Sometimes questions are more important than answers

What is Ethnography research?

Ethnography is a study through direct observation of users in their natural environment rather than in a lab. The objective of this type of research is to gain insights into how users interact with things in their natural environment.

Busy shopping centre

The aim of ethnographic research

Ethnography is a qualitative research study looking at the social interaction of users in a given environment. This research provides an in-depth insight into the user’s views and actions along with the sights and sounds they encounter during their day. It provides the researcher with an understanding of how those users see the world and how they interact with everything around them.

Ethnography methods include direct observation, diary studies, video recordings, photography and artefact analysis such as devices that a person uses throughout the day. Observations can be made anywhere from the user’s workplace, their home or while they are out with family and friends. The length of the studies can vary depending on the research that is being conducted. They can range from a couple of hours of observation, to studies that last several months.

How to complete ethnographic research?

There are two key methods to collect ethnographic research data. Both involve observation:

1. Passive observation

Passive observation which can also be known as ‘shadowing’ is where a user or users are shadowed while they go about their everyday tasks observed by a researcher. Sometimes before the research begins, users will be interviewed on their own or in groups to learn more about them and their needs. Observations will be documented throughout the day using a number of methods such as taking notes, photographs, sketches or videos. The research may be conducted as part of a team so that a larger number of users can be observed and therefore gaining a greater insight quickly. This observation method is a good way for researchers to see how users go about their day first-hand and identify any disconnections when the user tells the researcher one thing but actually interacts in another way.

2. Contextual interviews

Contextual interviews are where the researcher will interact with users while observing them going about their everyday tasks. The interviews will be held in a natural environment, so as not to feel too formal. The researcher will observe the user going about their everyday tasks and ask questions to gain insight.


The analysis of the findings will vary depending on the method that has been used to gather the insights. In both cases though, the research was to obtain an in-depth view of the users and how they go about completing tasks which are under review. Researchers will look for patterns and themes from the data. They will look for the challenges and barriers that users encountered and how this effected different users.

One of the methods used to analyse the data is the use of an affinity diagram. This method allows you to take all the observations from the research and group them together so that you can begin looking for patterns. Researchers will put all their key points onto Post-It notes and then categorise these into groups which relate to the same topic.

Advantages of Ethnography research

  • Ability to see first-hand how users interact with technology in their natural environment
  • Identify unexpected issues that you might not have encountered in a usability test
  • Opportunity to test new product ideas before they are released to the market to see what demand is like

Disadvantages of Ethnography research

  • Because there is a greater insight into the user it takes much longer to generate and analyse all the findings.
  • Short studies may not get a user to act naturally as they are aware of the researchers present.
  • The cost of conducting ethnographic studies is typically much higher than conducting a usability test.


Ethnographic studies are a good way to really understand your users and the challenges they may face while going about their everyday lives. The research will give you insights to your users that you may not have seen if they were in a lab being asked to complete a task. However, Ethnographic studies can be costly and time-consuming, so making sure that you get the research method right is crucial to making sure that you are getting the research questions answered. Having conducted a study, you then need to present your findings back in an informative and meaningful way that will allow teams to use the information to make informed changes, making sure that your own opinions have not come into the findings.

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More UX Methods Questions

Usability testing is a way to see how easy to use something is by testing it with real users. Users are asked to complete tasks, typically while they are being observed by a researcher, to see where they encounter problems and experience confusion. If more people encounter similar problems, recommendations will be made to overcome these usability issues.

User-centred design is a process or set of tools used to design a service which focuses on what users need at the very beginning and continues throughout development until launch. Typically services are designed from a technical and business perspective, with consideration for users added in later. Instead, User-centred design ensures the service focuses on what users need before balancing this with the technical and business requirements.

Wireframing is a way to design a website service at the structural level. A wireframe is commonly used to lay out content and functionality on a page which takes into account user needs and user journeys. Wireframes are used early in the development process to establish the basic structure of a page before visual design and content is added.

Website prototypes are interactive demos of a website. These are often used to gather feedback from project stakeholders early in the project lifecycle, before the project goes into final development

User requirements capture is a process used to understand what typical users will need from a service which is about to be designed. Users are observed using similar services and interviewed about the ways they go about planning and completing their goals. This information is used to identify a list of content, features and functionality the new service must have in order to satisfy the needs of its users.

Customer profiling is a way to create a portrait of your customers to help you make design decisions concerning your service. Your customers are broken down into groups of customers sharing similar goals and characteristics and each group is given a representative with a photo, a name, and a description.

Card sorting is a technique that involves asking users to organise information into logical groups. Users are given a series of labelled cards and asked to organise and sort them into groups that they think are appropriate. Card sorting helps you to design an information architecture, workflow, menu structure or website navigation paths.

A user journey is a path a user may take to reach their goal when using a particular website. User journeys are used in designing websites to identify the different ways to enable the user to achieve their goal as quickly and easily as possible.

Focus groups are a research method used to gather feedback and opinions from customers. Each person in the group is encouraged to participate in a discussion which is pre-planned by a researcher and is guided by a facilitator. Focus groups are typically used to gauge opinion and gather information from users about products, services, and features before they have been developed.

Remote usability testing is a way to test how easy to use a website is with users who are in a different geographical location. Traditional usability testing brings users and researchers together in one place to conduct the test, whereas remote usability testing allows the researcher and user to be in different locations while the test is completed.

An expert review is where a usability expert uses his/her knowledge and experience of testing websites with users to walk through a website in the shoes of a typical user. The expert will spot problems and recommend changes to improve usability when budgets and timescales don’t allow for user research.

Service design makes a service easier to use, more useful and more desirable for the customers who need to use it: the service user. Whether creating an entirely new service or improving an existing one, service design focuses on what customers really need at each stage of their interaction with an organisation.

Ethnography is a study through direct observation of users in their natural environment rather than in a lab. The objective of this type of research is to gain insights into how users interact with things in their natural environment.

Tree testing is a way of evaluating a proposed site structure by asking users to find items based on the sites organisation and terminology. This online test only displays the navigation links and removes any additional clutter.

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