What's the best way to stay close to your customers--and continue to understand what they want and need--as you grow? And what's the best way to study a potential market, before you launch a business?

One way or another, it comes down to watching how customers interact with and use your product or service--or comparable products and services. 

A time-honored way to do this is by conducting what's known as ethnographic research. For example, Ford relied on a team of ethnographers--a team of social scientists dedicated to observing people in their natural environments, and understanding their points of view--to study what consumers really craved in the Mustang.

Through these studies, as reported in MIT Sloan Management Review, Ford realized that it needed to make the Mustang feel and sound powerful--so that drivers felt vibrations as they drove and heard the revving of the engine. These factors, Ford learned, were just as important as the car's actual power, as gauged through horsepower numbers.

There are other examples: Intuit founder Scott Cook used an ethnographic technique called the Follow Me Home program, to learn how customers actually used early versions of QuickBooks. In the early 2000s, Procter & Gamble used firsthand observations of how consumers in India washed their clothes to research the best way to introduce Tide into the market. 

In short, there's no end to what you'll learn about customers, the more you observe their behavior. 

Lewis and Clark as Ethnographers

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, as you probably remember from history class, or the PBS film by Ken Burns, were the leaders of an expeditionary group whose 1803 endeavor, as envisioned by the then-POTUS Thomas Jefferson, was to explore the western part of the United States.

Historian James P. Ronda, Barnard Professor of West American History at the University of Tulsa, was a leading source for the Burns film. He has written several books about the expedition, including Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. Chapter five of that book is called "Lewis and Clark as Plains Ethnographers." As I read this chapter not long ago, it was easy to see parallels between the ethnographic techniques of Lewis and Clark used and the ones deployed in present-day customer research. 

Here are six lessons to keep in mind, as you research your customers, now and in the future:

1. You don't need to be a professional ethnographer to make useful observations. As Ronda writes, Lewis and Clark "made no pretense at being scientific observers. As valuable as they are, their ethnographic records are imperfect, incomplete pieces of evidence." The key, he notes, is that "their cultural biases did not prevent them from asking the right ethnographic questions." Just as important, they made sure to record every answer, no matter how confusing it seemed to them at the time. 

2. Don't rely only on interviews. Sketch, collect, and participate. The expedition took place decades before photography, even decades before the daguerreotype. Smartly, Lewis and Clark made certain to collect objects that would illustrate their findings: "Everything from Arikara corn and tobacco seeds to a Mandan buffalo skin painting," writes Ronda. They also sketched objects. Lewis, for example, drew a precise rendering of a battle axe. Clark, famously, drew a large map of western America he called "Connection of the Countrey [sic]." Today, of course, the key would be to emerge from your customer research with plenty of visuals, captured on your smart phone via Evernote, video, or straight-up photos.

When possible, the expedition also participated in hunts, games, and ceremonies. John Ordway, the sergeant major, once tried to play a game involving hoops and poles, but couldn't understand the rules. But the point is, he tried to play. The analogy here is that you want to ride alongside customers in the Mustang or watch them as they install their software. You don't only want to interview them later about it, useful though that may be. 

3. Leverage the research and observations of others. Chances are, you're not the first company interested in studying a certain segment of consumers. You should use those previous experiences and observations to supplement your own. Lewis and Clark, for example, frequently sought out the expertise of the traders who'd lived in the villages around Fort Mandan, along the Missouri River. To cite but one example, the expedition relied heavily on the learnings of Hugh Heney, a trader with the North West Company. Ronda writes that "Heney's imprint is clearly on the Sioux and Chippewa sections" of a key report that Lewis and Clark completed. 

4. Use questions to debrief yourself and to make sure you've omitted no key details. For the expedition, the role of the debriefer was played by Nicholas Biddle. His questions--and his writing down of the answers--were essential to uncovering many of Clark's observations. For modern-day purposes, you should consider finding a Biddle of your own: Someone whose express job it is to (a) debrief you about all you've observed in your customer research; (b) write a detailed report about it. 

5. Describe processes with meticuous detail, as if creating a recipe. When observing how customers used early versions of QuickBooks, Intuit made sure to detail how customers took the product out of the package (something you had to do, back then, in the era of store-bought software) and installed it on their computers. When were they confused? When were they frustrated? When did they want to call for help? Lewis and Clark also excelled at describing processes. For example, Lewis wrote what Ronda calls "a remarkably graphic and precise description of glass bead-making," based on notes he took while watching a French trader named Joseph Gravelines demonstrate the process. (Gravelines had learned it from Arikara craftsmen.) Lewis's report included not only step-by-step instructions, but also materials and equipment, and observations on how the Arikara used the beads. In the same way a recipe is something anyone can pick up and use, you want to create recipes about your market research, so that anyone (in your organization, at least) can quickly understand them and put them to use. 

6. Organize your information in a way that's clear and useful. In what you could view as a forerunner to the F.A.Q. lists of today, Lewis and Clark organized their findings around 19 questions into a document called "Estimate of the Eastern Indians." Ronda calls it "a massive effort to organize and compare data on nearly 50 tribes and bands. In concept and design it was as scientific as expedition ethnography ever got." The first few of the 19 questions have to do with names of the tribes. The next set concerns sheer numbers: The number of tents, villagers, and warriors. Then there's a commerce section. And so on.

It was an attempt to pare down the information that Jefferson wanted to know. The point is, as you organize your findings, think of how to distill it in a way that's both practical for decision makers and easy to digest. Remember: You're doing this to learn for yourself, and others.