Taking an Ethnographic Approach to UX Research

Shifting towards an ethnographic approach within UX means shifting gears to consider how people create meanings for themselves, in ways that are meaningful to them, rather than in ways that are meaningful for the business.

As an anthropologist by training, I’m often asked how my ethnographic approach to research fits within the fast pace of UX and design thinking. How can something like “slow” ethnographic research allow a researcher to generate insights quickly enough to be valuable in a fast-moving business context?

With many in the field of UX still struggling to get business executives to buy into the value of qualitative research, ethnography remains sidelined. And so agile companies and start-ups conclude that ethnography is an awkward fit for their design approaches because they just don’t have the time to wait. What’s more, the Covid-19 pandemic has led many businesses that would otherwise invest in ethnographically driven research to consider it too risky amid social distancing – not to mention the resulting budget freezes from our economic downturn.

But I am here to say that these conclusions are based on a lack of understanding of the value that ethnographic research adds to an organization. Contrary to popular belief, an ethnographic approach is quite compatible with design thinking and is well-suited to agile and lean approaches.

In order to appreciate why ethnography is valuable within UX, we must first understand the purpose of ethnography more generally. Simply put, the purpose of ethnography is to understand the wide range of human experience. Thus, instead of positioning ethnography as a method next to other common UX methods, like usability tests and interviews, it is better to think of ethnography as an approach to asking questions and as a way of interpreting the answers to these questions. While interview and observation are common methods used by ethnographers, they might equally use survey, card exercises, or forms of usability exercises depending on the questions they are asking.

As anyone who has turned on the news lately knows, understanding why humans do what they do can be extremely difficult. Most of the time, we struggle to explain our actions, let alone the actions of others. While ethnography alone cannot provide answers to all of the complexities of human life, it does provide a unique approach to understanding the nuances of human behavior, which can help create a more cohesive picture of random events, behaviors and decisions. To put it another way, ethnography helps make sense of human behaviors and actions by placing behaviors within a holistic context.

Of course, as user researchers, we also operate within a context: the business context. Operating within the domain of a business means that what counts as meaningful user research is that which moves the needle for the company’s bottom-line.

But while an orientation towards doing just enough research to move the needle produces results incrementally, it might miss the opportunity to generate deeper, more meaningful insights beyond the use case at hand. What about the unplanned ways people engage with our products? Businesses can’t always predict how their customers will use their products. I for one, use Google Maps as much for looking up a business’ website quickly to order lunch as getting directions. Uses like these often lie outside of the purview of user research precisely because of how people are understood to be users – potential or actual. To answer these types of questions, we must broaden our horizons to see the context in which our users actually live. And this is the real value of ethnographic research.

What might we learn if we shifted perspective from viewing users as the object of our research towards seeing them as subjects within our research? As the question implies, shifting towards an ethnographic approach within UX means shifting gears to consider how people create meanings for themselves, in ways that are meaningful to them, rather than in ways that are meaningful for the business. This subtle shift in approach can lead to dramatically different ways of designing our studies and interpreting results.

For example, if you worked for a pencil making company and were asked to understand the meaning attributed to pencils by users, in a standard UX approach, you might design a usability study to generate quick insights. If you had the time and money, you might even interview them about how the pencils felt and how they compare to other pencils they had used. When presented with a pencil and asked to write, participants would give you good insights about writing with pencils. But what if we simply presented a person with a pencil and asked them what it meant to them? I recently conducted this exercise with my work colleagues as a way to illustrate an ethnographic approach to research. Their responses ranged from the pencil representing their personal sense of organization to a reminder of their partner who was a woodworker. Notably, few mentioned writing at all.

As the responses illustrate, people had vastly different experiences of the same product which were not at all tied to what we might expect had we started from a use case. Instead, the participants were asked to respond from their point of view without regard to how they fit within their circumscribed role as a user. Operating from this perspective, the insights avenues of meaning could open up new avenues for research and business strategy in an entirely different direction than initially imagined.

Starting from the perspective of the person rather than the business strips the researcher of their assumptions about how experiences have meaning to people. Ethnography presents the possibility of unearthing aspects of peoples’ experiences that move beyond the scope of what businesses often recognize as worth noting and hence, worthy of investment.

An ethnography approach to UX can provide deeper and broader context into how people make meaning and how meaning shapes how we understand (and use!) our products. A researcher can attempt to get at these deeply seated and interconnected aspects of human experience using a variety of methods, which include interviews and observation but could also include any other range of methods from participation to conducting a survey. What matters is not the method but being open to the insights that stem from what we observe, even if these insights seem counterintuitive towe set out to find.

In order to create designs that make sense to users, we need to understand the broader contexts in which our users exist as people. As with , the more time you invest, the more insights you’re able to generate. Ethnography is no different. Research in UX should start from the perspective of the users themselves. Starting from the context of the user’s perspective will help shape the questions we seek to answer. Understanding context in this sense then might mean being attentive to the markers of difference – race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, age, to name a few – that impact how people experience the world in radically different ways. It might mean looking at how meaning extends beyond the use of products and services to ways that communities imagine them and create culturally distinct forms of meaning. The more context we have, the better insights we’ll be able to generate.

Rather than viewing this ethnography as beyond the scope of UX research, we should consider it fundamental to asking the right questions and being open to unexpected answers. Research teams in UX already do well to understand how users fit within the frame of the business. The trick now will be to pair this business perspective with a more holistic, ethnographic approach to understand the broader context within which our users’ experiences are meaningful to them.

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