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Put yourself in a young person’s shoes: how ethnography can add depth to your research project

youth and bus

Adding an edge to your work through ethnography

I am often asked how to get behind young people’s attitudes and motivations to highlight those ‘sticky bits’ that can make or break a perception of a product or service. The best way to do this is to literally put yourself in their position. Focus groups can be a very effective way for youth research participants to describe what has influenced their views and why. Ethnographic methods can further illustrate and build on what has been discussed.

We recently undertook some exploratory research on young people’s views of buses and bus use. Conducted for Transport Focus – the passenger voice for train, bus, tram and road – this work sought to identify the experiences of 14-19 year olds. Ultimately, this work aimed to understand how to encourage more young people to want to use the bus.

Getting underneath assumptions

One particularly interesting element of this work was finding out what had instigated negative assumptions about bus use that they may have then held on to for years. Ethnography allowed us to see them talking about these influences in real-time, while going on a bus journey. Participants responded to questions via a smartphone app while waiting for the bus, on the bus and when off the bus, adding text, photos, videos and audio. This also helped us to understand how non-bus users may have been surprised (or not!) about their journey, including what really made an impression on them, such as comfortable seats, WiFi and friendly bus drivers.

In summary…

If your project allows it, consider tracking young people’s activities – as reported by them ‘in the moment’, to pick up immediate reactions and nuances in their experiences. Remember that there is always more underneath what they are saying when making statements about a topic or brand.

More information on this youth research project can be found below:

“Make it easier and better value” – young people’s plea to bus industry.


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