What is an ethnographic study?

By UserTesting | May 5, 2023
Ethnographic study books

Before we get into the details of this particular field of study and how it relates to user research and design, let’s understand what's meant by "ethnography."

What is ethnography?

Ethnography is a qualitative study of social interactions, behaviors, and perceptions within groups, teams, organizations, and communities. Qualitative means it’s all about thoughts, feelings, and observations rather than cold, numerical data. 

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 on how their location, environment, and other contexts affect their day-to-day lives.

So how does this relate to our modern practices of user research? 

What is an ethnographic study?

As you will have gathered from the above, it’s a field study technique that involves talking with people and observing them perform their tasks in their natural context. But what’s the difference between an ethnographic study and a usability study?

Usability is about how people directly interact with technology in the more traditional sense. Ethnography is about how people interact with each other.

So UX designers would take ethnographic research and use it to solve a problem through a product or technology.

What’s the difference between ethnographic study and other field study methods?

Ethnography takes a wider picture of a culture. At the same time, other types of studies, such as participant observation, diary studies, interviews, video, photography, or artifact analysis, devices they use throughout the day, are just different ways of approaching ethnography.

Why is ethnographic research good?

  • You can ascertain what demand there is for certain types of products and whether your ideas would be suitable
  • You get to see how users interact with technology in their setting, away from a lab or your stuffy office
  • You might find issues that a lab-based usability test wouldn’t uncover

What are the drawbacks of ethnographic research?

  • It takes a longer period
  • It can be quite costly
  • Analyzing the qualitative data and producing a report that makes your research clear and concise can be difficult
  • Your very presence as a researcher in the participant’s lives can color the results
  • You have to make sure your own biases or opinions are not coloring your findings

How do you carry out an ethnographic study?

You can make your observations from any place where there are people you need to study, 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 well as 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:

Passive observation

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'll have already interviewed your subjects before beginning to shadow them, which will help you learn more about them and their needs.

You can document your observations through notes, photographs, videos, voice recordings, or sketches.

Active participation

This is for researchers who need to get hands-on, especially if studying people at work. It 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.”

Contextual interviews

These can be done during or after "active participation," where you can ask the subjects questions in their natural environment, or you can just observe behaviors and then ask questions (again in their setting) to gain more insight.

What information should I capture?

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 have already a finished product that needs a demographic to target.

UXmatters lists a few useful ideas about what information you should capture:

  • Describe the physical aspects of the environment: if the participant is at work, including the layout of workstations, desk space and clutter, collaboration, and conversation areas.
  • Key events and incidents: what happened, and who did what? What is your impression of these incidents, and what are our team members’ thoughts regarding and interpretations of these events? How do they feel about them?

How do you analyze ethnographic data?

The recommendation from experienced UX pros is for researchers to look for patterns and themes in the data. They will look for the challenges and barriers that users encountered and how this affected different users.

They also recommended using an affinity diagram, 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 clearly and collaboratively. 

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About the author(s)

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