Before we get into the details of this particular field of… uh… field study and how it relates to user research and design, let’s understand what is meant by ’ethnography’.
According to the BMJ, Ethnography is a qualitative study of social interactions, behaviors, and perceptions that occur within groups, teams, organisations, and communities.
(Qualitative means it’s all about thoughts, feelings and observations rather than cold, numerical data. So you’ll need to remember to take a notebook and pen.)
This type of anthropological study dates back to the turn of the 20th century, and its aim was not just to gather information on how people behave and interact, but also how their location, environment and other contexts affects their day-to-day lives.
So how do this relate to our modern practices of user research? I’m glad you asked! (Although if you hadn’t asked, I could have just spent the rest of the day doing crosswords in my Junior Puzzle magazine.)
As you will have gathered from the above, it’s a field study technique, which involves talking with people and observing them perform their tasks in their own natural context.
So yes, this unfortunately means you have to leave the comfort of your living room to do it. Unless you’re doing an ethnographic study of the cat, in which case the bias caused by your own presence will render the results unscientific.
But what’s the difference between an ethnographic study and a usability study?
As UXmatters suggests, usability is about how people directly interact with a technology in the more traditional sense, ethnography is about how people interact with each other.
So UX designers would take this ethnographic research and use it to solve a problem through a product or technology.
A designer solving a problem with technology. The problem being ‘why is the internet so mean?’
Ethnography takes a wider picture of a culture, while other types of studies, such as participant observation, diary studies, interviews, video, photography or artefact analysis (devices they use throughout the day) are just different ways of approaching ethnography.
User Experience Research 101
You can make your observations from any place where there are people you need to study (caveat: that you have permission from) – so a person’s workplace, home, out and about – wherever they interact with people and objects within practical reason.
The length of time can range from hours to days to months. Just bear in mind that the longer you spend studying or interacting with someone, the more used to you they will get. But of course, practicalities and budgets will always be an issue. As will the subject’s patience.
As we’ve mentioned, you can use all kinds of methodologies to run an ethnographic study, however these are the main umbrellas under which you can choose to operate:
As detailed by Experience UX, passive observation is basically ‘shadowing’ – you follow and observe your subjects without interacting with them. This may also be why that giant potted plant has been following you around lately.
Of course, you will have already interviewed your subjects before beginning to shadow them (again, you don’t want to be a total creepo) and this will help you learn more about them and their needs.
You can document your observations through notes, photographs, videos, voice recordings or sketches.
Researcher studying subjects and their interactions, before their subsequent arrest
This is for researchers who need to get hands-on, especially if studying people at work. It basically means: join the team and learn how to do the job!
As Michael Kilman answers in his Quora response, “Basically if you want to understand a fishing culture, you don’t sit on the dock with binoculars, you go out and help make the nets, catch fish, cook the fish and spend time with the people and participate. By participating and paying attention to what is happening around you, you will better be able to construct your ethnography because you will begin to understand things from their perspective.”
These can be done during or after ‘active participation’, where you can ask the subjects’ questions in their own natural environment, or you can just observe behaviours and then ask questions (again in their own setting) to gain more insight.
As UXmatters suggests, it’s a good idea to have a goal you can focus on, otherwise you’ll be stuck not knowing what to write down, or you’ll be scribbling furiously and have endless reams of observations.
However you also shouldn’t be too focused, as the point of this exercise is to find solutions to real-world problems, not to already have a finished product that needs a demographic to target.
UXmatters lists a few useful ideas about what information you should capture:
The recommendation from Experience UX, is for researchers to look for patterns and themes from the data. They will look for the challenges and barriers that users encountered and how this effected different users.
They also recommended the use of an affinity diagram, which is a common tool in project management that allows you to group together large numbers of observations based on their relationships.
This will allow you to look for patterns in clear, collaborative manner. Plus you get to use Post-it notes, so double-win.
This article couldn’t have been completed without the following invaluable resources: