Here are the questions we get asked frequently about ethnographic research

What is ethnographic research?

Ethnographic research is research done in the field. For anthropologists that means observing cultures within the context of where they live. In much the same way, for UX researchers, it means studying users in their natural habitats—whether that is their homes, their offices, or “in the wild”—wherever they engage with the product.[/answer]

What are some other ways to describe ethnographic research?

Ethnographic research goes by several names in the UX world. It can be called site visits, in-home studies, point-of-sale store studies, field studies, and contextual inquiry.

What type of research outcomes emerge from ethnographic studies?

Ethnographic studies are a type of qualitative research. The fancy term for this type of study is empirical research. “Empirical” means that the research is based on evidence observed in the context of the user’s environment. Through a number of these observations, patterns will typically emerge that shed light on users’ experience and inform decision making based on information discovery about users and their environments.

How is ethnographic research different from usability testing?

Unlike usability lab testing where users are in an artificial, controlled environment, ethnographic research provides the opportunity for the researcher to observe the “artifacts” in the user’s environment and to learn how users engage with the product within their own environment, complete with its distractions and limitations.[/answer]

How do you plan for an ethnographic research study?

Depending on the product, its context of use, and the team’s goals for the research, an ethnographic research study can be non-interventional or semi-structured.

  • Non-interventional/day-in-the-life approach—following a user through all or part of a day. In this approach, the researcher is a silent observer and notetaker of a typical day in the life of the participant. At a break or the end of the session, the researcher can ask questions to flesh out observations.
  • Semi-structured interview—using a script or facilitator guide prepared by the research team. This approach allows the researcher to gather similar information from all study participants. If the structure of the session provides a way for the participant to show as well as tell how she goes through a process, the richness of the learning experience is greatly enhanced.

There’s no “bad” time to conduct ethnographic research, as you can always learn a great deal about your users when you observe them in the context of their own world.

However, ethnographic research is most often used in the early stages of product development, and ideally is conducted as part of the requirements-gathering stage to inform design from the very beginning.

Another reason to conduct ethnographic studies early or even before product design begins is that the results can form the basis for personas of the users, which can guide the process of development by reminding the designers and developers of what matters most to each subgroup of their real user population.

Ethnographic research can also be used as one part of a research plan that provides different ways of understanding user needs, wants, and desires. Coupled with usability testing, ethnography provides a rich picture of the user’s experience.[/answer]

What’s an example of an ethnographic research study?

Here’s an example for an in-hour research study. Our client wanted to learn about homeowners’ concerns regarding home safety and security, so they asked UX Firm to set up in-home study visits. Participants had to be in the market for a home security system or have recently purchased or upgraded an existing system. That requirement meant that everyone we would visit would have fresh knowledge of their experience of making a selection.

After asking some introductory questions to learn what mattered most in their decision-making, we asked each participant to go to several websites to show us how they learned about the products on the websites, and what they found helpful or frustrating.

Each session took under an hour, during which time we recorded the session and took photos (with permission).

The qualitative data obtained from the home visits was analyzed for themes and trends and then presented to the client in a findings meeting.

The findings gave insights to the client to help them determine how to enter the marketplace by addressing their users’ needs in a way that current companies did not.

Contact UX Firm to learn more about ethnographic research studies and how they can provide insights about your users.