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.

There are two methods for 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 of 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 acting 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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UX Consultant Matt Fisher

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