The Power of Rapid Ethnography

Summary: The Power of Rapid Ethnography is in its potential to quickly help you understand your user’s problem space. Before jumping to solutions, understanding the problems they are trying to solve, the context of use, and the artifacts they employ can help you make better design decisions.

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.

Example of an ethnography from Levis Strauss & Co.
“A deep understanding of consumer cultural insight is at the heart of everything we do. Designers, merchandisers, and marketers use the insights as the start of the process of developing products and bringing them to market”. -Michael Perman, Senior Director Cultural Insights, Levi Strauss & Co.
Jeans hanging in the closet
Perman’s team uses both quantitative and qualitative research, but when it comes to gathering consumer insight, he focuses on in-depth ethnographic research provided by partners who specialize in getting deep into the “nooks and crannies of consumer life in America and around the world.” For example, his team spends time in consumers’ homes and in their closets. They shop with consumers, looking for the reality of a consumer’s life and identifying themes that will enable designers and merchandisers to understand better and anticipate consumer needs.
“Over time, as you develop a relationship with consumers, they reveal more intimate thoughts about what’s going on in their lives,” Perman says. “As you observe them, they’ll give you insights that will inspire growth ideas.”

At the heart of Levis’s approach is its immersive journey into consumer spaces. Per Ethnography, Perman’s team steps into the private domains of consumers, from their homes to their closets. They accompany consumers on their shopping expeditions, gaining an authentic understanding of their daily realities. This immersive strategy uncovers vital themes that serve as design ideas for designers and merchandisers, enriching their understanding of Levis’s customer needs and allowing them to plan the right kind of delight down the road.



From delving into consumer homes to cultivating lasting relationships, ethnography unveils intricate consumer dimensions that traditional methods may miss. As we’ve seen through this Levis case study, combining the strength of ethnographic research with organizational openness drives innovation, fosters understanding, and provides pinpoint product-service strategies.

Learn more in this Ethnography Methods Training or this UX Research Training

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