A Less Known But Powerful Helping Hand In Product Design: Ethnographic Research

Don’t listen to your users is one of the ground rules of usability. “What people say, what people do, and what people say they do are entirely different things.” says Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist. We keep this statement in mind while carrying out user research during product development. We don’t listen to them - but what do we do instead? 

If I tell you that one amazing solution to this is to include ethnographic research in your product design process, you will be a bit surprised and it might bring up a few questions for you. For instance: what is ethnographic research? What is the use of ethnography in product development? To be honest, at first, ethnography sounds quite academic… But trust me, it’s a lot of fun! To prove this to you, I talked to David Travis, director of Userfocus about the importance of ethnographic research in product development. 

Anika Huizinga on Unsplash

In this article, I share David’s tips and thoughts with you in my words: we are giving you a great summary of a method that can help you see through the eyes of your users!

What is ethnographic research? 

Ethnographic research is a method that originates from anthropology. It studies and represents a culture. As user-centered design has gained ground over the years, ethnographic research methods have started to be used more and more in product development. One of the great benefits of ethnographic research is that it’s conducted in a real-life environment. Because of that, it lets us peek behind the curtain. Studying our users in real-life scenarios uncovers issues that even the best-designed laboratory experiments can not present, which gives us a huge advantage. 

Ethnographic research is diverse, just as its major focus: culture. It has lots of names: field research, site visits, contextual inquiry, to mention a few. In a broader sense, it’s more like a mindset that helps the researcher understand the user group and its motivations and pain points better through observation

“It’s more ethnography-lite than true ethnography.” – David Travis

ethnographic research methods
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Let’s get practical 

Now, all that above sounds very interesting, but how do we apply it in product design? In the following, let me tell you about the tips and tricks I heard from David Travis. 

“The whole field of ethnographic research in user-centered design is misknown in some ways.” – David Travis

Open your mind (to): The paradigm shift

Ethnography in the field of anthropology means that the researcher spends weeks, months, even years with the studied group. While in product design we don’t have time for that. Things are going much faster in our processes: researchers spend a maximum of an hour with the users. Additionally, depending on the deadlines of the projects, oftentimes researchers don’t have the possibility to include a significant number of participants in their studies. 

The question of representativeness: quantitative & qualitative methods 

“You can gather as much quantitative data as you like, but that’s not going to help you work out how you need to change your product. In order to work out how you should change your product in terms of design, you need the kind of insights that you get from qualitative research.” – David Travis

We at UX studio believe that the best way of doing user research is to use a mixed-methods approach (qualitative and quantitative methods at the same time). We don’t value qualitative or quantitative more than the other, instead, we decide on choosing – and mixing – the best methods depending on the needs of our individual partners.However, we all know about the power of numbers. When it comes to user research, we often tend to trust reports with more numbers: bigger sample, more user tests; something we can easily measure. Usually, greater numbers comfort us. We tend to think that the study which involves 1.000 participants is way more valuable than a study with 50 participants. But let me tell you why this assumption is wrong. 

When it comes to research, data gathered from quantitative methods is very good at telling us what is happening in an interaction of our product and our users. But they don’t tell us why it is happening. If you see that a certain issue is occurring, but you don’t know the whys, it’s more difficult to decide what kind of design changes you should make so that your product will perform better. To avoid this situation and to test both the whats and whys, we use a mixed-method approach. 

Our researcher Bence doing field research

The two most misunderstood facts about qualitative research methods

To be able to make a shift in our thinking about qualitative methods and confidently include them in our product research to get those whys answered, it’s necessary to clear up some misconceptions. 

1.) “To be able to deliver useful results, we need a representative sample.”

“Representative samples don’t play nicely with agile.” – says David Travis in his eye-opening article. Setting a fixed amount of participants for research requires that we have our research problem and our solution to it defined upfront. Yet, in software development we rely on iterations so we need to be flexible and be able to change directions quickly based on research insights. The same flexibility should be given to researchers too in terms of setting and developing hypotheses and the research sample — which gives no room to work with a representative sample.

2.) “Qualitative research lacks generalizability.”

The data we get from this type of research are more like stories — stories that can even conflict with each other. Seeing the world from different perspectives, through different people’s eyes from different contexts, and listening to all their stories makes the insights of the research even more specific – and more complicated to analyze. However this doesn’t mean qualitative methods lack generalizability. Generalizations can be derived from qualitative research in various ways (eg.: naturalistic generalization, transferability, analytical generalizability, and intersectional generalizability). It’s just not the same as quantitative results. (Read more about these methods here.)ethnography

Ethnographic research design how-to: 6 steps to analyze the insights we get from an ethnographic study

Now that we understood the importance of qualitative research in product design, let’s plan how to conduct an ethnographic study!

0.) As preparation for carrying out your research, you have to set up your team. If you have a chance, work with a cross-functional team. The professional diversity helps to get even more fruitful results out of our observations – more eyes see more and different eyes see things differently. After setting up your team, get yourself ready to be exposed to users, and go out to the field!

1.) Only talk to a handful of people first. You want to make sure to thoroughly analyze the insights and you also want to give space for changes and new directions as the research hypothesis emerge through the analysis.

2.) Have ethnographic notes and transcripts of sessions about what people said about their experiences. 

Then follow the steps of the affinity diagram technique:

3.) Stick the nuggets of information on post-its

4.) Have the post-its with the insights on a whiteboard and develop them with the team. Look for patterns and insights related to each other, group those together.

5.) Prioritize which insight is more important or less important for the product at that current stage. Prioritization is crucial to keep up with the fast-changing pace of product development teams. Focus on the top three or four, and make sure that they’re addressed.

6.) Iterate the product. Then do more research. Then come back and iterate again.


The added value of ethnographic research

There are two aspects of what added value ethnographic methods bring to your product team.

1.) It helps the product team develop empathy towards the user group they’re designing for.
This is a specific kind of empathy. Not the one that helps you to understand the pain of others, but which gives you the ability to see things from their perspective. Additionally, you will be able to understand why users do the things they do, but for this to happen you have to make a shift in your mindset. Always start with the following sentence:  “If I was that user, in that context, I’d probably do it like this way or that way…”  This mindset will help you to really stick to the users’ needs. If you were looking at it from a developer’s point of view, you’d probably do things differently. So, if you can understand why users behave the way they do, you can gain a level of empathy that is very useful in delivering the needed insights into product development.

2.) Product teams will stop seeing users as a homogeneous group.
Many teams get zero exposure to users they’re designing for. You can avoid this and get a deeper and more profound understanding of user needs by spending time with them in their context. This way members of the team will see them as individuals and will be able to appreciate the diversity of the perspectives of the members of the user group. It is also possible that the team will enjoy realizing the fact that there are different users with different goals and different environments – which gives ground to develop new, creative solutions.

types of ethnographic research
Marc Kleen on Unsplash

The challenges of ethnographic research

Hopefully by this time you feel the urge to include ethnographic research in your product design processes, however, remember that there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • Ethnographic research on its own has its limitations: sample sizes are small and unique in most cases. 
  • Researchers don’t have a hypothesis while creating a research plan and starting user research. The hypothesis emerges as they do the research. This can be a challenge in a lean environment, where teams have a focus on hypothesis testing. (The way to deal with this is to use mixed-method approaches.)
  • Researchers have to be comfortable with talking to people, have an open mind to accept different ways of seeing things. Don’t just collect data, but really see through the eyes of the users. 

How do we do it at UX studio? 

Read about our experience with conducting ethnographic studies in my researcher colleague, Bence’s article on how he validated a football app in a real-life scenario. 

If you want to start with ethnographic research, here is my nr. 1 tip for you: Go get those notebooks, and go out to the field! Catch your users in a real-life environment to learn about all their secrets of how they’re using your product – all those that they won’t tell you in a user test.

Have an open mind and be prepared to be amazed by the powerful experience that the diversity of people and different cultures can give you.

Searching for the right UX agency?

UX studio works with rising startups and established tech giants worldwide. 

Should you want to improve the design and performance of your digital product, message us to book a consultation with us. We will walk you through our design processes and suggest the next steps! 

Our experts would be happy to assist with the UX strategy, product and user research, UX/UI design, etc.

Dóra Farkas

Researcher, comes with dog and with love for culture and diversity. Frequently changes location.

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