Ethnographic observation in UX

Torresburriel Estudio
4 min readMar 27, 2024

We already know that the success of any project is based on user-centered design, and this is where ethnographic observation comes into play.

But what makes this technique so special? In this article, we explore how ethnographic observation not only allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of the users but also opens the doors to innovation and empathy in UX design.

Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash.

What is ethnographic observation?

Ethnographic observation has its roots in anthropology, where it has traditionally been used to study cultures and societies through direct observation and participation in people’s daily lives. This approach allowed anthropologists to gain a deep and holistic understanding of the communities studied, their practices, beliefs, and social dynamics.

As the methodology evolved, its applicability extended beyond anthropology, finding a valuable place in various disciplines interested in understanding human behavior and social interactions in specific contexts.

In the field of UX, we have greatly benefited from ethnographic observation, as it provides insights that other traditional methods, such as surveys and focus groups, often cannot offer.

By observing users in their natural environments, designers can identify problems and opportunities that the users themselves might not have articulated, allowing the development of more intuitive solutions tailored to the real needs of users.

Here, it’s very important to pause and differentiate several concepts:

  • Ethnographic research: encompasses various UX research techniques, such as user testing or card sorting, because we are observing how people interact with a digital product or how they make associations of concepts. However, in these techniques, the role of the UX Researcher is active. (Also read: Ethnographic techniques as part of UX toolbox).
  • Ethnographic observation: on the other hand, and what we are discussing in this article, this technique is characterized because the role of the UX Researcher is passive, and does not interfere with the behavior of the users, simply observes it.

This approach has led to an evolution in design practices, from a focus on functionality and aesthetics towards a more empathetic and user-aware design. Ethnographic observation has proven to be an essential tool in this process, providing a rich and nuanced understanding of the user that informs and enhances the design process.

Non-participant ethnographic observation

Non-participant observation involves a more distant approach, where the researcher remains as an external observer without directly engaging in the activities of the group being studied.

Although this approach limits direct interaction with the users, it can be useful to prevent the researcher’s presence from influencing the natural behavior of the participants.

This methodology provides us with the following benefits:

  • Objectivity: non-participant observation allows the researcher to maintain an objective position, as they observe events from a distance without directly involving themselves. This can help reduce observation bias and ensure that the collected data more faithfully reflect the natural behavior of the users.
  • Invisibility: ideally, in non-participant observation, the researcher tries to be as “invisible” as possible so as not to influence the behavior of the users. By not interacting with the participants, the observer effect is minimized, where the presence of the researcher could somehow alter the natural actions of the people.
  • Detailed recording: with this method, detailed notes are taken, or recording devices are used to capture what they observe. This includes behaviors, interactions, emotional expressions, and any other relevant detail of the environment that could influence the user experience.
  • Emphasis on natural context: it is carried out in the natural context of the users, allowing researchers to understand how products or services are integrated and used in people’s daily lives, providing real context for their findings.

Like all methodologies, it also has some limitations that we must consider. Although this method minimizes intrusion, one limitation is that it may not provide a deep understanding of the motivations, attitudes, and perceptions of the users since there is no direct interaction to allow for follow-up questions or to explore the reasons behind certain behaviors.

When to use ethnographic observation?

Due to the nature of this methodology, it is generally used during the discovery phase. During this initial stage, ethnographic observation helps to avoid assumptions based on intuitions and to build solutions that closely align with the real needs and desires of users, ensuring that the project is headed in the right direction from the start.

On the other hand, in the prototyping phase, ethnographic research takes on a complementary but equally valuable role. Although the main focus during prototyping is usually to iterate quickly on design ideas and validate them with usability testing, ethnographic observation can enrich this process by providing a realistic context for prototype testing.

Observing how users interact with prototypes in their usual environments allows identifying usability problems and areas of friction that might not be evident in a UX Lab. Moreover, this approach can reveal innovative ways in which users might adapt or incorporate the product or service into their daily routines, offering opportunities for design adjustments that improve user adoption and satisfaction.

In short, ethnographic observation is a fundamental tool in the UX design arsenal, allowing professionals not only to design with a solid foundation in the reality of users but also to break new ground through a deep understanding of everyday experiences.



Torresburriel Estudio

User Experience & User Research agency focused on services and digital products. Proud member of @UXalliance