Using Ethnographic Research To Learn About Life at the BoP

The expected deliverable of the iBoP Asia grant project is that we create a new payment strategy or business model for purchasing a shared resource within a Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) community. Recognizing that no member of our research team has grown up in a community considered to be at the BoP, we can’t assume that we have all the answers concerning what payment strategies are appropriate for the economic and social pressures that these individuals face on a daily basis. So, we have to start at the beginning, collecting insights about what it’s like to live on small, irregular and unpredictable incomes.

To collect this information, we’re leveraging the methodology of Ethnographic Research. In its purest form, Ethnographic Research is about entering the natural habitats of your users, seeking to understand through participation, listening and observation the behaviors, values and motivations of a culture. We plan to use the behavioral and values-based data that’s been collected during fieldwork–in the Philippines and in India–as the foundation for our ideation efforts concerning new payment strategies for the BoP.

Using Ethnographic Research in grant work is unique
We’re learning that the use of Ethnographic Research in grant-funded work is a bit unconventional, as the exploratory nature of the methodology is non-directed and unscripted. This challenges all norms associated with how grant money is traditionally awarded, as we don’t have the answer before we’ve begun. We aren’t studying some of the poorest neighborhoods in the Philippines and in India to validate a hypothesis, but rather, using Ethnography to gain a comprehensive understanding of the individuals intended to benefit from the outcomes of our work.

Additionally, we’ve intentionally scoped our research to be more “broad” in focus versus “narrow,” which seems to be a point of contention among some as our results will be more “abstract” versus “concrete.” Yet, from our perspective, “abstract” is good…in this case.

An exploratory, “broad” research approach offers context for development

When it comes to doing research for purposes of product development or strategy, one of the first questions you must ask yourself is, “What does this research need to inform?” Once you’ve answered this question you now know what your project’s “level of focus” needs to be.

You determine “level of focus” by considering both the scope and the expected outcomes of an initiative. For instance, if you hope to understand the socio-historical context of which a product or service will be part, you scope your project to be “broad” in focus, as we have. This “broad focus” will give insight into the values of the sub-culture in which you hope to introduce your new offering. Additionally, you’ll gain knowledge regarding some of the likely barriers to acceptance in the marketplace that your offering may have once introduced. On the other hand, if you need to see and understand the detailed interactions that a user has with a product or its interface, a “narrow focused” study is more appropriate. A “narrow focused” study will result in “concrete” recommendations about how to improve the customer experience associated with a product or service.

The “broader” that a project’s focus is, the more “abstract” the outcomes of that research will be. “Abstract,” in this case, means that you’ll be able to create high-level conceptual descriptions of a new product, service or business model, but shouldn’t plan for an immediate market launch of your new offering. You’ll likely need to take the concept through more “narrow focused” studies to iron out the details.

You might question, “So, what’s the value in starting with a ‘broad focused’ research initiative? Why not just jump in at the ‘narrow focused’ level?” The reason is, the more “narrow focused” you are in your research, the more likely it is that you’ll miss some fundamental truths about your user group that could dramatically impact the acceptance of your offering in the marketplace.

Most people have heard a story or two about focus groups gone wrong. Usually the story goes something like this: “We did the study. All our participants loved the product, told us they’d buy it. The price point seemed to be right on target. And then nothing…we have two customers.”

Sure, there are lots of things that could be questioned about the design of that focus group. Yet, more than likely what went wrong was that the product didn’t offer enough value to these people’s lives to warrant their hard earned money. It’s not as if participants in the focus group intentionally lied. They gave their truthful opinions about the product as was asked. It’s what wasn’t asked and explored that became the downfall of the product. The product had no place in its intended users’ lives. It didn’t fit with their behavior patterns and values. Behavior patterns and values are the things that “broad” focused, exploratory research uncovers.

It’s these behavioral patterns and values that we think are critical to understand before we can confidently propose a new payment strategy or business model for purchasing a shared resource, such as water harvesting equipment, in a BoP community. Past experience has shown us that an upfront investment in customer understanding goes a long way for saving time, costs and resources in solution development and implementation. I suspect that we’ll find the same to be true here as well.

Our next steps
To date, the fieldwork for the iBoP Asia grant has been done in both the Philippines and in India. We’ve pulled together a multi-disciplinary team comprised of ethnographers, design strategists, BoP specialists, and economists. We’ll meet in Helsinki in April at the Helsinki School of Economics. Methods of Design Ethnography will be leveraged in a 10-day workshop, as we seek to translate this behavioral and values-based data collected about our user group into tangible constraints and criteria for the payment strategy that we deliver as an outcome of this grant. These constraints and criteria will offer the fodder required to support our team’s ideation efforts and ensure that payment strategies proposed are all grounded in the reality of what it’s like to live in the BoP.

The payment strategies for purchasing a shared resource that emerge from our workshop in April will be conceptual in nature. I don’t expect any of these ideas to be ready for implementation. Instead, we’ll work next on developing one or more prototypes of these payment strategies. We’ll then seek additional grant money to do the next step of “narrow focused” research.

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