What is Ethnographic Research? A Simple Guide

How to apply ethnographic methods in your user research efforts.

While ethnographic research may be more discussed in the field of anthropology, where it originated, it’s recently been noticed by the tech world as a tool that can be used to help designers and product developers better understand a design problem or a user story and their associated audiences, goals, and contexts.

When executed well, ethnographic research can help the product design process be much richer, better-informed, and result in a more effective product that help’s meets user’s needs.

Sound like something you want to achieve for your business, product, or team? Then it’s time to get to know a bit about ethnographic research and how to implement it.

What is Ethnographic Research?

“Pay attention to what users do, not what they say.”

Jakob Nielsen, co-founder of NNg.

Ethnographic research is qualitative research on a group of people and their behaviors and social interactions within their own, native environment. It involves studying people in context, mainly making observations rather than focusing on hard data and numbers.

A classic example of ethnographic research would be an anthropologist traveling to an island, living within the society on said island for years, and researching its people and culture through a process of sustained observation and participation. In fact, that’s exactly what Margaret Mead, perhaps the most famed ethnographer in history, did for her ethnography Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928.

Although you’re probably not going to be traveling to any remote islands any time soon, there are several key concepts to an ethnographic study that you can take away from this, including:

  • The importance of context
  • Forefronting the point of view of the study’s subject(s)
  • Detailed documentation of a people and their lives
  • Observation done from within a society
  • Holistic and qualitative in nature

Ethnographic Research in Product Design

Naturally, living with your users for a year probably won't be possible or necessary when it comes to product development. And, indeed, ethnographic research in user-centered design doesn’t tend to look exactly like it does in anthropology.

You can expect the ethnographic research you’ll conduct during product development to differ from typical ethnography in that it will:

  • Be shorter
  • Use more quantitative data rather than a vast majority of qualitative data
  • Serve as the jumping-off point for a longer process of a user-centered design project

Different Ethnographic Research Methods

“The goal of a designer is to listen, observe, understand, sympathize, empathize, synthesize, and glean insights that enable him or her to ‘make the invisible visible.”

Hillman Curtis, Creative Expert.

There are several different ethnographic methods that you can implement in your ethnographic research, with each having their own pros and cons. Below, we detail a few.

Passive Observation

Passive observation is an ethnographic research method that essentially involves shadowing your study subjects, following them and observing them without interacting with them or in any way interfering in their natural actions. This includes documentation in various forms such as video and audio recording, note-taking, photography, and even sketches.

Passive observation is a popular ethnographic research method as it allows you to fully focus on your research subject whilst maintaining an outsider's perspective. It is worth noting though that you cannot assume that your subjects’ behavior is not affected by your presence. Even if you don’t interact with them, be aware of biases that can occur as a result of your presence.

Active Participant Observation

In contrast to passive observation, active observation involves getting hands-on with your study subjects, working and cooperating with them, essentially joining their group or team. This is the product development-focused ethnographic research method that most resembles the type of study done in traditional ethnographic research, such as those conducted in the field of anthropology. 

While your methods of documentation might be the same as they are in passive observation, the main crucial difference is that you are now observing from within, as a temporary member of the group you are studying. The main benefit of active observation is that you become a part of the natural flow of your research subject's process or environment, allowing you not only to observe their behavior but to also better understand their perspective.


3. UX research lets you find and fix problems with your product or service.

When you see how customers interact with your product, you can identify problem areas that you may have overlooked. When you work closely on a project and are familiar with exactly how it works, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that others who are not so familiar with the product will be able to figure things out.

If a user clicks on something and nothing happens, or they can't figure out what to do next, you will have identified a valuable opportunity to fix the problem before the service is launched. Test users are much more forgiving than paying customers, and if something doesn't work right after a customer has purchased your product, then you had better believe it will be detrimental to your business.

Interviews

Interviews can be performed as a standalone form of research or as an addition to participant observation. In ethnography, interviews follow up on observation by asking subjects questions to gain more insight about what they are doing, why they are doing it, what their thought process is, and so on.

Generally speaking, an interview alone does not really qualify as an ethnographic research method - even when conducted in the subjects’ natural environment. However, when added before or after a participant observation (or both), it can provide valuable insight as you follow up on your observation with a deeper dive.

As with all forms of ethnographic observation, asking people questions in their natural environment might be subject to biases, but there is the advantage that your questions are more directly linked with the subject's experience, which can oftentimes unearth insights that might have been forgotten or underestimated in an interview that happens in a very different time or place than the subject's experience.

How to Plan an Ethnographic Research Study

If you’re looking to implement one or more of these types of ethnographic research, you may be wondering how to plan an ethnographic study. Here are the steps we recommend taking.

  1. Determine what the goals of your ethnographic study are. What questions are you aiming to answer? What do you hope you will learn from the study?
  2. Put together your ethnographic study team. Depending on your resources, you may have to work with a team of one product developer or usability practitioner, although it may be ideal to have a cross-functional team that will be able to make more (and more diverse) observations as a collective than one person could individually. Don't hesitate to reach out to other teams to help with the research. Ethnographic studies don't just help with product and UX, they can help with marketing, sales and customer success too.
  3. Choose an ethnographic research study method. Take into consideration your budget, your timeline, and any other constraints or goals that might be relevant. Most likely, your ethnographic research will constitute just one part of a wider research initiative, so it's important to consider how to best add value to the process.
  4. Reach out to potential study subjects to recruit for your study. Explain to them what you will be researching, conduct a preliminary interview, obtain consent and a waiver, and put together a finalized list of your study’s subjects. Recruiting respondents can be one of the hardest stages and we recommend to partner up with your customer success team to reach out to suitable respondents. If you're looking to avoid your own customer-base's bias, there are several companies that specialize in recruiting respondents.
  5. Begin your study. Get out there and observe! Take thorough notes, even more than you might intuitively think is necessary. You’ll be grateful for them later. Make notes on the subjects’ environment, key events and incidents, and your impressions. Remember, ethnographic research is a great way to uncover what sort of research you still need to do to gain the insights you need.
  6. Analyze your data. Look for patterns and themes that jump out. What kind of challenges and barriers did your users encounter? How did this affect them? An affinity diagram, which is a tool that uses post-it notes to group together large numbers of observations based on their relationships, is a great way to approach this data. We love this affinity diagram template by Sketch.
  7. List the insights you have taken away from your research. Share, enrich, and combine them, ultimately making a plan for how to implement them in your product design process. As always, your research is only worth as much. You can use Reveall to gather all your observations and manage your insights in a way that you can easily connect the dots and share findings with others.


Examples of Ethnographic Research

To help you understand exactly how you could potentially implement ethnographic research as part of your design and product development processes, here are some ethnographic research examples from real life.

Example One: Parking Interviews

Ellen Isaacs, with a team from the Palo Alto Research Center, sought to study how people searched for parking, and whether the signage was clear, especially when driving by during rush-hour. They focused on challenges people encountered, the way parking restrictions were defined, what worked and didn’t work with the existing infrastructure, and what could be improved to make parking better. The findings were used to inform the design of new parking systems. Her ted talk linked above gives some great insight into her approach to ethnographic research.

Example Two: Taxes

Researchers from the Chicago consultancy firm Fuzzy Math sought to research how people file their taxes, so they went and observed people filing their taxes in the context they typically filed them in. They began sessions with a short interview, observed passively as participants filed their taxes, and asked further questions, such as how subjects chose which software to use and what the best and worst parts of the process were for them. The researchers noted their observations, the answers to their questions, and measured the participants’ comfort levels with filing their taxes.

Example Three: Developmental Technologies

A team of researchers from the University of Queensland studied kindergarteners in their natural environment (kindergarten), with the goal of obtaining insight into developmental technologies for children. Thanks to their observations, they were able to identify key patterns in the children’s behavior, which they then used to make key decisions when developing playful technology for them. 

Example Four: Online Ethnography

Nowadays, teams are more remote and products more digital, meaning that ethnographic research expands beyond the traditional in-person approach developed by anthropologists.

There are many companies out there using tools like Hotjar to capture recordings of users' on websites and web applications in order to observe their behaviors and challenges.

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