What is it?

Ethnography study is based on observing people in their natural environment rather than in a formal research setting. Design ethnography is generally considered to be a lightweight version of established practices in the social sciences. It covers a variety of techniques such as:

  • participatory observation: Researchers immerse themselves in the lives and social contexts of their informants to understand their lives by walking in their shoes and seeing it through their eyes.
  • environmental audit: Environmental audit takes place throughout the observation. It is about considering where participants are situated, what they are surrounded by, and how their values, relationships, and behaviours manifest in their lives.
  • ethnographic/semi-structured interviews: This involves observing the participant as they accomplish certain tasks in their environment while the researcher interviews them based on their research objectives. The exact questions may vary depending on the informants’ areas of interest, context, task, etc.
  • design probes (also called cultural probes): This includes open-ended or suggestive activities like using a camera, cellphone, diaries, or other artefacts to help participants narrate and depict their lives in their own time without the intrusion of a researcher.

These methods can be combined as needed to bring answers and insights to the surface.

Purpose of ethnographic research

Ethnography is intended to highlight people’s real behaviour — what people say they do, perceive they do, and what they actually do. Ethnography informs design by revealing a deep understanding of people, how they make sense of their world, and the specifics of the culture and social environment they live in. Ethnography research helps ensure that the outcomes of the design process resonate with the people impacted from the design.

Planning your ethnographic research

Planning your ethnographic research calls for specific considerations.

Define a topic, situation, or trigger to focus on

  • Identify gaps: Look at the data and research you already have to define your user needs. What knowledge can you leverage to support your research process? On the other hand, what are the major gaps or outdated data sources that you want to further research on? How will you go about filling in those gaps?
  • Define a research hypothesis: Before you set out to do research, define hypotheses related to filling data gaps to help you direct your observation and ensure you get the data you need. It is easy to lose sight of your primary goal when conducting ethnographic research. What do you already know about your user that might inform your gaps? How confident are you about this information?

Identify your user and location

  • Identify your user: Identifying who you are designing for is a crucial part of planning for design ethnography. List what you know about your user (demographic, role, social context, behaviours, other attributes). What are the key criteria that define the participants you are looking for? Consider who might be the easiest get access to - design ethnography will require you to spend a significant amount of time with your participants in their ‘natural context’. For more information on defining a research topic, you may refer to defining your users when there are multiple users involved.
  • Identify the right location: Based on your research objectives, define the location(s) and context you want to observe your participants in. Take into consideration: What are the key gaps you are looking at observing? Where are they taking place? Where might your participant be the most comfortable? What would you define as your participant’s natural context?

Prepare supporting materials

An important practice for ethnographic research is to take field notes. Create guidelines (bullet points, templates, key questions to answer) to help you capture holistically what you are observing. It can be as broad as ‘What? When? Where? Why?’ or more targeted questions that you might start to ask to resolve the hypothesis.

Assign roles and responsibilities

Depending on the number of participants and the context of your research, you will need to define roles for yourself and your team.

A photographer may be a great addition to capture insights of the participant’s natural environment. Make sure that you are fully prepared (for example: batteries are charged, enough memory space is available, etc) and respect your participant’s privacy.

During an ethnographic research session

One of the main challenges when conducting ethnographic research is providing an objective picture of the participants’ reality. As a researcher, there are a couple of elements you should strive for as you are capturing insights.

Observe your surroundings. As you are conducting research, observe in the most exhaustive way, by keeping an eye open for:

  • participants (who): Keep note of social relations and interactions. Who do you see in a particular place? What groups and/or categories of people do you see? What might be bringing them together? What kinds of social roles (for example: caretaker, designer, leader, etc.) do you observe?
  • space (where): Scan the environment and capture what you see, hear, smell, and what makes that particular place unique or typical. Details that may seem unimportant at the moment may later turn out to be significant.
  • objects (what): Take note of the material artifacts and technologies that people use. Are they carrying cell phones, reading materials, tools, backpacks? How are they dressed?
  • time (when): Consider the time of day and date, and note the particular rhythms, flows of people, and activity patterns.
  • actions (how): Be aware of the various “performances” around you. What is happening? What are people doing? What kinds of interactions do you observe between and within groups?

Engage with participants. The key to getting past superficial and guarded responses is establishing trust and rapport with people:

  • be friendly: People are much more likely to share their views and open up to you when they feel comfortable and see that the exchange is mutual.
  • be a great listener: Show genuine interest. People generally enjoy talking about themselves and appreciate it when someone shows genuine interest in what they’re saying.
  • treat people with respect and dignity: Our goal is to see the world through other people’s eyes, not to extract information from them. Avoid pushing people beyond their comfort zones - you can learn just as much, if not more, from what people don’t want to talk about or show.

Collect rough data. During research, your team will be looking at collecting data using multiple sources: photos, video, audio and other contextual data. These photos or images may look “unpolished” or “rough”, however, one of the principles of ethnography is that the data captured is objective and meaningful without being staged. Try to not filter the information you capture before the analysis phase.

Be aware of your own biases. All the information collected during the fieldwork is filtered through the researcher’s impressions and biases (knowledge, research theory, social status, and individual background and personality). Even though we can’t oeliminate our bias entirely, we can work towards more objective insights by being aware of and spotting some of the most prominent bias sources as you are conducting your research, such as:

  • projection bias. We assume other people think the same way we do.
  • confirmation bias. We look for, interpret and remember information that fits our existing models.
  • correspondence bias. We have the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are, when it may or may not be the case.
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