Originating from anthropologist Margaret Mead’s pioneering work, ethnography is a potent technique that uses behavioral observation, contextual interviewing, and meticulous deep dives with users at home or work. What makes ethnography impactful is its emphasis on understanding context of use. Beyond market research, Ethnography delves into the profound realm of culture, behavior, and context, unraveling the motivations and triggers that steer users’ decisions and actions.
Ethnography is vital to specify journey maps and service blueprints (eg with Service Safaris). It is also vital in sustainability design, understanding Accessibility, and creating Inclusive Design.
It is also called Contextual Inquiry, user observations, Field Studies, and Task Analysis. An extension of Task Analysis can be found in “Task Analysis through Cognitive Archaeology” by Frank Spillers, CEO Experience Dynamics.
In essence, ethnography invites us to take a stroll in another’s shoes or embark on a “day in the life” exploration. This method involves observing human interactions within their social, physical, temporal, and cultural contexts.
“Ethnography emerges as a cost-effective approach to unveil potentially pivotal customer needs. It stands as a wellspring of novel product concepts, even possessing the capability to steer a company’s technological capacities toward entirely new business avenues.”- See “Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design” by Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey F. Rayport.
3 Key Techniques Underlying Ethnography
We use these ethnography techniques at Experience Dynamics and have been teaching them to hundreds of teams in our UX Training.
1 Contextual Interviewing:
Immerse yourself in the environments where users engage in tasks. These are one-to-one day-in-the-life interview-observations or “deep hanging out” (hat tip to Sr. Ethnographer Gen Bell at Intel). Why? Interactions unfolding in a focus group setting or boardroom setting bypass the crucial nuances of contextual inquiry.
See Market Research + User Research = NOT the same thing
Also see: When Surveys Don’t work for UX Insights
Context of use influences user behavior. Ethnographic interview techniques detect environmental, social, and emotional needs. Conducting observations and candid discussions in these settings reveals what users want and need within an understanding of their current habits and cultural factors.
2 Task Analysis:
Observe users as they conduct their current tasks, and observe coping strategies, shortcuts, and insights. Artifacts will highlight usage scenarios, conditions, and contexts that underpin their needs and tasks.
See What is Task & Context in UX?
3 Diary Studies:
Equipping users with diaries to chronicle their thoughts and experiences over time unveils crucial insights often obscured during traditional research. This method facilitates a deeper understanding of issues that come up beyond the one or two-hour interview. Diaries last 1-2 weeks. Integrating this technique with contextual interviews transforms photos and video or text entries into focal points regarding user values, daily routines, and hidden usage dimensions.
See The power of Diary Studies in UX Research
5 ways to analyze your Ethnographic data
We typically use the following output methods in UX Research and UX Consulting…
1 Affinity Diagrams: A technique that identifies relationships and clusters information into groups to allow you to see patterns or themes.
2 Task Flows: Organizing user actions, and system responses, based on the flow of a task. These diagrams help map the play-by-play of a task as it unfolds.
3 Artifacts: Artifacts are objects or phenomena of significance that tell the context story surrounding a user’s experience. They include physical, cognitive, social, and emotional factors that surface in user interviews and observations. Artifacts take you into a user’s world to help you critically understand their needs and desires.
4 Scenarios: Synthesizing observations into scenarios that offer meaningful insights into user intentions, expectations, and actions about new systems. These typically get turned into user Personas.
5 Journey Maps: A visual representation of a ‘journey’ through your product or service steps. It unveils tasks, pain points, opportunities, touchpoints, channels, and goals.