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This part of the field guide comes from our 2019 version of the UX Research Field Guide. Updated content for this chapter is coming soon!

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Margaret Mead, the world-renowned anthropologist, famously said: "What people say, what people do, and what people say they do are entirely different things."

We have alarming blind spots when it comes to describing and explaining our own behavior. In trying to recall what we did or believe we did, our recollections will often not align with, say, a video of the incident we tried to describe. And the motivations that drive our behavior aren’t always clear to us, either. 

This is largely why ethnography was born. By bringing researchers into the ‘field’—or the real-life environment of the subject—ethnographic research serves to fill these blind spots to better understand people’s needs. 

Although ethnography has its roots in anthropology, ethnographic methods have been adapted for use in user research and product development, which is what we’ll focus on in this chapter. 

‍In this chapter:

  • What is ethnography?
  • Types and examples of ethnography
  • When to use ethnography in product development
  • How to conduct ethnographic user research
  • Ethnographic tools and logistics
  • Benefits of ethnography in UX research and design

What is ethnography?

Ethnography is a type of field study in which researchers observe people in their natural environments in order to gain a more holistic, contextual understanding of their needs. Unlike other types of field studies, ethnography requires the researcher to immerse themselves in the environment they’re studying. 

In ethnographic field studies, the researcher might become friendly with their subjects, and work alongside them socially throughout the study. This is especially useful when the researcher’s natural or known environment is very different from the one they’ve set out to study.

Types of ethnography

(Explored in more depth below)

  • Field studies
  • Ethnographic interviews (contextual inquiry)
  • Rapid or mini ethnography
  • Digital ethnography

Ethnography in UX research

In the context of UX design, ethnography is sometimes referred to as digital anthropology, field research, or contextual inquiry

Ethnographic UX research reveals user insights by allowing you to observe users in the context of their real-life technical and social environments.

Benefits of ethnography in UX research and design

The benefits of ethnography in UX research and design include: 

  • Natural, real world settings to observe natural, real world behaviors. An ethnographic approach to research in UX design and technology looks at how people relate to tech in their natural settings. Through ethnographics, designers are able to learn about the daily lives of their potential users and their natural tendencies and behavior patterns as they unfold.
  • Repeated exposure to examples. In a survey or interview or even a focus group, you get to tap user insights on a single occasion (or maybe a handful of occasions, but they’re isolated and curated). Ethnography is ongoing. Research happens continuously throughout the length of a study.
  • Provides context. Ethnography allows researchers to observe the situations and circumstances in which a product will be used. Some circumstances are obviously important—for example, how quickly are users able to retrieve and open their umbrella when it starts to rain?—but there are subtle moments that can provide further insights as well. At what point do users reach for their umbrella—after the first thunder, or earlier? At what point between mist and downpour do people make the hood-to-umbrella changeover? And so on. 
  • Really get to know your end user. Imagine an engineer from sparsely-populated Havre, Montana trying to develop a product for the light rail system in congested Baltimore, Maryland. Without ethnographic research, that engineer likely wouldn’t know where to begin. By observing the target audience firsthand and developing insights based on real behavior, the engineer can build a product that’s better suited to the needs of future users. 
  • Understand pain points, gaps, and opportunities. Ethnographic studies tap into the social aspect of product design by revealing the challenges people deal with as they interact with their environments or existing tools. Researchers observe behavioral cues to discover where technology might help (or where it could be interfering), and it ultimately informs better, more effective product design. 

P.S.—Need help reaching participants for your next ethnographic study? We've got you. Get 3 free participants for your first study with User Interviews.)

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Examples of ethnographic studies

Parking study

A real-life example is an ethnographic study on parking from Ellen Isaacs and her team at the Palo Alto Research Center. They studied things like how people searched for parking, how intuitive parking signs were, and how easy signage was to read as they drove past. They used their findings to understand what might make parking better and inform the design of new parking systems.

Photocopier study

This fun video shows two world renowned computer scientists trying to understand a basic copy machine… and failing to do so, which gives insight into how and where copiers can be made more intuitive.

UXR Case Study: How IDEO Collected Emotional Data Through Ethnography
Storytelling is the foundation of human relationships. But often, people are guarded and will hold back their perspectives in a research setting. This phenomenon is known as the Hawthorne Effect: people are likely to change their behavior if they know they are being observed.

One way that IDEO, a global design and innovation company, counteracts this challenge—and gets people to open up—is by diverging from traditional Q&A-style interviews. Often, these are situations that necessitate a change in communication dynamics. In these situations, IDEO takes a remixed approach to interception-based recruiting.

In 2014, the company partnered with Mercy Corps to provide support to Typhoon Haiyan survivors in the Philippines. The communities most at-risk were low-income, rural, and without banks. The company’s goal was to understand how people could rebuild their livelihoods—how to obtain funds to restart businesses that communities had lost.

In addition to conducting interviews, IDEO built an interactive board game:

“We watched closely to observe people’s body language, and asked what the player thought and felt about the results,” explains the IDEO team. “By designing a visually compelling way to more deeply engage with the people we’re designing for, we had greater access to stories of how rural people felt about banks and the financial products available to them. We learned that because many had unsteady cash flows, they were afraid to take loans they may not be able to pay back.”

By the end of the game, IDEO identified which aspects of a financial product sparked excitement or fear, to understand their emotional relationship with the product. The stories helped create a financial product that served the needs of the region.

When to use ethnography in product development 

The short answer: Early on. 

Although ethnography could be applied to learn how to make a product better, it’s more commonly used to decide what product to build in the first place. In the earliest stages of a product’s development, researchers use ethnography to explore concepts for new products, find business opportunities, and discover what sorts of tech products people might want.

How to conduct ethnographic user research

There are two main phases of conducting an ethnographic field study: the preliminary planning period and the part that involves working with participants.

Designing ethnographic research studies

While potentially open-ended, a field study—like any research study—still requires early planning to get the logistics right. 

Before you start, you’ll need to decide:

  • How long will your study be?
  • Where will it take place?
  • Who should be involved in the study?
  • How will you record your data?
  • Which observational methods will you use? 
  • What questions do you hope to answer?

Once you’re in the field, you'll want this information nailed down to ensure everything goes smoothly.

For example, some study locations might require planning or permissions ahead of time. If you’re dealing with the public transportation system of a certain city, you will certainly conduct your research in that city. But if you want to learn about schools or construction sites, you need to pick a specific school or construction site. In either case, preparation also includes forming the professional contacts and alliances you will need to function in your chosen setting.

Additionally, you may need to involve people other than just the participants—such as partner organizations, additional researchers, internal stakeholders, or parents or teachers in studies involving children. Make sure to loop these people in as early as possible to avoid any snags after you get started. 

Methods for ethnographic research

There are multiple research methods that all fall under the category of field research. These fall into three broad categories—direct observation, active participation, and interviews—but the same study may include methods from multiple categories.

Direct observation

Direct observation means simply watching somebody (or a group of somebodies) to see how they behave and why. Ideally, your subject doesn’t care that you’re watching and acts exactly as if you were not there. Under some circumstances, you may be able to hide yourself. 

For example, researchers sometimes observe shoppers in malls or gift shops without anyone knowing they’re being watched. However, there are both ethical and practical limits to incognito observation. In most cases, you will have to explain your presence to participants and hope they act naturally.

Data recording may take the form of free-form notes, the use of structured protocols and data sheets, or audiovisual recording (supplemented by the researcher's notes).

Direct observation can stand on its own, but is also a great way to gather the information you need to structure later phases of the study.

Active participation

Active participation observation means that the researcher joins the group of people being studied. Data recording is usually by field notes or diary entries written after the researcher has ceased observations for the day. 

The classic (and largely outdated) example of this method is the anthropologist who goes to live with a remote population for years on end. But an equally valid example would be a market researcher who makes a habit of inviting herself to cook-outs in order to identify design flaws in popular grill models. 

The ethnographic method combines informal qualitative interviews with direct observation, except that the researcher has given up on trying to be the proverbial fly on the wall. Instead, the hope is that the research subjects will act normally because they perceive the researcher as one of their own.

Ethnographic research questions 

Ethnography, by nature, can be more open-ended than other types of research. So you don't necessarily need a specific set of research questions. Rather, ethnographic researchers often begin with defined topics of study. Field studies exist on a continuum from strictly observational, where the researcher is as unobtrusive as possible, to designs involving interviews and product testing. Decide where on that continuum you need to be to explore your topic properly.

Check out the Planning for UX Research chapter to view tips and templates for outlining your research plan, as well as the User Interviews chapter for tips on choosing the right questions to meet your research goals. 

Recruiting and sampling for ethnographic research

Recruiting the right participants is one of the most important—and challenging—steps for any type of study, and ethnographic studies are no exception.

Similar to recruiting for other types of qualitative research, recruitment for ethnographic user research involves:

  1. Defining your research goals and methodology (usually covered in your user research plan). 
  2. Determining the best types of participants to recruit. Consider defining your target audience by criteria like psychographics, behaviors, demographics, and geographics. 
  3. Determining how many participants you need. For qualitative studies, 5–12 is usually enough to create a valid data set. 
  4. Creating an incentive plan. Check out our Incentive Calculator for personalized, data-backed recommendations. 
  5. Finding participants. User Interviews can help! Check out Recruit to source from our 700,000+ pool of participants or Research Hub to manage your own panel. 
  6. Screening participants. Head to the Screener Surveys chapter to learn the what, why, and how of this step. 

Some suggest recruiting in waves to give yourself time to iterate on the data you collect as the study progresses. 

Whatever your approach, collecting informed consent from participants is essential. Here are tools, tips, and templates for collecting NDAs and other informed consent documents from participants. 

In the field

Ethically, participant-researchers must identify themselves as such; the word for incognito participant observation is "espionage." Whether or not people who know they are research subjects will ever act entirely normally is difficult to say, but ideally their behavior is close enough to normal to yield valid data.

Whenever you finish in the field, pay attention to the process of leaving. Unless you are simply taking notes on crowd behavior in public, don't just vanish. Let your participants say goodbye to you. As with introductions, farewells may take five minutes or several weeks, depending on your situation. Take the relationships you have made during your research seriously.

Other considerations in ethnographic research design

As always, be mindful of different types of bias that can seep into your research: 

  • Observational bias describes a phenomenon where people behave differently when they know they’re being studied. It’s almost impossible to prevent, and a researcher has to know this and account for it. The best and really only way to account for this is to balance results from other types of research when those being studied aren’t aware that they’re being studied, or when other data comes in from more neutral sources.
  • Observer bias is the same phenomenon, but from your end—when you believe or declare that you’ve observed something simply because you expected it or wanted to observe it. This, too, may be impossible to prevent entirely, but an awareness of the situation is the first step to curtailing it.

Analyzing ethnographic data 

Once you’ve gathered your observations and anecdotal data, it’s time to organize that data and draw conclusions from it. Analysis is the process of transforming raw data into actionable insights

Data can be interpreted in any number of ways, so it’s up to you to decide how to analyze it and use it to tell a compelling story about what your study did (or didn’t) achieve. Analysis, done correctly, will generate the building blocks you’ll need to synthesize your results, create your deliverables, and share your findings with stakeholders. 

Because ethnographic data is by nature qualitative, there aren’t many hard-and-fast rules for approaching this type of analysis. However, some common qualitative data analysis methods include:

  • Affinity diagrams, which allow you to organize and identify meaningful relationships between data points. 
  • Task flows that allow you to organize the flow of participant behavior, including where they start and what tools and information they need to complete the task. 
  • Journey maps, which are visual representations of the user’s experience, including all key touch points, pain points, and actions in sequential order. 

Whichever method you choose, be sure to revisit the questions you outlined in your research plan and analyze your data with these in mind. Other important questions to ask during the analysis might include:

  • Which patterns or themes can you discern in participant behavior?
  • How did participants’ behavior change over time? 
  • What influenced participants’ behavior and decisions?
  • When did participants surprise you? 

After analyzing your data, you might find you want to dig deeper. In that case, you may choose to return to your participants for additional interviews.

Sharing ethnographic UX research 

Now that you’ve discovered meaningful themes and insights from your data, you need to synthesize and share your findings in a format that will resonate with stakeholders. 

Videos, quotes, voice recordings, stories, and other concrete artifacts are helpful resources to include in your reports. Stakeholders who weren’t embedded in the field study won’t have the same context that you have, so these types of deliverables will help them get a better sense of the population and research environment.

How to write an ethnography 

In anthropology or sociology, the findings from ethnographic research are typically presented as an ‘ethnography’—basically, a paper or report. 

Traditionally, an ethnography comprises the following components:

  • Thesis: This section provides a summary of the key takeaways from your study. Stakeholders should be able to read this section for an ‘at-a-glance’ understanding of your findings and conclusions. 
  • Literature review: This section analyzes previous research on the same topic. By exploring existing research, you gain essential background knowledge that illuminates both the importance of your own research and places your study within the context of the broader research community. 
  • Data collection: This section explains the type of data you collected, your methods for collecting it, and the reasoning behind your overall research design. 
  • Data analysis: This section explains how and why you interpreted the data and uses it to support the core messages and conclusions you outlined in your thesis. 
  • Reflexivity: This section discusses your personal investment in the study, any limitations you ran into during the research process, and any points of potential bias or misinterpretation of the data. 

In the context of UX research, your ethnography may not need to follow exactly the same format. Check out this Field Guide chapter for more inspiration on writing effective research reports and deliverables. 

Ethnographic user research tools and logistics

Digital ethnography tools and logistics

The logistics of digital (or ‘mobile’) ethnography is largely similar to that of any other kind of remote research method; smartphones, computers, webcams, and other digital tools will likely come in handy. However, there are a few ethnography-specific apps and tools that you should be aware of.

Data collection tools:

  • Indeemo is a mobile ethnography platform that enables remote, non-invasive research of human behaviors and user experiences. It allows you to assign, capture, and analyze these experiences in the moment, within the context of everyday life—without having to go ‘in the field’ in the traditional sense. Because it enables remote ethnography, it’s particularly effective for studies involving diverse, geographically-dispersed populations. Indeemo’s dashboard is filterable by participants, tasks, keywords, tags, and other attributes, so you can quickly and easily review your work so far. 
  • Maxqda is a world-leading software for qualitative and mixed methods data analysis. By digitizing your field notes from ethnographic studies—typing notes, scanning PDFs, or transcribing recorded audio, for example—you can upload them to the Maxqda platform for easier, more efficient data analysis. It allows you to code and organize large amounts of data for flexible analysis, with built-in collaborative functions for teams. Plus, Maxqda also has a smartphone/tablet app, so you can import your notes, videos, and interviews directly from the field. 
  • QualSights is an ‘immersive insights platform’ allowing you to remotely observe, interview, and interact with participants. As one of the more robust mobile ethnography platforms on the market, it provides a wide range of capabilities, including flexible data capture using any form of media, a blend of quant and qual data, a powerful suite of AI tools for analysis, a visual presentation builder to support synthesis and reports, and more. 
  • Contextmapp is a mobile research and ethnography solution for customer journey mapping, mobile diaries, and co-creation projects. With the ability to design studies, invite participants, collect feedback, and analyze your data in one platform, it’s a great option for managing the end-to-end creation of customer journey maps. Its analysis dashboard allows you to browse and filter by participant, assignment, or task, and it’s easily shared with stakeholders. 

Analysis tools:

  • ATLAS.ti provides intuitive research tools for sophisticated data analysis. Supporting a wide variety of media types—including textual, graphical, audio, and video—ATLAS.ti enables powerful qualitative analysis, insights visualization, mind mapping, and more. Because of its flexibility and capacity for managing huge amounts of data, it’s great for large projects and collaborative work. 
  • QSR NVivo was designed specifically for qualitative and mixed methods data analysis, and it’s one of the most widely-cited qualitative analysis platforms out there. Advanced data management, query, and visualization tools allow you to ask complex questions of your data, discover nuanced insights, and draw clear, evidence-based conclusions. It also provides automated transcription to free your team from menial work, as well as collaboration tools to share data and insights across teams. 
  • If your data is exclusively text-based (written or verbal transcriptions), Tropes is a free platform providing high-performance text analysis, qualitative analysis, and text mining tools. It enables summarization, semantic classification, qualitative analysis, knowledge discovery, and more. 

Field studies tools and logistics

The logistical side of field research revolves mostly around travel and documentation. Consider the following before you go:

  • Practical matters: You and your team may need lodging, transportation, food, equipment, repairs or replacements, There may also be safety considerations, licensing or permissions, and other practical matters to take care of before you go. 
  • Equipment: Technology, chargers, extra batteries, paper and pen, NDA/permission agreements, and anything else you need to be comfortable in your environment (lunch, water, sunscreen, etc). 
  • Team: Whether you go alone, with a buddy, or with an entire team depends on your research design. ‍If you do bring colleagues, it might make sense to leave the larger team nearby and switch out observers from time to time throughout the study to remain unobtrusive and avoid observer bias.
  • Attire: Being observed already makes people behave strangely, so be culturally sensitive, and dress to belong. Also, check the weather and dress accordingly. 

As always, an important tool of the trade is always courtesy and professionalism. Conducting research on people can be a socially awkward thing, and you must behave in a respectful and trustworthy manner at all times or no one will cooperate with you.

Part of respect and trustworthiness is reciprocity; don’t forget to bring your incentive for participants. Incentives can range from monetary rewards and product giveaways to simple ‘thank yous’ or free food. Whatever you offer, include it in your budgeting and other planning.

🧙✨ Discover more tools in the 2022 UX Research Tools Map, a fantastical guide to the UXR software landscape.

Ethnography vs. field studies vs. contextual inquiry

Field studies are the most well-known type of ethnographic research method, and the terms are often conflated. 

Commonly, user researchers wonder: What’s the difference between field studies vs. ethnographic studies vs. contextual inquiry? To put it simply: not much (or at least, it’s not a big deal if you use the terms interchangeably). 

The primary distinction between field studies and other types of research is the location: Field studies are conducted in the ‘field’—you go to wherever your participants are—while other types of studies are not.

True ethnographic research would take place over the course of days, weeks or months while living in participants’ natural environment, while contextual inquiry involves asking questions within this context (as opposed to pure, removed observation). But for the purposes of UX research, these differences are subtle and largely unimportant. 

‍What are ethnographic field studies?

As defined by NN/g, field studies are qualitative research activities that take place in the user’s context rather than in your office or lab. 

Some of the questions field studies can address include:

  • How do your potential users talk about a given issue? When your users belong to a culture or subculture different from yours, they likely use jargon and terminology that differs from yours as well. Listening in the field is a great way to learn their language.
  • What is the cultural context of the need you want to address? Products are designed to solve problems—but if your target users have a life context very different from yours, you are likely to misunderstand (and be unable to solve) their problems. Field studies are an excellent way to better understand your customers’ problems, so you can offer them meaningful solutions. 
  • How do the circumstances your users face vary? By visiting multiple study sites, or one study site multiple times, you can gain insight into what commonalities your potential users have, how they differ from each other, and how adaptable your product (and your marketing) will have to be to support these differences. 
  • What variables are relevant to your research? If you don't ask the right questions, you won't get the right answer. For example, if men and women use your product differently, then you'll have to control for gender in your study designs. If the ambient air temperature changes what users need from your product, then you'll have to test it at multiple temperatures. If the age or educational status of your users matters, then you'd better not recruit all of your study participants from an anthropology professor's classroom.

When to choose field studies for UX research

Field studies provide the most complete, unbiased picture of what potential users actually do. Unfortunately, field studies are expensive and can be time-consuming, due to the need for travel and the greater number of hours required by researchers. For these reasons, most research teams use them only when no other method will do.

Choosing a field study for UX research might be a good idea when:

  • You need to understand the big picture. If your product is designed to function in a particular context, testing in a lab might not give you accurate results. You can also use field studies to explore a need that you hope your as-yet-uncreated product will fill. 
  • You’re starting from the beginning. What do you do when you don't know enough about your potential customers to ask good questions about them? A study that asks inapplicable questions is worse than useless, being not only uninformative but also misleading. In this case, a field study is a good way to get the information you need to begin more focused research.
  • Your research can’t fit in the lab. Even if you can lab-test your product, doing so might not be practical. For example, if your device is designed to function as a component of the navigational system of an oil tanker, going to an oil tanker for final testing makes sense. You probably have an R&D budget for field studies if you're in the oil tanker business, too.

How to conduct ethnographic field studies

Field studies come with a much higher level of unpredictability and less control than studies conducted in a lab or a controlled environment. According to Singleton and Straits (2005), the process for conducting a field study is as follows:

  1. Define the focus of the study, including any problems you’re hoping to solve and questions you’d like to answer. 
  2. Choose your location. You’ll want to find a place where your target audience is likely to be found, but are also easily observed. 
  3. Gain access. Depending on the location you choose, you may need to gain special permissions or an onsite representative to accompany you. 
  4. Present yourself appropriately. Whether you’re doing covert research or presenting yourself as a researcher, you need to choose the right attire, role, and space to fit into the setting without disrupting participants’ natural behavior. 
  5. Record data. Recording your observations in the field can be complicated, so you need to choose the right format: video, hand-written notes, audio recordings, etc. 

Other ethnographic methods

Contextual inquiry (ethnographic interviews)

Contextual inquiry, also known as ‘observation’ or ‘ethnographic interviews’, involves watching and listening to users in their natural environment. Often, what participants say they do and what they actually do is different, so observing them will give you a better understanding of their daily activities. 

How to conduct a contextual inquiry

According to NN/g, the process for conducting contextual inquiry interviews involves four parts:

  1. The primer: Building rapport, managing expectations, discussing consent and confidentiality, and easing into the conversation with your participant. 
  2. The transition: Explaining to the participant how the rest of the interview will work, what they can expect, and how they can expect to interact with you moving forward. 
  3. The contextual interview: Observing the participant as they perform the task, stopping to ask questions or gain clarification as needed. 
  4. The wrapup: Asking any final questions, summarizing your takeaways, and giving the participant one last chance to provide clarification or feedback. 

Types of ethnographic interviews

Below is a guide that may serve as a useful template for choosing your approach to ethnographic interviews: 

  • Informal interviews are simply conversations, though the researcher may have certain areas of inquiry in mind.
  • A semi-structured interview is formal, and has a designated area of focus. The researcher seeds the discussion with the same series of questions or prompts for every interviewee.
  • Structured, open-ended interviews allow the researcher to follow a set script, and the questions are carefully planned so as to not suggest answers. For example: “You want electronics that are easy to use, right?" Leading questions are avoided, as always in good qualitative research.

Digital ethnography

Digital ethnography, also called ‘mobile ethnography’ or ‘virtual ethnography,’ is a form of ethnographic research that occurs, well, digitally. Rather than traveling to join your participants in their environments, you design tasks for them to record in their natural environments using videos, pictures, audio, or other digital artifacts. 

Methods for digital ethnography

You can practice digital ethnography in a variety of ways, including:

  • Netnographic methods, which involve collecting data from free, previously-existing content. This includes joining Reddit groups, reading reviews on competitors’ websites, monitoring conversations on social media, and watching relevant YouTube videos. Because this content is posted organically, you can immerse yourself in your target audience’s community to learn more about their thoughts and experiences. 
  • Asynchronous interviews. One-to-one interviews aren’t always possible—if, for example, you and your participants live in different time zones. Asynchronous interviews allow both you and your participants the flexibility to interact at the times that work best for each of you. They can be conducted using text-based technology like email or video technology like Zoom. 
  • Watching videos or screen-share recordings. Videos are a great way to observe users’ behavior in context without invading their space. You might choose to design tasks for participants to perform on camera, or ask them to go about a particular activity as they normally would. In the context of app and product design, screen-share recordings allow you to observe users’ interactions with the product without having to stand over their shoulders.
  • Digital diaries are conducted similarly to a typical diary study via apps, smartphones, or other digital technology. They enable researchers to monitor diary entries in real-time and adjust or ask additional questions as needed, while providing participants with a more convenient way to submit their responses. 

Any of the digital ethnography tools listed above are great options for conducting your research. 

Examples of digital ethnography

  • What Motivates Consumers to Participate in Boycotts: This study, published in the Journal of Business Research, used netnographic methods—looking at comments left on an online petition—to analyze the motivations behind consumers’ decisions to boycott seafood. 
  • Developing Successful New Banking Products: This study, conducted by the banking app Brightside, involved creating a digital research community where consumers could talk about their banking habits. Brightside used the insights gleaned from this ethnographic study to develop new solutions. 
  • Using Eye Tracking to Optimize Product Packaging: In this study, Unilever used eye tracking technology to follow shoppers through their shopping journeys and understand how they interacted with packaging in-store. By literally looking through their shoppers’ eyes, they were able to better understand what captures their attention to improve packaging design. 

Rapid ethnography 

Rapid ethnography, also known as ‘mini ethnography’ or ‘focused ethnography,’ is essentially ethnography on fast-forward. Researchers use typical ethnographic methods, but in a much shorter timeframe with more focused inquiry—and because of the fast-paced nature of the UX field, this is pretty much always going to be the case in ethnographic UX research. 

Methods for rapid ethnography

Rapid ethnography doesn’t differ too much from traditional ethnography, using methods like:

  • Field notes
  • Direct observation
  • Focus groups
  • Diary studies
  • Informal interviews
UXR Case Study: Ethnographic Thinking to Understand Unknowns
Thinking like an ethnographer means having users act out and paint for you the contexts in which they experience the world.

When designing a new health insurance service for farm employers, we used ethnographic thinking to study employers’ pain points and priorities in managing their employees’ health. We observed how farm employers explored healthcare, their spending habits, and the role of health insurance in their lives and those of their employees.

Although farm employers didn't explicitly discuss or describe scenarios of race, apartheid, or land rights during their interviews, it was the big elephant in the room that shaped how we came to interpret their transcripts and, ultimately, the recommendations that we delivered to the client. In this context, the users—the farm employers—were predominantly white males presiding over black farm employees in South Africa, just 25 years after apartheid.

Ethnographic thinking helped us capture the racial, historical, and socioeconomic divisions underlying the healthcare market we were seeking to serve. From these contexts we designed a list of employee health insurance benefits that would position the client to act as a champion in reducing health inequalities and impacting social change.

Rachel Ceasar, PhD
Global Health Tech Researcher
Culture of Health+Tech Consulting

Hybrid research: Combining ethnography with other methods

Ethnography often pairs well with diary studies. In a diary study, users record their own entries in a log or diary over a determined period of time. Ethnography can be quite labor-intensive, and traditional ethnographic note taking might not be possible, or might tax resources and budgets. Employing a diary study is a great alternative to enable deeper, longer-lasting research or to continue when researchers can’t be there to observe.

Check out our Diary Study Launch Kit for tips and templates for getting started.

In general, field studies are only the initial stage of a larger research effort. The fieldwork explores the context and helps set the research parameters for the rest of the project. Some aspects of a field study can grade into laboratory-type research as you are essentially creating a temporary lab on site. Explore these discovery research methods to continue your research design. 

A final note

‍Remember that ethnographic research doesn’t need to be complicated, doesn’t have to take an excessive amount of time, and doesn’t have to involve specialist researchers. 

In fact, while a good field study should always yield a report that can be read and understood by people uninvolved in the study, part of the point of field research is to get out there and talk with the people who will use your product. Get to know and understand them. If you can develop an intuitive (and accurate!) feel for your customers, you will be much better at creating and selling products that feel intuitive to them.


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