Once upon a time, market research tools consisted mainly of surveys, phones and a pile of pencils. Now a new research company is breaking all the rules, using such high-tech data-gathering tools as video recorders, beepers and even disposable cameras.

E-Lab LLC is a Chicago-based research and design consulting firm that's helping businesses understand not only why their customers buy, but also how, when and with whom. One method the firm uses is a process called "video ethnography." By videotaping subjects while they're in the process of buying, the E-Lab team can get a clearer picture--literally--of the process. E-Lab's evaluation team consists of the requisite anthropologists and social scientists, but it also includes actors, computer specialists and others who bring unique perspectives to the interpretation of data. According to E-Lab partner Rick Robinson, all his employees must have a strong ability to interpret human behavior.

Try using some of E-Lab's philosophies on your own:

  • Don't assume that buying is universal and predictable. Try to gather as much information about the process of buying as you can--from when your customer puts a product on a grocery list or makes the decision to buy, to entering the store and making the purchase.
  • Use multiple vehicles to gather information about your customers' buying habits. Have your employees stay on the lookout for patterns in buying and have them record customer comments.
  • Try to understand how people are using the products you sell or manufacture. This could lead to important new markets or opportunities.