Discovering Consumer Packaging Needs and Problems Through Ethnographic Research

Consumer Circle

A common misconception about innovation is that if a company innovates a more usable product, or a better looking product, or improves on some attribute of a product, then it is an innovative product, and therefore it should succeed.

However, it often does not. The reason is that addressing one factor among many consumer touch-points does not automatically translate into success as it may not rank high in consumers eyes in respect to some other touch-point.

In packaging, this is often the case, given that high volume packages and package formats are usually designed by B2B companies to be sold to brands, with consumers being two steps removed from development activity.

Breakthrough, Incremental, and Consumer Centric Innovation

Adding a wider opening to a package is not breakthrough innovation. It may not even be incremental innovation if the consumer does not truly need a wider opening, especially at the expense of something else. Ultimately, it may not even be an improvement for the consumer, but instead, an improvement for the producer, at the expense of the consumer. Think of the bullet-proof packages designed to counter inventory shrinkage, or distribution damage, essentially resulting in a hard-to-use package for the consumer.

In order to truly design for the consumer, you need to start with the consumer.

Why Ethnographic Research?

A lot of companies do focus groups, or quantitative studies to understand what consumers need. The unfortunate thing is that consumers often do not know what they need. Imagine Apple asking consumers what they need, and the consumers stating that they need an iPod, before the invention of the iPod. Consumers are unable to state that, because of the fact that those needs have a symbiotic relationship with the product offering. It is almost like the chicken and the egg problem.

This is one of the reasons why, when you do quantitative research and you compare Product A with Product B, but if Product A does not exist in the marketplace, you have wildly varying results. Quantitative research is very useful for trailing observations [i.e. car crash report], but not for leading indicators [i.e. driving the car].

The other issue is that what consumers think, say, and do are often very different. Therefore, input collected in focus groups are loosely correlated to consumer behavior at best. So, in order to get into the consumer’s mind, the best tool is to do ethnographic research.

Person and Location

As the word ethno‚óŹgraphy suggests, ethnographic research is very dependent on the ethnic content, meaning country, culture, geography and so on. So, if you are developing a package for China, you need to do it in China with Chinese subjects. In some cases, there may be substitutes in the form of similar or proxy ethnographies, like doing research in the local China Town, but these types of approaches can take away from the quality of the research.

Number of Subjects

Unlike quantitative research, ethnographic research is about depth with each subject, not high numbers of subjects as it does not seek to generalize. We typically use 6-8 subjects.



Our professionals and experience are needed for this. Typically 2-3 person cross-functional teams do ethnographic research on location, armed with video and still cameras, recorders, and note pads. They observe not only the use interaction for packages, but also the entire product journey, i.e. purchase, carry, store, use, discard, consume on-the-go, etc. These areas are where the consumer insights are typically discovered.

Of note, observing adaptive behavior of consumers is very fruitful in discovering hidden needs, and problems. Usually a one-day study per subject is more than sufficient, but it can be complemented with approaches such as motion activated cameras left in the kitchen for a prolonged time, etc.