Here’s something to ponder over – what’s the best way to study wildlife? A trip to the zoo or a jungle excursion? While the zoo is a cheaper, easier alternative, there is no denying that the jungle is where the real deal lies.
Ethnography is exactly like that. It involves the study of the intended subjects in their own environment.
Humans are complex beings, there is no denying that. Our evolved minds and intricate social constructs have a deep impact on the way we behave. In the words of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, “What people say, what people do, and what people say they do are entirely different things.”
A fundamental part of UX design is dedicated exclusively to researching this complex behavior and using those insights as a base to create meaningful products and experiences. Just as wildlife researchers spend extended periods in the jungles to gain a first-hand understanding of animal habitats, UX researchers conduct ethnography exercises to gain insights about user behavior.
What is ethnography?
Ethnography is defined as a qualitative study of social interactions, behaviors, and perceptions that occur within groups, teams, organizations, and communities.
This user research method makes use of personal stories, experiences, and interactions. It involves observing users go about their tasks in their natural environment. This can be done in-person by a team of researchers, or as observations made of video recordings, or in the form of direct interviews, or a combination of all of these.
It helps in modeling and quantifying complex parameters such as emotions and experiences. The data gained from conducting ethnographic research is powerful and offers deep insight into the user psyche.
Take Adidas, for instance – a company that was creating performance sports shoes and apparel based on the assumption that what was desirable to performance athletes would ultimately also be attractive to consumers. Within a few years of following this strategy, it was clear that Adidas was struggling to gain hold in the fitness segment whereas most of its competitors were thriving.
Ethnographic studies made by the company revealed a compelling truth – that the priorities of consumers differed significantly from those of athletes. For instance, consumers expected their clothes and shoes to be aesthetically pleasing, a feature athletes typically did not care about. This was the foundation of Adidas making sweeping changes in its product strategy.
Ken Anderson, Intel Research’s anthropologist summed up the use of ethnographic research in Harvard Business Review, “Our goal is to see people’s behavior on their terms, not ours. While this observational method may appear inefficient, it enlightens us about the context in which customers would use a new product and the meaning that product might hold in their lives.”
Supporting arguments and opposing arguments for ethnography research
- First-hand observations of users interacting with technology in their natural environment
- Identify unexpected issues that you might not have encountered in a usability test
- Accounts for the complexity of group behaviors
- Helps reveal interrelationships among multifaceted dimensions of group interactions
- Helps provide context for behaviors
- As it involves prolonged observation, it takes longer to generate and analyze
- Shorter sprints may result in skewed data as users aware of the researchers may behave differently
- Requires sustained efforts and engagement in terms of budget
- Dependent on the diversity of the research team and participants
- Possibility of observer bias
Ethnography in design
Ethnographic research has its roots in anthropology – the study and representation of a culture. With user-centered design gaining prominence, ethnographic research methods have made a significant contribution to product development.
The most important benefit of ethnographic research in the design process is that it’s conducted in a real-life environment. Design research derives tremendous value from observing users in real-life scenarios, revealing insights that even the best-designed laboratory experiments can be ill-equipped to present.
A hand tool manufacturer was looking to generate new product ideas and decided to conduct an ethnographic research exercise. There was a team of ethnographers tailing electricians and plumbers as they went about their daily tasks. In doing so, it was observed that some handyman stored their screwdrivers in a tool belt for easy access. When up a ladder, they would reach for a tool and sometimes pick out the Phillips screwdriver when they were looking for the one with a flat blade. It was this observation that led ethnographers to suggest creating tools with an indentation on top to indicate the nature of the tip – an (x) for the Phillips and a (-) for the slotted end. This small yet highly efficient addition was the result of dedicated observation, a fact that could have slipped through numerous interviews and focus group conversations.
Ethnographic research brings diversity to the table, just as its major focus – culture. It is also known as field research, site visits, contextual inquiry, to mention a few. It is more on the lines of a mindset helping researchers understand the user group’s motivations and pain points accurately through observation.
How ethnographic research benefits businesses
Ethnography research provides a more accurate and in turn better ROI for a business as it gets inside the users’ physical and mental headspace through contextualized observations and patterns.
Ethnography holds the key to how we perceive ourselves and the world, and how we act even when no one else is around.
As an example, Netflix partnered with cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken to witness how their users behaved and lived in their own homes to gain a better understanding of the meaning and importance of binge-watching. Insights from this study formed the base of strategic decisions to release episodes in bulk to boost viewership. Additionally, these insights also altered artistic choices and approaches to storytelling and plot development.
Research suggests that higher empathy towards users leads to stronger financial performance, better customer satisfaction, greater creativity, and even healthier employees.
Ethnography research identifies the true needs of the users and the business. Things can go wrong when a lot of resources are invested in researching the business’s wants instead of what their users actually need. Ethnography research lets companies study the business-user relationships in real-time, which reveals the actual needs of the business and not just the wants. By observing users going about their usual tasks, a lot of latent truths regarding where the system falls short, is too complex, or fails in serving the right needs emerge.
Business owners have a duty to understand that their users have to be seen as humans before they’re classified as customers or employees – as it happened in the case of Adidas and Netflix, along with a host of other companies such as Intel, LEGO, Microsoft, and more. The distance between the business and its end-users could be vast, but it can be covered by employing an empathic understanding of the human experience. Ethnographic research is the tool for businesses to bridge that gap between their users and their goals.