Customer Research for Busy Professionals

Camera Studies

I'm often asked to help my clients connect with their customers–both internal and external to their organisation. When conducting ethnographic research myself, I often meet participants at their home or work environments, interviewing them about their world and interactions with people, places, and things.

To get my clients and their colleagues out in the field is often an exercise in futility. Not because the don't find value in the exercise, rather flexibility and coordination are constrained. Meeting customers becomes too intensive and time consuming for most professionals.

This used to present a serious problem for gathering vital information–information that is the foundation of any further inquiry into providing strategy, service experiences, and innovation within processes and products.

Of course, necessity is the mother of invention and if the mountain won't come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain.

Enter the camera study. This is a simple, yet powerful, technique to gain a great deal of understanding of a wide range of participants (customers, users, or key demographics). Simply put, a camera study enlists your participants to provide insight into their own lives in a way that can be shared with and within an organisation. 

The basic approach is to have my clients recruit participants that fit their requirements. This can be people in their organisation (easiest to find), current customers (easy to find), potential customers (may need a recruitment agency), or general population (can be friend of a friend, acquaintances, or the family and friends of colleagues). The point is to find people who fit the demographics of your study, not worry too much about their connection to your team. This is supposed to be easy after all.

Once a connection is made, each member of the client's team recruit one or many participants to participate in the study. It might sound intimidating to recruit a stranger, but people love to be told that their lives and opinions matter deeply to an organisation, and especially to the person doing the study.

The only thing the participant needs is a camera and pretty much everyone these days has a camera phone, so that's taken care of.

The goal is to have each participant take pictures of the things that are important to them and to their lives. This can be narrowed down to "things about household chores", or "things about daily commutes", etc. It's important not to be too specific, such as having them record their banking tasks. Instead you might phrase it as "things about managing your household expenses".

So, without further adieu, here's a version of the brief I provide clients on how to run their own study.

Conducting your first camera study

It’s often easiest to find someone to interview through your network of friends and family. Most people are very happy to help those close to their friends or family. Reach out beyond your immediate family and people at your organisation. You should avoid interviewing anyone you know too closely, but acquaintances are fine.

You will need to coach your participant on how to take pictures and over what period of time they should collect them.


Once you’ve chosen your participant, you’ll direct them to: “Take pictures of the things that are important to you and your life.

Some suggestions to get them started could be:

• things in their home life
• things in their work life
• people
• pets
• hobbies
• things they own
• places
• connections with people, places, or things
• cultural

Your participant should take a minimum of 20 pictures over at least 2 days (they don’t need to be consecutive and it’s good to get a week and a weekend day). After at least 20 photos over 2 days have been taken, you can set up an interview (set aside at least an hour). This can be done at their home, office, a café, or wherever it might be convenient to talk with minimal distraction.

You should review all the photos taken and select 10 to discuss. On each of these 10 photos you should inquire:

“What is important to you about this photo?”

As your participant discusses the photo it is imperative that you explore deeper into each photo. You should write down what you hear as best you can, however your note taking should not interfere with your participant telling their story.

It’s better to not write something down rather than break the pace of your participant.

To give you a feel for how the interview might progress, just imagine they show you a picture of a pet dog...

Interviewer: “What is important to you about this photo?

Participant: “This is my dog Jeff. I’ve owned him for 3 years

Pause. Wait for the participant to continue. If they don’t:

Interviewer: “How is Jeff important to you?

Participant: “He keeps me active and is always there when I need him.

Interviewer: “Have you needed him recently?” or “How do you keep active with Jeff?” Pause.

Continue interview in this manner.

It's very important to let the participant have time to answer questions fully. Sit with pregnant pauses and be OK with awkward silences. Your participants will fill in the space.

If you see anything interesting in the picture, you should inquire about it. That
can be photos on a fridge when the picture is about cooking in the kitchen, or the kinds of activities that happen on a living room couch at different times of the day (watching TV, paying bills, naps on the weekend, etc).

After capturing the stories behind 10 of the photographs, you should ask to take a photo of your participant and thank them for their time (or provide a incentive if agreed to). As soon as possible, you should go over your notes and add in anything that was left out. THIS IS A VERY IMPORTANT STEP.

You will need to get copies of the 10 photos used for the interview in high enough resolution to be printed on A4 paper (the normal setting for any camera phone).

Once you have your interview photos and a picture of your participant, note the following biographical information:

Participant’s first name
Family status (married, single, number of kids, living with parents, etc) Suburb

Once back in the office, create bio boards with your participant's picture and the 10 photos. Share each participant's story with your colleagues and begin to understand and capture themes between all the participants that your team has collected.

That’s it, have fun!