Ethnography Feeds R&D Innovation

By Ken Mihalyov, Chief Innovation Officer, Government and Transportation Sector, Xerox Services

Ethnography, the systematic study of people and cultures, plays a vital role in Xerox’s research and development (R&D) of products and services. It’s a critical, and somewhat unknown, component to making sure technology and services are being used as intended or adapting it as needed. The magic happens when teams of scientists, analysts and technicians work hand-in-hand with ethnographers to gain a deeper understanding of a person’s behavior.

Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead put it best when she said, “what people say, what people do, and what people say they do are entirely different things.” That’s why we need ethnography – to learn about customers first hand and convey those insights to our R&D teams.

Ethnography is essential because it captures qualitative data about people—what they do, what tools they use, how they interact with others and how they think about their own natural environments.

Ethnographic research enables us to:

  • Bring back from the field real customer stories and experiences that can inspire new ideas for products and services that meet customer needs.
  • Gain a much deeper understanding of customers in an effort to help assess whether an idea in R&D is worth pursuing before making a significant financial investment.
  • Help R&D teams stay true to the voice of the customer throughout the development process, utilizing co-design methods to make sure new products and services truly support customer needs.

This isn’t something new for us. Ethnography has been a standard practice in Xerox R&D since the 1980s, when the methodology was introduced by social scientists to the research community. Since then, ethnographic studies have been used to develop flagship technologies and services across many domains.

For example, in Los Angeles County, Xerox ethnographers studied work practices in a government child support department. The ethnography team, through observations and open-ended interviews, identified recommendations to improve monthly support collections by helping the department become more customer-centric. Ethnographers suggested ways to shift less important work from caseworkers so they could focus on what they do best – building relationships with non-custodial parents who are required to pay support.

In another example, ethnography was used in Los Angeles and San Francisco during the design of a dynamic parking system to alleviate congestion and parking issues. Big data and analytics also played a role in the system design but ethnography was key to helping show, in real time, the difficulties people were having with parking meters, signage and other ancillary factors.

Bottom line, ethnography informs innovation from idea to new product. It’s been a vital part of our successful problem-solving approach for more than 30 years and will continue as a standard R&D practice as we work to address technological and social problems that lie ahead for our customers.

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