What is it?

Ethnographic research is an observational research method used to gain insights into the behaviour of users in their natural environment. As opposed to researching in a lab, the participants are observed in a real life environment with real life scenarios.

It can gain a rich understanding of the external factors that cannot be garnered or easily recreated in a lab-based research scenario. This is extremely useful in developing an understanding of the context of use for a product, which might include understanding the sounds, sights, distractions, processes and other as yet undiscovered influential factors.

Succinctly put, ethnographic research is:

“the deliberate attempt to generate more data than the investigator is aware of at the time of collection.”  – Marilyn Strathern (2003)

This type of research is used in various different research disciplines, but within the field of UX research the objective is to gain a deep understanding of the design problem. Having an opportunity to take a closer look into a design problem enables the designer to have a more detailed and holistic appreciation for the problem in question.

Types of Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research can come in two forms: participant observation or user 1-2-1 interviews.

Participant Observation

Observing the participant in their natural environment, also referred to as shadowing, allows the user to go about life as usual whilst being shadowed by a researcher. Observations will then be recorded in a variety of ways from note taking to photographic or video based documentation.

Shadowing usually varies in length from half an hour to days or weeks, depending on the objective of the research. This allows UX researchers to become fully immersed in the reality of users and enables designers to fully understand user behaviour and design for those behaviours.

Humans have surprising blind spots for describing what they have done. In reality, our behaviour differs significantly from what we say we have done. The discrepancy between what we say we have done and what we have actually done leads to gems of insight which can prove priceless in understanding user behaviour.

1-2-1 research interviews

Unlike participant observation, the researcher will ask a series of questions to the user in their natural environment. Questions will often revolve around their everyday routines and tasks whilst they are being performed. This enables the researcher to gain further insight into why users are doing what they are doing and the thought processes behind these behaviours.

When to use Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research is most frequently used at the early stages of a project, as this research will give a great insight into the problems and user needs. It can even be used to understand new market opportunities, as well as understand the real frustrations of users. Ethnographic research is also particularly useful when looking at complex design or where there are relatively complicated elements.

It can be used to evaluate an existing design, allowing the researcher to see how an existing design is actually used and identify any unforeseen problems. This enables existing designs to be iterated to better suit the users needs.

Benefits of Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research enables the researcher to find a realistic view of users’ actions. What people ‘say they do’ and what ‘they actually do’ varies greatly. So observing in first person allows a researcher to truly analyse what behaviours are occurring.

This type of research helps to uncover unexpected problems which could easily be missed in a lab setting. Ethnographic research helps to mitigate the risk of new product launches through enabling researchers to see them in use and iterate accordingly prior to rolling out a new product.

Potential drawbacks

The value of the ethnographic research relies on the quality of the research. It is vital that the researcher is highly skilled in ethnographic research and user behaviours. Using researchers with limited experience can significantly affect the output of this type of research. The researcher needs to be able to build trust with the research participant in order to be allowed to see a true representation of the participants reality.

It can be a lengthy process and often needs to be combined with other research methods, such as a larger quantitative study or a diary study. The length and depth of research depends on the objective of the research – as well as budget of course.

Conclusion

Ethnographic research is incredibly valuable at the beginning stage of sizeable projects. Researchers can gain an immersive understanding of the users and their problems and it will often give insight into unknown challenges. The usefulness is magnified if the research environment is unknown or significantly different from an environment known to the researcher.

Without this type of research there is a risk that the design will be made from the designers perspective of the problem rather than the reality of the problem. Uncovering these problems early in the research and design stage will ensure that designs are made with users’ needs at the core and increase the likelihood of success of the project. Ethnographic research can also be used to help iterate existing designs and help improve the usability, but regardless of whether it is new or existing, it can reduce the (expensive) need for more future iterations.

In summary, ethnographic research is a powerful methodology to help uncover hidden gems of insight, which would otherwise not be established, and put them at the centre of the design and development solution.