This chapter of the UX Research Field Guide introduces ethnography as a research method including when it's appropriate, what to consider before getting started, and how to prepare for a successful ethnographic study.
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 our own behavior. In trying to recall what we did or believe we did, our recollections will often not align with, say, a video reel of the incident we tried to describe.
We falter especially when trying to define why we did something. When we try to describe the motivations behind our actions, we’re often unable to name the things that compelled us. Sometimes in our hurry for an answer, we sort of make one up or take a best guess. The needs or desires that urged us toward an action simply might not be clear to us.
This is largely why ethnography was born as a research method. It brings researchers into the “field,” into the real life environment of the subject to observe in exactly the ways described above. Ethnography as applied to UX design has been referred to as digital anthropology. It observes people in their natural environments in order to understand their needs.
Ethnography is a type of field study, and it’s differentiated from other types of field studies in that, at its roots, it’s based on the researcher living, working, and immersing 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.
Ethnography is best employed at the earliest stages of a product’s development. It’s best used to explore concepts for new products, to find business opportunities, and to go out into the world to see where people are frustrated to figure out what sorts of tech products people might want. This methodology could be applied to learn how to make a product better, but it’s more commonly used to decide what product to build in the first place.
Ethnography, and other types of field studies, allow design teams access to the real-life environments of their end users. It allows designers insight into the tangible and technical and social environments of their users, as well as access to the tools users might already be using.
As a methodology for UX design, it’s both about how people interact with technology, and also about how they describe their experience of interacting with their technology. Ethnography relies on the researcher to interpret meanings and develop greater understanding. Ethnography is concerned with the vast array of qualities in an experience as opposed to more quantitative data, which are valuable, but can at times, and in certain stages of development, be too cursory for the task at hand.
Depending on who your end user is, you may know very little about the environment in which your product will ultimately be used. If you design from your own perspective, based on your own life experience, you will likely create a really super great product that’s perfectly suited to your own needs...which could have nothing to do with the life of the user.
Imagine an engineer from bucolic and sparsely populated Havre, Montana trying to develop a product for the light rail system in urban and congested Baltimore, Maryland.
That engineer wouldn’t know, based on his own life experience, where to begin. Their best guesses at what riders need from a public transportation system could, in all likelihood, miss quite a few marks. He could quickly start building a solution that did not properly address the needs and behaviors of the target audience—doors that aren’t wide enough to accommodate quick boarding and disembarking. Seats that might be comfortable, but would split and dirty easily, inaccessible handrails for people of different statures and so on.
Users can describe their needs and desires through another research method—riders from Baltimore could call the engineer from Montana and talk about it—but with an ethnographic study, the engineer could go observe it firsthand and develop insights based on real behavior.
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In an ethnographic study, you get to observe your user doing things like trying to save time in the context of their own life. You get to observe what frustrates them, what holds them up. You get first-hand, real-life insight into the pain points of their lives to better determine how your product will best meet their needs with great specificity.
Ethnographic studies tap the social aspect of product design. They observe the challenges people deal with as they interact with and struggle with their environments, or with their existing tools.
An ethnographic approach to research in UX design and technology looks at how people relate to tech in their natural, real world settings. It’s like a people safari. Instead of giraffes and elephants on the savannah foraging and surviving and giving birth, it’s a regular person digging their phone out of their purse with grocery bags in their arms while running late to pick up their kid from school.
Through ethnographics, designers are able to learn about the quotidian lives of their potential users and their natural tendencies and behavior patterns as they unfold.
Ethnography takes research out of the one-time-only or task-specific context. 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. You get to decide how long to run your field studies.
With field studies, you get to observe the situations and circumstances in which a product will be used. Some circumstances are obviously important and useful—observing people encountering sudden rain storms, for example, a valuable data point will be how quickly users are able to retrieve and open their umbrella, or whatever rain-avoidant device or product they prefer. However, there are more subtle things that researchers will observe to suss out further insights. At what point do users reach for their umbrella or parka or flip up their coat collar—after the first thunder, or earlier? Do they always bring their rain gear with them in the morning if the news says rain? Do they match rain gear to their outfits? How often are umbrellas left in taxis as compared to rain coats or detachable hoods? At what point between mist and downpour do people make the hood-to-umbrella changeover? And so on.
Researchers use the intuitive parts of their brains to observe behavioral cues that might be as subtle as posture in order to see where technology might help, or where it could be interfering. Ethnography reveals where there might be opportunities to wend technology into a specific circumstance.
Observational bias describes a phenomenon where, when people know they’re being studied, they behave differently. 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 in 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.
A real life example is an ethnographic study on parking from Ellen Isaacs and her team from the Palo Alto Research Center. They studied how people searched for parking, how clear signs were or were not, how easy signage was to read as you drive past at rush hour in traffic. They studied the challenges people encounter. The ways that restrictions were defined. What currently worked in the world of parking, what infrastructure currently existed, and what might make parking better. They used their findings to inform the design of new parking systems.
This fun video depicts 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.
A fictional example could be observing home cooks in their kitchen to reveal opportunities for innovation in cookbook apps, kitchen equipment, even things like timers and how cooks can use connected devices in their homes. A researcher might observe how budget plays into ingredient choices, how family interacts in the kitchen, how messy hands play in to how people interact with their gadgetry and other utilities while in the act.
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 IDEO.org create a financial product that served the needs of the region.
Most research methods pair well with other research methods, and ethnography can pair 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 note taking in the traditional old timey way might not be possible, or might tax resources and budgets. Employing a diary study could get subjects involved to take research deeper, or enable it to last longer or to continue when researchers can’t be there to observe.
Whether you go alone or bring a buddy or an entire team depends entirely on the subject at hand. A good rule of thumb is, be unobtrusive.
If you do bring colleagues, it might make sense to leave the larger team nearby, but elsewhere, and then switch out from time to time throughout the course of the study. This is one tool to help to avoid observer bias--switching out researchers along the way ensures that you’re not just relying on the perspective of one set of eyes attached to a brain with one set of life experiences.
Do consider your subject, however. If your subjects are sensitive--cancer patients, or anyone suffering from trauma, children, or people with disabilities--it could serve them and your study to assign a single trustworthy researcher to each subject and leave it at that.
A bit of advanced screening on your location will make your research easier, even if your ethnographic study will be short and sweet. If you plan to create an extended study, it’s all the more important to know your location well, to have what you need, and to occupy your location safely and comfortably.
Being observed already makes people behave strangely, so do try to blend. You don’t need to pretend you’re something you’re not, but wearing a tuxedo to a pizza party puts no one at ease. Be culturally sensitive, and dress to belong.
Also, check the weather and dress accordingly. You don’t want to spend your day of field research freezing or getting sunburnt or standing around unhappily in wet shoes. Not only will this ruin your day, but your bad mood could affect research results.
The plan and the budget will depend on the size, scope, and intensity of your study. Your study may be standing on a street corner watching how people board public busses. It could be observing physical education teachers in grade school gymnasiums for a week. Or, your study could be observing professional athletes training for the olympics for a year. In each of these cases, budgets, teams, guidelines, permissions, logistics and everything else will operate at vastly different scales.
There are a few top level guidelines and considerations that can get any ethnographic study off the ground. Remember that ethnography need not be expensive.
Again, this will depend on the sort of study you’re conducting, but a few details will always remain true.
Thinking like an ethnographer means having users act out and paint for you the contexts in which they experience the world.
In my own ethnographic research in the health and tech fields, these contextual experiences really take shape. Designers know very well that healthcare is often the last industry to innovate. There are many reasons why innovation lags in healthcare—HIPAA legal constraints, funding, etc. The real challenge I believe is that the end users of health innovation—that is, patients and caregivers—are directly impacted by product and service changes that can lead to serious consequences and even harm.
To understand the contexts involved in shaping user experience, design thinking can draw upon ethnographic thinking to create change that users want and benefit from. Ethnographic thinking for design research means systematically studying the context of users’ lives—what are their values and needs, and how might these contexts shape how they navigate their worlds? Without this deep understanding of people and their worlds, you may end up creating services and products that no one identifies with, or worse, cause harm to users.
Here’s a case study. In 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 we 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 Healthtech Researcher
Ellen Isaacs, mentioned earlier for her parking field study, is a well regarded consultant in experience research and design. She says that with ethnography, you watch
the chaos that is human behavior, and if you’re patient and you watch for awhile and you have a naive state of mind, you start to notice insights that are obvious after you point them out.
She calls these insights the “hidden obvious,” and these are the gems of ethnographic studies.