Intro to Ethnography and Why it Matters for User Research

Ethnography is the study of social interactions, behaviors, and perceptions within groups, teams, organizations, and communities. The goal of ethnography is to provide rich, holistic insights into people’s views, actions, and environment. Ethnography falls under the anthropology field, but it is a method of research that many other kinds of researchers in different fields can incorporate into their studies.

Whether we realize it or not, ethnographic methods are used all the time in market and user research. Hosting a focus group or observing participants using a product are so common in our work that it can be easy to dismiss the methodology behind them. Understanding how ethnographic methods play a role in user research can provide a rich understanding of what user researchers do and it can fuel quality, human-centered research.

What makes ethnography different from other forms of research are three main distinguishing features: 

  1. Human-centered approach. People are the core of ethnographic research.

  2. Context and reflections. Ethnographic research involves engaging and interacting with the environment of the people you are studying. It is not just asking them questions; what is not said is just as important as what is said. In addition, the researchers’ internal reflections of their experiences and interactions in a community are also taken into account as data.

  3. Holistic qualitative analysis. It is an entirely qualitative method of research in which we are meant to find the overarching story from the data that is collected. A story that is rich with context and experiences so that we can see the big picture.

Ethnographic Methods Can Include:

  • Participant observation. Participant observation includes direct engagement and involvement with the group or individuals we are studying. Throughout this method it is common to take field notes of observations, conversations, and personal reflections of feelings and experiences. A prime example of participant observation in user research is when researchers visit consumers in their homes or offices. In this case, researchers can observe the participant’s surroundings and really understand how a new product or device would fit, or not fit, into their home or office life. The goal of participant observation is to see people’s behavior on their terms, not ours. This is a part of researchers immersing themselves in the environment of the people they want to learn from.

  • Interviews. Interviews can range from informal to formal in-depth interviews. Informal interviews are usually more conversational and naturally flow around a main topic, but have no discussion guide. Formal in-depth interviews utilize a formal discussion guide and directly address specific questions.

  • Analysis. Ethnographic data is typically analyzed in an inductive thematic manner, which means we are not testing a hypothesis or using data to fit a target narrative. Rather, we let a story emerge from the data at hand by examining it after collection and finding themes and key issues.The personal reflections that researchers include in field notes are important in this analysis because of natural bias that occurs within all of us. It is a way for the audience or readers to understand any internal factors that might have influenced the study.

How Can Ethnographic Research Fit in With User Research?
There Are Two Main Crossovers:

  1. Qualitative research methods and holistic data analysis. Data in user research can be collected through various means such as formal in-depth interviews, informal interviews, home visits, observations, surveys, and so on. When this data collection considers the environment participants are in, their social interactions, behaviors, and perceptions they have of their team, organization, and software, researchers are able to immerse themselves in the environment of the end-user and understand the role a product can play in their lives. That is what ethnographic research is and that is what helps us understand end-users and build equitable products. Recognizing and acknowledging internal biases helps in the process of generating holistic, meaningful, and contextual insights. Additionally, letting the data guide you during analysis rather than contorting data to fit a preconceived idea is the only way to ensure an accurate representation of the ideas and thoughts that matter in the evolution of products and services.

  2. Human-centered recruitment and research. Participants are the experts in ethnographic research and in user research. We are learning from the people we are studying. If we look at, for example, a chemistry study, the expert is the scientist. In user research, however, researchers are not the experts. That being said, the quality of user research can increase greatly when participants are respected and allowed a safe space to share their thoughts, experiences, and stories in their own words. This gives us the best chance at ensuring that we are getting participants’ honest thoughts and opinions. User research is ultimately about solving user problems and would therefore be useless without their honest perspectives. Participants are people and we need to treat them like people; treat them like the expert because they are the expert.

Ethnography is a core part of user research and can pave the way for high-quality findings. As user researchers, we can always find ourselves diving into the culture of technology use, company structure, and more at the individual level. It is essential that we do so with the best strategies and methodology available, building contextual and holistic insights in the form of stories and user profiles to support the product design process. After all, humans are the center of user research.

What do you think? 

We hope you enjoyed this blog post and consider ethnography in your own research. Do you have any questions? Are you curious to learn more about our work? Feel free to reach out if you would like more information about the recruitment services we offer or wish to explore how we can support your research projects. 

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This post is co-written by Yani Aldrich (left) and Justine Diaz (right). Yani holds a degree in Sociology and has a background in anthropological research. She loves applying ethnographic methods to her work through putting people first and presenting meaningful analysis. Justine holds a degree in Psychology and is dedicated to fostering honest and safe spaces for research using a human-centered approach. 

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