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They’ve been called superpowers—ethnographic research skills that empower user experience designers to better understand their users and the motivators that drive them, ultimately leading to a more holistic design.

Rather than putting yourself in your user’s shoes, ethnography encourages researchers to observe users as they walk around in them—noting from a distance their behaviors, preferences and beliefs.

It’s a practice rooted in anthropology that has spread to other disciplines over the years, especially across the social sciences—the field where user experience researchers play. Ethnography uses a methodical approach to observe people and cultural groups in their “natural habitat.” This could be in their homes, at their places of work, on their commute, at the gym, etc. These observations are combined with other data points to create a more all-inclusive approach to design.

“Ethnography is a vital tool that gives executives a real-world understanding of people’s preferences, motivations and needs by examining the environments buyers inhabit and the cultural and societal forces that influence their behavior,” wrote Jonathan Dalton, CEO and co-founder of Thrive Consulting.

Ultimate UX + the Ethnography Superpowers

Rick Damosa, a UX strategist and researcher at Key Lime Interactive, recently wrote a piece identifying what he believes are the top superpowers of ethnographic studies.

Empathy – The golden ticket of UX design, Damosa notes how empathy is required in order to understand a user’s perspective and “evaluate how stimuli in the environment could impact their behaviors, emotions, and actions.” He points to a VR study that observed the presence of physical symptoms like fear and joy with symptoms of simulation sickness to understand how even virtual environments can “impact users in a very real and physical way.”

Listening – Noting how researchers are often the “conduit” between end users and product teams, listening becomes vital. Listening is the key to data collection in ethnographic research. Damosa ties listening closely with post-observation interviews, writing that, “documenting and actively listening to insights allows researchers the ability to follow up specific and targeted questions that get past the superficial layer.” He advises to researches to talk less and listen more.

Curiosity – Without undermining the importance of research fundamentals, Damosa writes that “at the core of every truly gifted researcher is a tireless sense of curiosity.” This curiosity is key to peeling “back the proverbial layers of the onion” to achieve greater insights into not only how, but “why users behave the way they do.” He sees curiosity as the ultimate motivator and encourages ux researchers and designers to rediscover your sense of curiosity—even, and perhaps especially, in familiar environments.

To practice, Damosa recommends taking a moment to observe people as they walk by at your local mall. “What sort of patrons do you see? What are they hoping to achieve? What do they seem motivated by?”

Types of Ethnographic Studies

There are several ways the above can be achieved. This infographic from Acquity Group, a customer experience consulting agency, breaks down a process for user-centered design and ethnographic research into three types of ethnographic research methodologies.

  • Field work – The traditional approach to ethnography where researches observe users as they go about their daily lives over a period of time usually lasting anywhere from one hour to several weeks
  • Digital ethnography – A faster approach, this method uses technology to interact with online communities
  • Photo ethnography – Provides users with a camera or capturing system and asks them to take photos of his or her life and record notes, allowing a researcher to observe one’s day to day through their own eyes

User design researches embracing ethnographic techniques may use one or a combination of the three to gather data about a user group—but the key takeaway is that in each of these studies, researches are embracing a “fly on the wall” approach to gather insights in real time.

Why Ethnography?

Ethnographic research invites UX professionals to stop thinking solely about how a user will engage with a product and instead also at how this product might fit into a user’s day-to-day life. It challenges the observation of people on their own and within groups, noting how different environments and groups of people may influence a user’s behavior—for example, how a user engages with social media at work might look much different than how they engage with that experience at home.

Combined with other qualitative and quantitative research methods, ethnography can help to find and establish a deeper meaning. By understanding psychological, social and cultural motivators and influencers, designers can create products that fit more organically into a user’s life and lifestyle.

All you have to do is open your eyes and observe.

Sheena Lyonnais

Sheena Lyonnais

Sheena Lyonnais is a Toronto-based writer, editor and digital specialist. She works in content marketing by day, studies digital strategy by night, and practices yoga somewhere in between. Follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.


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