notice gaps in the market where there are products that people do not realise they need.

Just listening does not allow us to think creatively, as we will refer to what we already know and what we have been taught. This is especially relevant in the advertising industry.

Ethnography in advertising

When brands contemplate what message to run for an advertisement they commission a survey. Simply put, a survey gives answers to questions you are asking therefore tailoring the data to what you think is important.

Surveys have been ran asking consumers if they’re influenced by others and they invariably say no; they make their own decisions independently. Given this, surely a brand shouting about how popular it is in an ad will have little effect on whether we purchase that product?


“Consumers don’t think how they feel, say what they think, or do what they say.” – David Ogilvy


Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, took the idea of conformity among consumers and applied it in real life. He conducted a study (, Noah Goldstein) about the most effective way to get people to reuse towels in hotels. A message in a room stating the environmental benefits had a success rate of 35%. Another less rational message stated that most people re-used their towel and this had a success rate of 44%. He then asked his students which message they thought would be the most effective, they overwhelmingly chose the environmental one.

If we look at this in a business context: Costa ran a campaign referring to their popularity among coffee lovers, ensuring their ad resonated with self-proclaimed connoisseurs. This (, Mark Sweney) boosted sales by 5.5% on a like-for-like basis. This contradicts the idea and the survey that we are not influenced by others. It is essentially an invisible type of peer pressure, and we all succumb to it. Therefore we can see that naively believing customers will mislead you, perhaps they are not always right!

Ethnography in the workplace 

Creating an empathetic culture within your organisation is not just about applying it to your clients, it is also carrying out the same practices with your employees. Being a leader and showing the very same characteristics you want them to harness is vital for creating the culture you want.

According to this (, Belinda Parmar) study Microsoft is the most empathetic company in the world. This is largely to do with their growth (, Carol Dweck) mindset. They understand that many of their employees have great potential but it is assumed by many that their talent is nurtured by just climbing the career ladder. Some do not know or are too modest to recognise the range of their skills, so just asking your staff what they need to progress will not work. Empathise to the extent where you become the employee so that you can understand how to nurture and get the best out of them. Microsoft has done this in various ways by moving away from a traditional growth development model to using a more ethnographic approach.


“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care” – Franklin D. Roosevelt


One example is ‘hackathons‘ which is where employees step out of daily work to develop leadership and collaboration skills. An employee has a potential business plan, and others who share this interest join them in developing it. They then pitch it to the company and winning teams gain funds to grow the project. As a result of this, certain employees who were not initially identified as leaders have shown the skills to be able to rise to unprecedented levels.

It goes further than just growing employees and creating leaders. Products such as Learning Tools for OneNote have been developed fully through this programme and the same team is now overseeing its market expansion.

Ethnography in client leadership

In 2016 True & North were working with a Global Business Information company on the launch of a new information product. This was an interesting challenge because the assumed prospects, merchandisers, wasn’t one our client had much experience selling to. They therefore struggled to understand their day-to-day, and where exactly the new product might help most.

True & North introduced Empathy Mapping, allowing our client’s sales team to begin seeing merchandisers in human-centred and holistic manner. This led to the insight that Merchandisers dreaded the Monday morning status meeting, which led to frantic preparation on Sundays. It turns out that the many merchandisers had a family so stress and work on a Sunday caused real pain and guilt.

The sales team started sharing sample reports which were sent on a Sunday. This drastically reduced the prep time and stress for the Monday morning meeting, creating strong advocates, and in turn sales.

Why aren’t these practices more common?

If it seems so simple why are these practices not used by everyone? That’s exactly the reason. It appears so easy and applying it does not make us feel intelligent. It’s an absurd snobbery which should be dismissed as the evidence shows listening to your consumers just isn’t enough.

Further to this, empathising in this way and using ethnography can be seen as costly and time-consuming. Leaders often believe it is not worth it. However, at True and North we have seen first hand the impact 20 minutes on Empathy Mapping can have. It saves hours in the future when used in the right way.

This is not about choosing one method over another. It’s about combining the various ways you can research clients and employees to get the best insights, so that you can be more collaborative and therefore more profitable.

Kundan Uppal

Share this: