Become a Better Designer with Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research and user-centered design go hand in hand.  It may be something that you already do as an experience designer, but may not be familiar with the term.   Ethnography is derived from the Greek word “ethnos” meaning people and “graphos” to write and is

typically used as a way to derive more information on particular cultures or groups of people.  This research method is primarily qualitative and has its roots in sociology and anthropology, and has more recently been adapted as part of a key process in user experience design. Often, researchers completely immerse themselves in the experience and become part of the group to understand the ways of life, cultural beliefs, and social norms.

Last semester, I took one of the best graduate level classes I have ever taken: Ethnography of Work for Design at Bentley University.   I was asked to through out the course of the semester, choose a topic to observe and by the end, find design or process improvements.  I chose coffee shops, a very popular upscale coffee chain located worldwide.  Within the first visit, I sat near the condiment counter, and noticed a few ways to improve the process and design.  Although those structural suggestions were incredibly important for service design, my final paper outlined key characteristics of the types of people who hung out at coffee shops, in particular this upscale shop.

After 10 visits to the coffee shop, I felt like I knew the regulars and the etiquette associated with this chain.  So what were my take-away from this experience and how to incorporate this into my design process:

  1. Just be chill and take it in.  It is best to observe and not ask a lot of questions. Typically in user testing, we are taught to prompt the user and ask questions.  In ethnography, it is best to be part of the group and engage in normal conversation. Remember – you are one of them.
  2. Go often.  Don’t make assumptions off of minimal visits.  Often see how the environment or group changes based on other factors like time of day, weather, etc.
  3. Participate and try it out . If you are studying how an ice cream scooper typically makes a banana split, try making one yourself. Then you can ask her about the job, but it is important to test it out yourself.
  4. Don’t judge.  The thing or people you are studying may be different from you or your belief system.  That does not make it wrong, just different and that is why you are studying them.
  5. What are other people reporting: Do a literature review. Are your findings consistent with what other people have found?  Check journals, websites, asking your peers, etc.

The key to being a good ethnographic researcher is to just report the facts: what happened, to who, when.  Once the researcher documents all the actions and observations, can he make assumptions, but it is important to key individual biases separate from the research.

As an experience designer, we try to get in touch with our users.  But how can we put them and their goals first when we may not completely understand them?  Getting in the users head and understanding what the user is trying to accomplish is important to design the optimal experience, but actually “walking in the user’s shoes” brings user empathy a new level.