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Ethnographic Research: What, When and How
Observing your customers in context for deep and rich insights

What is Ethnographic Research?

Ethnographic research is a qualitative research method where we observe and/or interact with respondents in their natural environment to provide a deeper understanding of a design problem. The objective of this type of research is to gain insights into how users interact with things in their natural environment.

It is used within the field of user experience, user-centred design and service design to get ‘under the skin’ of a design problem. This enables designers to really understand the user, their goals and context of use to design more effective solutions.

Ethnographic research methods

Deep, immersive ethnography is rarely required within the field of user experience. We find short ethnographic to be cost effective and very useful for user-centred projects.

Ethnography methods include passive, diary studies, videos, photography and contextual interviews. This can occur anywhere from the user’s workplace, their home or while they are out depending on the design problem to be tackled. The length of the studies can range from a couple of hours to several months.

When to use ethnographic research?

Ethnographic research should occur at the beginning of the user-centred design process. It should be used when a user’s environment is an important influence on the design. 

We recommend using ethnographic methods for complex and critical design problems, where you need a deeper understanding of the user, their processes, goals and context of use. 

Advantages of ethnography

There are many advantages of ethnographic research over other research methods:

  • Deliver a detailed representation of users’ behaviours and attitudes

  • Help identify and analyse unexpected issues that might not have been encountered in a usability test or user research interview

  • Observe first-hand how users interact with technology in their natural environment

  • Test new product ideas before they are released to understand demand and potential improvements

Disadvantages of ethnography

There are many disadvantages of ethnographic research compared to other qualitative research methods like usability testing and user research interviews:

  • Users may not act completely naturally in shorter studies as they haven’t built up trust

  • It takes longer to generate and analyse the findings

  • The cost of conducting ethnographic studies is typically much higher 

Conclusion

Ethnographic studies are a great way to really understand your users and the challenges they face in their everyday lives. The insights provide richer, contextual insights to help you discover and explore design problems.  We find that this insight helps the design team to develop uncover more innovative opportunities to solve their design problems. As mentioned, ethnographic studies can be time consuming and costly, so it is important to make sure that it is the most effective research method to get your research questions answered.