The UX design process requires an in-depth understanding of how the users behave and interact with products. Often, UX designers logically guess user motives behind their  actions. Such logical interpretations and guesswork might not always be true and they can create blindspots in design, hindering an optimum user experience. Ethnographic UX research methodology helps to fill these blind spots by gaining a better understanding of people’s needs and motives.

What is ethnography?

Ethnography is a qualitative research method that studies the behavior and interactions of users in their natural environments rather than in an imaginative setup. The main goal of ethnographic research is to extract information on how users interact with objects in their natural environment. This helps researchers to know people’s shared culture, conventions, and social dynamics.  

In qualitative research like ethnography,  thoughts, feelings, and observations are mapped as compared to quantitative research which maps numerical data. It originates from anthropological study and dates back to the turn of the 20th century. The study focuses on user behavior and interaction and assesses the location, environment, and other contexts that affect the subjects’ daily lives. 

In a UX design process, ethnography finds great importance in the research phase which lays the foundation for the entire design. 

What is ethnography in UX designs? 

Ethnography is an important part of user research that gives key insights into the users’  behavior, culture, and conventions. Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist has said that “ What people say, what people do, and what people say they do are entirely different things.” This implies that simply framing questions to conduct user research will not always be fruitful. When UX  researchers immerse themselves in the research environment, they can access authentic information. 

Lucy Suchman, the earliest social scientist at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Centre) was the first person to introduce ethnographic research in the realm of UX design.  She believed that machines must respond to users’ actions rather than users trying to understand how the machines would respond to their actions. 

This approach solved one of the biggest pain points of office workers at PARC, which was operating the huge Xerox copier machines that needed special training. By conducting an ethnography study of office workers, Lucy Suchman monitored how the users interacted with the machine and what problems they faced.

Image showing Lucy Suchman observing researchers Ron Kaplan and Allen Newell using the machine. 

The experiment was video recorded and shown to researchers and engineers at Xerox PARC. This paved the way for significant changes in the interface design including the addition of now ubiquitous large green buttons which allow users to make a copy easily. 

Ethnographic research in UX is observational and done in context. As in the example above, UX researchers put themselves right next to the users and observe the process, seeking to understand the problems faced by the users. 

In effect, ethnography is a subset of user research. The combined result of ethnographic research and in-depth interviews give valuable inputs for contextual inquiry. The context could be the users’ homes, offices, or wherever they interact with the product.

Challenges of conducting ethnographic research

It is imperative that ethnographic research is fundamental to gain first-hand information on the users. But there are some crucial points to consider before starting research using ethnographic techniques. 

  • There are possibilities of an inadequate sample size to conduct research. It can be small and unique in most cases. In a lean environment, researchers are likely to focus on hypotheses rather than real data. 
  • The thought process, feelings, and emotions of people vary from person to person. So it is important to have an open mind to perceive different ways of seeing things to avoid personal biases. 
  • Ethnographic research is not just the collection of data it is seeing through the eyes of the users. 
  • Ethnographic research is a time-consuming process. Therefore, it is important to allocate ample time for the final results and solutions. 
  • Coordination and data collection in ethnographic research is a multi-step process and it is quite costly. 

Benefits of ethnography in UX research 

The user experience is an amalgamation of the user, the interface, and the context. In ethnographic research, the users’ real-world behaviors and interactions are monitored to get highly applicable insights. 

Provides real-world settings to study user interactions

An ethnographic approach in UX design studies how people relate and interact with the technology in their natural environment. The users behave naturally when they start familiarizing themselves with a new product. This would unveil crucial behavioral patterns of potential users, which are essential for effective UX designs.  

Establishes a relationship with the users

In ethnographic research, a sample set of target users are compiled first and the user’s behavioral aspects are monitored closely. During this process, a UX researcher maintains excellent rapport with the users and builds personal relationships. This encourages open and unbiased conversations between the users and the researchers and paves way for building a product that suits the behavioral patterns and needs of the users. 

Helps to identify the pain points of the user

Ethnographic research goes deeper into the social aspect of product design by understanding the challenges people have to deal with as they interact with their environments and existing tools. These behavioral cues are used for discovering solutions that might resolve the pain points of the user. 

Improves product design 

The behavioral patterns are unfolded and more pronounced during the intensive research phase. These facts can be put to use in the design stage as well as the continued iteration stages. This allows for continuous improvement of the user experience and gives a competitive edge to the product design. 

Three main ethnographic research methods 

UX researchers use different methodologies to study the environment and behavioral aspects of the users, however, these are the most common approaches: . 

  1. 1. Passive Observation 

Passive observation involves shadowing and observing the users with no interaction with them. In this approach, the UX researcher passively observes the users to capture their natural and unfiltered responses. This allows for more space for careful observation and note-taking.   

The users are interviewed prior to shadowing to get basic information like age, gender, and income. However, this data is used further to learn more about them and their needs. 

The observations can be compiled as field notes, photographs, videos, voice recordings, or sketches. 

  1. 2. Active Observation 

This approach is usually adopted by UX researchers who want to get hands-on information about the users, especially at work. It involves immersing with the team of users and understanding the challenges or pain points of using a product. 

During active observation, staying vigilant of the behavioral aspect of the users and visualizing things from the user's perspective helps construct the ethnography.  

  1. 3. Contextual Interviews

Contextual inquiry is done during or after active interaction with the users. Questions are framed specifically to know the natural settings of the user. Based on this information, user actions are analyzed to learn their impact on the interaction with the product. 

How to analyze ethnographic research data?

Once the ethnographic research is conducted and observations are gathered, the next step is to analyze the gathered data. This requires proper planning and well-thought-out strategies. 

  1. The first step is to organize a cross-functional team with adequate professional diversity to pick out the most fruitful observations. The more the number of experts the more varied will be the perspectives and contexts to aid the changes in product design. 
  2. The group of users under consideration should be divided into sample sets to ease the iterations in design. 
  3. Draw conclusions by preparing affinity diagrams by making use of ethnographic notes and transcripts. 
  4. Analyze the patterns observed in the users and group the relevant ones together. 
  5. Prioritize the insights obtained from ethnographic research as some observations are relevant to the product at a particular stage. 
  6. Use the insights often to iterate the UX design and if required repeat the process many times. 

Summary 

Ethnography in UX is considered an effective method to understand the users and their pain points while using a product. It aids researchers to simplify complex processes in real-world contexts. The added value of ethnography in designing user-centric products are:  

  •  The UX designers develop empathy towards the user for whom the product is being designed. 
  • At every stage of the design process, product designers keep in mind that users are not a homogenous group. They have different perspectives, goals, and environments. Studying them closely helps in designing a flawless product. 

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