What is an ethnographic study?

Posted on April 30, 2024
11 min read


With rapidly changing expectations and behaviors, understanding customers on a deeper level is crucial for organizations to meet their audiences’ needs. Ethnographic studies enable researchers to observe how customers use or don’t use a product or service in their natural environments, such as workplaces and homes. This approach helps marketers tailor product designs to better resonate with target audiences by understanding how routine, culture, social interactions, and different environments influence consumer behavior.

 Learn how to use ethnography to gain valuable insights into your consumers' lifestyles and preferences..

What is ethnography?

Ethnography is a qualitative study of social interactions, behaviors, and perceptions within groups, teams, organizations, and communities. This approach focuses on understanding thoughts, feelings, and observations rather than numerical data. 

What is an ethnographic study?

An ethnographic study is a field study technique that involves talking with people and observing them in their natural contexts. This method, dating back to the early 20th century, aims to gather insights on how people’s locations, environments, and other contexts affect their day-to-day lives. Today, marketing researchers leverage ethnography to understand customer needs and adapt to market changes.

You can use ethnography to gain insights into a new target audience or understand changing consumer behavior in response to market shifts, such as technological advancements. This method helps uncover deep, qualitative insights about how your audience interacts with products and services in their natural environment, providing valuable context for adapting strategies and offerings.

In moderated vs. unmoderated usability testing, ethnographic studies help designers understand design problems in detail and develop solutions that comprehensively address existing user issues. 

Differences between ethnographic studies and other field study methods

Ethnography takes a wider picture of a culture. These studies are primarily concerned with understanding the culture, behaviors, and social interactions of a group of people. Researchers immerse themselves in the environment  of the subjects to interact and understand their natural setting. 

Other methods, such as participant observation, diary studies, interviews, video, photography, or artifact analysis, are different ways of approaching ethnography.

Why is ethnographic research valuable?

  • Identify demand for products and suitability of ideas
  • Observe user interactions with technology in natural settings
  • Uncover issues not visible in lab-based usability tests

What are the drawbacks of ethnographic research?

  • Time-consuming compared to other qualitative research methods
  • They can be costly
  • Analyzing qualitative data and creating a clear and concise report can be difficult
  • Your presence as a researcher in the participant’s lives can affect the results

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.

Qualitative data collection

Because ethnography is a qualitative study, it’s all about gathering information about the stories, experiences, and perspectives of the people you’re researching. Instead of asking yes-or-no questions or ticking boxes on a survey, you use research methods that help you know folks on a personal level. 

Qualitative research examples include one-on-one participant observation interviews, focus groups, and immersive observation. These research techniques highlight the distinction between qualitative and quantitative studies.

Qualitative data collection gives you something statistics can’t—depth and context. Sure, you could crunch numbers and develop some trends, but that wouldn’t capture the richness of human experiences. Listening to people’s stories and getting to know them uncover the subtleties, contradictions, and hidden behavioral patterns that make up their culture. 

A research solution like UserTesting’s Human Insight Platform enables you to see and hear individuals' experiences as they engage with your brand, apps, products, or processes.

Longitudinal studies

Ethnography leverages longitudinal studies to gather data from the same research participants over a particular period. Rather than just capturing a snapshot of a community’s culture at a specific time, you monitor how things unfold over weeks, months, or even years. 

Longitudinal studies in ethnography allow you to pick up on trends that might not be apparent in a shorter study. You can see how people’s attitudes, behaviors, and relationships change over time. This gives you a deeper understanding of their culture, putting you in a better position to create products that appeal to their changing needs. 

You can conduct longitudinal studies before product development to gather information about user preferences. This fosters risk mitigation in product development by minimizing the chances of a solution not matching the market’s needs. Additionally, running the study after product launch can show you how, when, and why people use a product over time. 

Conducting an ethnographic study: Step-by-step guide

Where exactly should you begin when you want to carry out an ethnographic study in your research? 

1. Plan your study

Planning an effective ethnographic research has four fundamental phases: 

Set clear objectives

Start by clarifying your research goals. What do you hope to learn about your target audience? What questions are you trying to answer regarding your product’s feature or process? Defining your objectives sets the study’s direction. The more specific the objectives, the easier it is to generate valuable insights later when analyzing your findings. 

Take, for example, a study investigating an account creation process on a brand’s website. Instead of an unspecific goal like “Can users create accounts easily?” a more laser-focused objective can be one of the following: 

  • Do users notice the signup link, and how interested are they in clicking it? 
  • Are there any design usability issues in the current account creation flow? 
  • How do obstacles during account creation impact users’ likelihood of completing the process successfully? 

Create hypotheses

While objectives outline what you want to learn from your research, hypotheses are testable statements you aim to prove or disprove. They predict an outcome based on existing theory or evidence. Because they allow practical testing in research, they help guide your investigation methodology. 

good research hypothesis is specific. It mentions the target group, specifies what members of that group might prefer, and suggests a potential product feature. Here’s an example: 

Young professionals (22-35 years old) interested in getting healthier are more likely to adopt a fitness tracker app that integrates seamlessly with their existing wellness routines (e.g., wearable devices and workout apps). 

While your hypothesis should be the best guess of what the study might reveal, it may be right or wrong. The goal is to learn from whatever outcome you’ll get. 

Choose the right environment

The environment where people interact with your product is the ideal place to conduct an ethnographic study. For instance, a gaming company may decide to study players in their natural settings, such as gaming studios, e-sport tournaments, and homes. 

In a natural environment, user behavior tends to be authentic and contextually rich, providing insights that could inform the creation of more engaging and user-friendly products. 

Select the right participants

If you have a niche product that caters to a market segment with unique needs or preferences, ensure you recruit study participants who match the profile of your ideal buyers. On the other hand, use a general demographic in your research if your product targets various customers and anyone can use it with minimal instructions. 

Use research platforms like UserTesting to make recruiting the right test subject easy. You can select suitable study participants from the UserTesting Contributor Network. If you target a specific population, the platform allows you to set recruitment requirements such as income, age, gender, and country. 

2. Choose data collection techniques

With multiple techniques to gather data in an ethnographic study, which ones should you use in your research? 

Immersive observation

Immersive observation is about entering the lives of the population you’re researching. It involves seeing from the inside how people you study live, how they conduct their day-to-day activities, and what they value and why. 

With immersion, you become a temporary insider, so you can pick up on the subtle behavioral patterns that may not be readily visible in other research methods. As a result, you get a clear picture of how participants’ environment and worldview shape their opinion about a brand or determine how they use a product. 

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. Passive observation in ethnographic studies

Passive observation is basically ‘shadowing’—you follow and observe your subjects without interacting with them. Of course, you have already interviewed your subjects before beginning to shadow them, which helped you learn more about them and their needs. You can document your observations through notes, photographs, videos, voice recordings, or sketches.

Structured interviews

A predetermined set of questions guides the interview process to extract specific information from participants. Because the queries are the same when interviewing different people, structured interviews allow researchers to compare responses. 

Unstructured interviews

They involve free-flowing conversations between the researchers and the interviewees. Since there are no predetermined questions, topics you discuss with participants emerge organically based on participants' responses and may reveal details that structured interviews miss. 

You can mix both to get a well-rounded picture of your study population.

Document and artifact analysis

Documents are written materials created by the people you’re studying, whether printed or electronic. This may include public records, personal journals, or social media posts. Artifacts are physical objects such as tools and artwork. 

Analyzing documents and artifacts provides additional insights beyond what people say in interviews or what you observe in their behavior. 

3. Analyze and interpret data

After collecting data, the next step is converting your field notes into insights that can help organizations improve product design or develop new, user-centered solutions. To achieve that, look for recurring behavioral patterns from your research findings. 

However, manually analyzing data sets can be tedious and time-consuming. Consider using software tools for qualitative data analysis. UserTesting has built-in analytical and visualization features, helping you automatically analyze and extract insights from raw data in just a few minutes instead of hours.

Overcoming challenges in ethnographic research

While ethnography provides invaluable insights into how people interact with your product, it also comes with challenges. Navigating these problems can help improve the quality of your research findings. 

Common pitfalls and how to avoid them

  • Observer bias occurs when one's expectations, opinions, and prejudices influence what one perceives and records in an ethnographic study. Acknowledging how one's background, beliefs, and perspectives may influence one's observations can help mitigate this problem. 

Related reading: 7 UX principles based on psychological phenomena

  • Ethical dilemmas related to informed consent and privacy are common in ethnographic research. Prioritizing the rights of research participants is vital to complying with the acceptable code of conduct when collecting data from people. 
  • Difficulty in building trust refers to facing resistance when attempting to enter communities where researchers are outsiders. Offering something valuable in return for participants’ cooperation can help build trust

Best practices for reliable and ethical research

  • Gaining informed consent: Ensure participants understand the study’s purpose, risks, and benefits. Be transparent and respect their right to withdraw at any time. 
  • Balancing researcher involvement and observation: The goal of immersive observation is not only to take a deep dive into people’s day-to-day routines. It also involves pulling yourself out of that immersion to process what you’ve seen (and heard), put the findings into perspective, and come up with objective, detailed conclusions. 
  • Long-term engagement strategies: Demonstrate a genuine interest in participants’ culture by involving in their routine activities. Also, respect their way of life by avoiding behaviors that may be considered intrusive or disrespectful. 

The future of ethnographic study in market research

As new technologies emerge and customer behaviors change constantly, the field of research will experience new trends. Staying on top of these trends will be pivotal for researchers looking to harness the full potential of ethnographic studies. 

Innovations and technological advancements

Technological advancements make virtual ethnography— the study of people’s culture and social interactions via the internet—increasingly popular. Because the research occurs online, researchers can study geographically dispersed communities or niche groups that might be difficult to access physically. 

Additionally, the adoption of generative artificial intelligence (AI), such as ChagGPT, DALL-E, and Midjourney, is increasing steadily in nearly every sector. For this reason, the future of ethnographic studies in marketing will involve AI-human collaboration. AI will no longer be just an automation technology—it will also be a helpful assistant that accelerates research by suggesting on demand what a study should test, how to conduct the test, and the suitable research participants. As a result, researchers will be able to set up their studies quickly and get outcomes as early as possible. 

Apart from being an assistant, AI will transform how researchers analyze the data they collect from ethnographic studies. Manually sifting through a vast amount of research details is slow and overwhelming (and you can fail to note valuable patterns in the data). Because AI can process millions of datasets in just a few minutes, it will help researchers identify anomalies, correlations, and patterns faster than ever before and reveal hidden insights that may not be readily visible to the human eye. 

Integrating ethnographic insights into business strategies

The future of ethnographic marketing research lies in integrating its insights directly into business strategies. If understanding customer needs and behaviors in a new market is a strategic priority for your business, then ethnographic studies make sense to prioritize. Here's why and what that looks like: 

With ethnographic research, you immerse yourself in the natural environment of customers. This gives you the real-life context of how your new audience uses your product, what motivates them to buy from(or interact with) your brand, and the challenges they face when using what you offer them. You can then leverage these insights to provide a better personal experience for your product users. 

Leverage UserTesting to conduct effective ethnographic studies

An ethnographic study immerses researchers in the natural environments of consumers. That way, researchers can discover hidden user motivations and culture-driven patterns that may not be apparent in other types of research. 

The deep understanding you gain from the ethnographic study can provide strategic advantages. It can help you better innovate and connect with your target audiences. The future of thriving organizations lies in knowing what users want and how they genuinely behave when engaging with a brand. 

Launch your ethnographic study on the UserTesting research platform to uncover behavioral insights you need to deliver customer-centric products or services. 

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