Ethnographic Research

You can always learn a great deal about your users when you observe them in the context of their own world.  

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.

Why is ethnographic research important?

Ethnographic research provides UX researchers with insights into the user’s world. It allows researchers to gain empathy for their users by seeing the environments and constraints that affect user experience.

No amount of usability testing can get at this real-world understanding. Observing users in the artificial environment of a lab or remote usability study provides feedback in a controlled environment.

The missing piece that ethnographic research provides is insight gained from observing users in their own environment and learning what that world looks like.

Ethnographic research is most beneficial at the requirements-gathering stage for new products. When returning from visits to potential users’ homes or workplaces, the UX researchers will typically have a treasure trove of findings that can then be organized into themes to support user goals.

These findings also provide the building blocks for creating personas of users, which can inform design throughout development.

How ethnographic research can help your business

Ethnographic research is most beneficial for businesses that are developing a new product and are in the early stages of the project.  We call this the requirements-gathering stage.  During this stage some important insights you can gain are:

  • Understand the context in which your customers will be using your product
  • Identify unexpected issues that you may not have otherwise anticipated

Companies use ethnographic research

Any company that is in the early stages of creating a new product can benefit from the insights gained from ethnographic research.  You could be a major organization like Xerox and Intel who use ethnographic research to develop products that improve the lives of their users.  Consequently, you could be a startup that is creating the next big toy for toddlers.

Ethnography is especially critical for companies that are creating a product or system that could cause harm to the user of their product.  

The biggest goal of design should be to create a compelling customer experience.


How do you conduct ethnographic research?

 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.


Is ethnographic research qualitative or quantitative?

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.

What is ethnographic research also known as in UX?

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 is an example of an ethnographic research study? 

Ethnographic research may also be referred to as in-home studies, point-of-sale store studies, field studies, and contextual inquiry.

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 were 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.

Your Users. Our Experience.