When designing systems, it’s easy to assume that we know what customers need, without making any real effort to validate our assumptions. But to design products, services and experiences that really hit the mark, we must first truly understand how people engage with the world. One way to capture the human experience is through ethnography, a method where researchers immerse themselves in the social, cultural and technical lives of people to understand what is meaningful to those people.

Ethnography is a cornerstone method in Anthropology, a social science discipline that studies human culture. Traditionally, anthropologists lived in exotic and foreign places for years in order to get an insider’s perspective on what life was like for people in that culture. They would then share that information with Western audiences by writing a book or a report:  for example, American anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote about adolescent rituals and experiences in Coming of Age in Samoa to show what constitutes “appropriate behavior” is culturally specific and is not universal.

Ethnography for Business

More recently, consulting, market research, and product design companies (including IDEO, Microsoft, Nissan and many others) have used ethnography and similar approaches for understanding consumer behavior and unmet needs in order to innovate or respond to changes in markets. Ethnographic approaches in business try to accomplish as much immersion as possible within budget, time, resource, and work constraints.

During ethnographic research, researchers consider everything to be data, such as conversations, behaviors, artifacts, processes, habits, barriers, goals, drivers and motivations, unmet needs, enablers, technology, environments, attitudes, interactions, and so on.

In order to understand what is meaningful to someone, the researcher asks a lot of prepared, relevant questions and carefully observes users in their normal contexts, such as workplaces, job sites, in the home, or wherever is relevant. Important aspects that differentiate ethnography from other research methods are:

  1. the emphasis on the user’s context;
  2. qualitative data that tells you why people do what they do, not just what they do; and
  3. frameworks for interpreting the data.

In analyzing the data, researchers look for themes, patterns, positive findings, problematic areas, and areas of opportunity. The outputs of research may be a collection of insights that inform strategic decision-making, or may be translated into design recommendations, ideas or prototypes for further research and testing.

Dan and Amy understanding consumer behavior.

Dan and Amy enjoyed learning at the conference!

Understanding Users’ Experiences

The Understanding Group recently used ethnography when a client wanted to find ways to improve the experience of using an existing professional information database. As part of our process of understanding our client’s business needs first, the project team (Dan Cooney, Somesh Rahul and me) attended a professional conference to experience the context of research and researchers, which informed our ethnographic research design.

Once we had a better idea of what we needed to learn to satisfy the goals of the project, we conducted ethnographic interviews across the country with users at their workplaces to understand their needs for information, their habits and behaviors, the challenges they face and opportunities for improvements. Thorough data analysis provided the information architects with insights for a new organization of the old product. With inspiration for design grounded in real user data, the team came up with new information architecture that improves the experience and value of the application.

Somesh reviewing some ethnographic interview data to understand consumer behavior

Somesh reviewing some ethnographic interview data with the rest of the project team.

Ethnography is one tool in the research toolbox, and a skilled user researcher will help you decide which tool is best for the job to be done. When the problem calls for a contextual understanding of consumer behavior, look for experienced practitioners of ethnography to properly deploy the method. A good ethnographer will have a strong research background (often with a degree to match), the ability to translate project needs into a research plan and questions, and theoretical and practical frameworks for analysis. Most importantly, an ethnographer will bring the ability to move research findings into recommendations and beyond.

In information architecture, ethnography is one way to understand the various ways people want to interact with websites, in service of creating delightful user experiences by bringing meaningful order to complicated digital spaces.

Interested in learning more?

TUG’s Ethnography 101 workshop can help you better understand the needs and behaviors of your users, and add ethnographic user research capabilities to your organization.


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