After touching on design thinking several weeks ago I return to some design basics for the next few weeks. Today, ethnographic field research and next week, design thinking teaching on the MBA.


“They love to fight, they’ve got loads of character for such small dogs. It’s one of the reasons I love them so much.” 

The biggest man I had ever seen was seated on what I imagine was a stool in the middle of a large room surrounded by more than 50 out-of-control Chihuahuas. The surreal and chaotic experience was heightened by a radio in the corner playing loud Latin dance music. My eyes locked on a particular pair of dogs who were entwined in a joint movement to the music—and they certainly weren’t fighting!

It was January 2008, and I was in the Coyoacán neighborhood of Distrito Federale, Mexico City, interviewing a local dog breeder as part of a four-week ethnographic field study throughout Mexico for one of the largest dog food company's.

I remember the trip as an exhausting yet exhilarating first international experience of design fieldwork. The days were long, spent between traveling to the homes of the “target,” followed by analysis and coding of the video footage at night, for days on end, and then interspersed by intense group sessions and workshops in the project “war room” on the 20th floor of the client building overlooking Mexico City.

I also found the journey very humbling, switching between a target in an expansive property within a gated compound in Chapultepec to one within a ramshackle hut using corrugated iron boards to re-enforce the roof and front door in Neza. Everyone was incredibly welcoming, and it was a privilege to spend time with them during the focus of the ethnographic work—the intimate experience of meal preparation with the family.

The specific method I was using and training my Mexican colleagues in was shadowing. It is a product and service innovation technique for uncovering in-depth human needs related to an experience. Researchers observe and interact with people in their real environment to identify these needs. Derived principally from the field of ethnography, other related fields include psychology, cinematography, and market research.

Design-Driven Methods are Different

Design-Driven Methods are Different


Identified needs may be of any kind—current or future, conscious or subconscious—depending on the innovation objective. Shadowing is generally used for ambitious innovation projects because it tends to require a significant investment, as well as a leap of faith given that a culture of surveys and large data sets are usurped (or at least complemented and challenged) by a handful of “deep dive” shadowing sessions.

Next generation projects are more suited than line extensions. Even though shadowing aims to discover all kinds of needs, its strengths lie in anticipating people’s subconscious and future needs. It therefore benefits innovation through boosting the quality of generated solutions, and thereby enhances the probability of producing products or services with a high degree of newness.

From my education in engineering and product design, it was interesting to start becoming more aware of the universality of design and the possibility of applying the same principles to services and experiences.

The client found their sales being eroded from both sides of the market—from the premium brands as well as the cheaper supermarket brands. They wanted to engage more deeply with the customer through an innovative marketing campaign that would be rolled out throughout Mexico. And so I traveled from Mexico City to Monterrey to Guadalajara and Puebla for 12 shadowing sessions to gain rich insights into the consumer, on which the campaign would be based.

That target consumer, specified by the client, was a housewife with a young family and a dog, and the experience that we decided to shadow, based on a workshop and pre-field analysis in that 20th floor war room, was meal preparation with the family, which could also include picking the kids up from school.

Because shadowing is complex and costly, it is important to apply a well-structured and consistent process. Based on a shadowing guide, innovators observe and interact with a number of people in the real environment of the experience, which is the subject of the innovation project. People data is first captured in video, audio, and annotations. The resulting data is then analyzed for needs, which are leveraged for solution generation in subsequent innovation stages. The final output of shadowing is a multimedia document containing both textual-graphic and audio-video descriptions of needs. The following success criteria are critical to realizing the full power of shadowing:

  • Conduct shadowing in-project: The overall shadowing process should be conducted by the core project team and not be outsourced or delegated to a separate research team. This is to avoid loss of tacit data, improve the data interpretation, and boost inspiration for solution generation.
  • Shadow the right people: This is a basic condition for success. The objective is to find people who are advanced in their needs compared to the general market—lead or extreme users. It is recommended not to apply the same screener used for other research techniques, such as focus groups.

  • Complement shadowing with other techniques: Even though shadowing provides important data, it will not uncover all the insights required for solution generation. Shadowing should form part of a mix of techniques—for example, in conjunction with experience diaries and structured surveys.

  • Make shadowing a key element of innovation strategy, process, and culture: Shadowing generates crucial data for new product decisions, which in turn drive multimillion dollar investments in new product projects. If shadowing is not consolidated within the overall company, and highly regarded by top executives, it will not receive the resources required to conduct it properly, and results will lack credibility for strategic decision making.


So what became of my Mexican Chihuahuas?

There were two key insights that drove the design of the Mexican dog food marketing campaign. First, the target’s relationship with the dog, and therefore the product, was indirect. This differed from previous campaigns that focused on the special, and direct, relationship between the dog and the target. In the case of this target, the attitude toward the dog was still loving, but at times, it presented added complexity to an already busy life as a full-time mother. The target’s focus was on the joy that the children experienced from owning a dog, as well as what they learned in terms of responsibility. So the emotional trigger for purchase was related to their children and their growth and development.

Allied to a very simple piece of information through interviews with veterinary workers regarding the extreme level of dog abandonments throughout Mexico, the resultant campaign was focused on dog “adoption”—sponsoring the company’s care of abandoned dogs through product purchase—thereby fitting perfectly with the motherly instincts of the target without adding to her already complex life.