7 Simple Ways to Get Better Results from Ethnographic Research

by Teo Yu Siang and Rikke Friis Dam | | 8 min read

The first step in any User Experience or Design Thinking process should involve getting to know your users. When starting a project from scratch or moving into a new market, you may not have any experience or a deep understanding of your users. Ethnographic research, such as user observation and interviews, will allow you to discover who your users really are, and the environments in which they live. It will provide great insights into the way that your users will interact with your product. Here are seven easy things you can do in order to maximise the effectiveness of your ethnographic research.

There are specific challenges associated with ethnographic research—the main one being that it’s not a quantitative process. You don’t end up with neat numbers, graphs, and figures. Instead, it’s a qualitative process, which involves producing a great deal of unruly data that is hard to summarize. It is also difficult, and some would say impossible, not to let your own biases or assumptions sneak into the research process.

With this in mind, we have seven simple ideas that should help you get more out of your investment in ethnographic research:

1. Diversity Matters

When building your research team, you will want to spend some time ensuring the team is diverse. It’s a good idea to choose team members from a variety of disciplines, as opposed to team members from a specific background. People with a different mix of backgrounds will possess a wide range of capabilities and modes of thinking, and this is useful in order to obtain different interpretations of the observations made by your team. You want input from the client, the designers, the developers, and, if possible, the ethnographers involved in the research.

Besides a diversity of disciplines, you should also vary the ethnic, gender, age, etc. backgrounds of your team members. In fact, Margaret Ann Neale, The Adams Distinguished Professor of Management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, found that increasing diversity in a team would improve its performance. Furthermore, she found that conflicts in opinions between diverse team members would spark greater innovation than those in homogeneous teams.

Besides team diversity, you should also aim for participant diversity. This is especially important in countries or societies in which there is a sizeable difference in expectations and roles within people of different genders, race, etc. You should also consider interviewing your extreme users. For instance, instead of interviewing people who fit into your target audience, you could also interview fervent fans of the product and people who would never use the product.

Author/Copyright holder: George A. Spiva Center for the Arts. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY 2.0

It would be a dull world if we were all the same. Happily, this diversity offers powerful problem-solving.

2. Consider Your Subjects

In real life, some people are glass half-empty types, and others are glass half-full types. On rare occasions, there are people who drink the contents of the glass and then blame its being empty on someone else. Each of these types of people are likely to experience something in a different way.

These people may have many things in common, and this is why you need to include them in your research. A single attribute of their personality may override all common ground. You need to delve into individual mindsets and understand them in order to understand better how they contribute to your research. Don’t assume that all members of your target audience see the world through the same lens. Just because two people share the same DNA, live in the same part of the world, and speak the same dialect, too, is no guarantee of idiosyncratic alignment.

3. Give People a Reason to Help You

Good research begins by developing a relationship with the subject. You need to develop a level of rapport and show some empathy and understanding with that person. When such people feel comfortable with you, they are much more likely to feel comfortable with participating in the process.

For example, when the International Development Enterprises (IDE) Ethiopia wanted to learn more about small holder farmer incomes, the design team decided to stay overnight in a farmer’s house. They realised that, while one of the farmers was guarded and offered superficial facts about himself during the first visit, he was shocked to find the team still there the next morning. Thereafter, his behaviour around the team changed, and he started telling them about his long-term plans for improving his life. The design team’s staying overnight showed the farmers that they genuinely cared for the farmers, and were there to help the farmers in the long run, rather than offer them short-term handouts.

Take time to introduce yourself, explain what’s going to happen, and invite questions from the start. Try to illustrate through the process that what the person is saying/doing is important and of value to you.

4. Let People Explain Why They Feel or Do Something

Most researchers are likely to be intelligent people. This leads to the natural tendency to assume that they can explain what is seen or heard. This is a bad way to conduct research. No matter how bright your team mates may be, they are not the subject. Rather than guessing or assuming the reasons behind people’s behaviour—you should ask the people to explain things for themselves. You should listen to the answer, figure out what is not being said, and observe their body language. It may be because of pride, or perhaps it’s because of trouble finding the right words. Sometimes, their answers can reveal sharp insights about the problems they are facing.

Use the 5 Whys Method

A simple model is the “5 Whys” method: quite literally, asking your users “Why?” whenever they explain their behaviours to you. Each time you ask “Why?”, you will prompt someone to re-evaluate their position in order to dig a little deeper into their own reasoning. It may seem a little odd to keep asking “Why?” at first, but it will bring great insights while allowing you to dig deeper in order to find the root cause(s) of their behaviours.

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Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

5. Keep an Eye on the Physical Context

The experience of using any product or service isn’t just about a person’s preferences. It’s also about the environment in which that product may be used. Are there obstacles present in the settings where they perform their tasks? If somebody spends his or her life wearing thick rubber gloves, your sophisticated touch-screen interface may not work very well.

Learn to video or photograph your ethnographic research. You can then go back and look at things such as body language and the environmental interactions that may govern a response as well as affect how they use your product or service.

6. Don’t Start with Solutions in Mind

The easiest way to introduce bias into your research is to have a solution in mind. It will guide your questioning, observations, and understanding in the direction you want rather than the direction of your users, and you may not even realize it. As the great Sherlock Holmes (or rather, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) once quipped:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.”
– Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet (1887)

It is much better to conduct the research first, and once complete, you can use the data you’ve obtained in order to develop solutions. This doesn’t mean that you can’t introduce solutions in ethnographic research (user testing is important, after all), but it does mean introducing those ideas at an appropriate time once you’ve had a chance to observe your users, without bias. Always keep in mind that the first step in any User Experience, Human-centred Design, or Design Thinking process is to get to know your users.

7. Map Insights and Check for Objectivity

When you analyse your research, at first, it’s a good idea for everyone to generate ideas separately. You can write these on Post-It notes and stick them to a wall. This will enable you to group together common ideas easily for the team to examine. What are the reasons for needing different team member insights? Are these insights based upon the same data? If not, do the differing data points still make sense when compared against each other? While all interpretations as to why people behaved the way they did are subjective, they should be based on objective facts and observations.

Your solutions should come from the review process. Don’t be afraid to undertake this process multiple times—and don’t be afraid to mix up participants.

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As you can see, the road to clear solutions in design is never straight.

The Take Away

Ethnographic research can add huge value to User Experience design and Design Thinking processes because it is essentially Human-centred. It’s important to focus on and empathise with the people you design for, and truly listen to and understand them, rather than concentrating on your expected process outcomes.

You need to be aware of potential sources of bias and take care to eliminate them. You will also need as diverse a team as possible in order to obtain the best insights. Keeping the seven ways of enhancing your ethnographic research in mind will enable you to maximise what you can learn from your users.

References & Where to Learn More

Stanford Graduate School of Business, Diverse Backgrounds and Personalities Can Strengthen Groups, 2006: https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/diverse-backgrounds-personalities-can-strengthen-groups

IDEO, Human-Centered Design Toolkit, 2009: https://www.ideo.com/by-ideo/human-centered-design-toolkit

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