Ethnographic User Research

This was written with consideration of the word-count limit to help me write concisely.

What is Ethnographic User Research

It’s the study and discovery of users in their natural environment by directly observing them instead of a lab-like environment or a contained world. The goal and mission of this type of research are to understand how users utilize experiences and interact with surroundings in their natural environment. This form of research is perception through the user’s point of view.

Ethnographic is in the category of qualitative-based research. In further detail, you gain information about how user’s views and acts along with the sights and sounds they encounter during the day. Users interact and use many things on a daily basis, as a researcher, this is what Ethnographic research will provide you with.

It is best to say that Ethnography is the social equivalent of usability testing. I would say that this is a more enjoyable form of testing as it involves you, the researcher, moving around physically and observing. This method is preferred by me more due to the fact that you are actually moving and not having to sit all day in interview users, which is the traditional sense of User Research.

The Methods, Ethnography methods of research include direct observation, diary studies, video recordings, photography and artifact analysis such as devices that a person uses throughout their time.

According to Cooper, Reimann, and Cronin (2007), it is stated that Ethnographic practice is one of the most effective methods of conducting research and that a combination of the observation methods is one of the best practices in design.

In other words, combining observation and one-on-one interviews is the most efficient methods available within a designers belt for gathering and collecting qualitative data about users and their goals.

Observation Methods

There are two methods of observation, Contextual interviews, and Passive Observation.

Passive observation involves the researcher ‘shadowing’ or following a user or a group of users while they perform their daily tasks. However, before the journey starts, users may be asked questions or interviewed to discover more about them and their needs. These perceptions will then archived for the day.

The researcher will be utilizing various techniques while observing users. For example, taking notes, photos, representations or recording. It does not necessarily have to be just one independent researcher, it can also be a  group of researchers so that a greater number of users can be examined and by doing so, more note-worthy knowledge will be achieved rapidly. This method of observation is a positive way for researchers to see how users perform activities and execute them as they go through their day first hand.

Disconnections and errors can be identified in the case of if the user told the researcher one thing, but has done it another way.

Contextual Interviews

On the contrary, this form of observation method involves the researcher directly interacting with users while observing them experiencing their daily tasks. The one-on-one interviews will be held in a natural environment, outside office buildings and institutions. This is to avoid formality. While the users are going through their daily tasks, the user will be asked questions, so the researcher can gain further insights.

How you can use Ethnographic Data

By involving yourself in a group of users for a certain amount of time, collecting observational data, and determining the oftenness of those actions, the UX researcher can determine a group’s thoughts and motivations on a subject.

In return, the knowledge and information received by this examination, the conveyed feelings and presumptions can be utilized within design decisions. You’ll be able to do this confidently because Ethnographic data is considered accurate and you can confirm and validate your theories and hypothesis using this research method.

The importance of understanding the motivations and feelings of the users is high, as you’ll be able to know what environmental factors are influencing the particular choices and decisions your users are making. This information can be critical and crucial when designing an experience that inherently motivates a particular group to interact with the product.

When you compare this form of research with other methods, you will realize the value of the data that you are capable of collecting through this method. Collecting information through surveys and other data collection techniques are not as powerful as Ethnography.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Ethnography


  • Helps identify and analyze unexpected issues.
  • Deliver a detailed and faithful representation of user’s behaviors and attitudes due to its nature it uncovers and analyses relevant user attitudes and emotions.
  • Helps you understand and know more about other cultures.
  • Businesses will learn more about their target market.
  • Easily evolve and discover new things.


  • It takes a lot of time, this is because, before beginning, the ethnographer has to build a connection with his subjects and make them feel comfortable around him.
  • It greatly depends on the ethnographers’ relationship with his subjects.
  • It depends on people’s openness and honesty, the subjects need to open up to the researcher, and if there is distrust, they won’t take the time to teach him their way of life and help him understand their history and culture.
  • It can lead to cultural bias, no matter how objective they try to be, the ethnographers can still be affected by their cultural bias or ignorance. An example of this is if they believe their race is “superior” to others, this will affect the way they study and interact with their subjects.
  • Ethnography relies on qualitative research, it can be tough for the researcher to choose a sample to study. A sample that can be relied on.

Ethnography can be incredibly helpful to researchers and conventional individuals. Nonetheless, recall that ethnography can be time-and work concentrated and that the ethnographic procedure and its outcomes may not generally be precise for the reasons stated above.

While Ethnography is an effective form of research method, you’ll need to have checkboxes all the requirements to maximize the quality of the outcome and ensure that you receive information that is useful to apply to the design experience your creating and does not bias.

Ethnography In Interaction Design

I personally do not think it’s common or a major requirement for me to conduct ethnography user research. In the industry, businesses & companies have UX Designers to do the research side of a design project. My specialty is to use the UX research and results generated by the UX Designers to come up with beautiful animation and an interaction concept for the product that I am designing, in order to match what the users are asking for, based on the feedback.

However, just because I am an Interaction Designer, it does not mean that I do not have to be aware of research principles like this, it simply means that I have now have more tools within my toolbelt and have knowledge within my mind. There may be a time in my life where I need to do Ethnography research, although, I personally doubt it. An Interaction Designer or a UI Designer doesn’t particularly get involved in this form of research, because we don’t need to.

Rather than conducting research in this form, we would conduct research for the product we are working on by experimenting with the designs we make or intend to make.


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Experience UX. (2018). What is Ethnography research? | Experience UX. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Nov. 2018]. (2018). The 3 tenets of applied ethnography | Inside Design Blog. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Nov. 2018].

Spotless. (2018). Ethnography: When and How to Use It | Spotless. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

Editor, C. (2018). 9 Pros and Cons of Ethnography. [online] Green Garage. Available at: [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

The Interaction Design Foundation. (2018). Ethnography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Nov. 2018].