Ethnographic research – a new skill for project managers?

How many of us are familiar with the concept of ethnographic research? Or how many of us actually use this method to better understand our customers? The answer may come as a surprise, as practices such as UX (user experience design) or Design Thinking are based on this type of research.

Originally, ethnography as a method of qualitative research, was used by anthropologists and specialists in applied social sciences to study different cultures. But for more than a decade, big companies like Microsoft, Intel, Xerox or Levi’s have been using anthropologists to conduct market research and understand how customers interact with their products. Although it is easy to understand the benefit of this type of research for companies that develop products, I consider it very relevant for the way projects are managed today. Project Management Institute (PMI), the largest non-profit project management organization globally, conducts an annual study – Pulse of the Profession – on the evolution of project implementing organizations and how project management is applied. The 2017 edition revealed that among the economic trends that would influence project management are rising consumer expectations:

Ten to fifteen years ago, companies launched new products and then convinced their customers that they needed them. Today , thanks to social media, consumers provide instant feedback to each other and to companies about what they like, dislike or want from a product or service.

PMI, 2017

In addition, in both 2017 and 2018 studies, inaccurate collection of requirements was in the top three causes of project failure, along with changing strategic objectives and priorities. Last but not least, in the 2018 edition, we found out that organizations felt the need to use other working methods, such as design thinking, cognitive computing systems, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and DevOps to increase the chances of project success in the context of digitalization. Therefore, we are witnessing an increasingly acute need to implement the right projects, rather than implementing them correctly. In such a context, expectations regarding the skills of a project manager have increased. In the near future, a project manager in a successful organization will be both a strategic advisor, an innovative person, able to think on a large scale, a good communicator and a versatile manager, who has experienced all approaches – waterfall, Scrum, agile, lean, design thinking (PMI, 2018). New ways of working alongside traditional project management approaches are necessary.

There is a high correlation between obtaining benefits at organizational or project level and providing value to customers. However, “value” can have different meanings for customers and organizations. And it is precisely where ethnographic research can contribute. As Ken Anderson, an anthropologist at Intel, said in a 2009 interview about ethnographic research:

Our goal is to see people’s behavior on their terms, not ours. While this observational method may appear inefficient, it enlightens us about the context in which customers would use a new product and the meaning that product might hold in their lives.

Ken anderson, 2009

Interaction Design Foundation offers suggestions on how to conduct an effective ethnographic research. First, having a diverse research team will bring to the table multiple perspectives. Chances are that the team will be more prone to finding innovative solutions rather than fall prey to the groupthink bias (most common in homogeneous teams). However, in order to be effective, it’s important that researchers keep an open mind and strike for objectivity, instead of starting with a solution in mind. Ethnographic research is a qualitative type of research, thus it is focused more on exploration than on measurement. Second, being considerate towards people’s particularities and mindful about their needs, building an honest rapport with them, giving them the opportunity to express their feelings and always keeping an eye on the physical context are key to obtaining authentic and valuable insights. To these suggestions I would add: make sure to comply with the ethical considerations pertaining to this type of research.

Such practices are not new to companies developing products. Despite this, I believe that the use of ethnographic research would add value to all types of projects, facilitating a better understanding of stakeholders, cultural differences within global teams, and increased accuracy in collecting requirements. Whether carried out by project teams or external and specialized companies, experimenting with ethnographic studies or any other method that generates a better understanding of customer needs will be a necessary skill for tomorrow’s project managers.


  1. Project Management Institute (2018). Pulse of the Profession. Project Management Institute, Inc.
  2. Project Management Institute (2017). Pulse of the Profession. Project Management Institute, Inc.
  3. Ethnographic Research: A Key to Strategy (
  4. Here’s Why Companies Are Desperate To Hire Anthropologists (
  5. 7 Simple Ways to Get Better Results from Ethnographic Research | Interaction Design Foundation (IxDF) (

First version of this article was published in Today Software Magazine, Issue 75