Ethnographic techniques as part of UX toolbox

Photo by Vanilla Bear Films on Unsplash

This article is a translation of the following article published on our corporate website written by torresburriel, adapted and, somehow, updated:

If we have to choose from all the available UX tools, there some that I like the most, mainly because of my personal background. But this post is not about prototyping tools or checklists.

However, I’ll write about a methodology that comes from social anthropology named ethnography.

Anthony Giddens’ definition of ethnography is:

the direct study of people or groups during a certain period, using observation or interviews to know and understand their social behavior, for which field work is essential as a basic tool.

On Wikipedia, we also find that ethnography explores cultural phenomena from the point of view of the subject of the study. Ethnography is also a type of social research involving the examination of the behavior of the participants in a given social situation and understanding the group members’ own interpretation of such behavior.

At this point, I’d like to stress some terms found on the above mentioned definitions:

  • Direct study of people or groups
  • Participant observation
  • Interviews.
  • Know their behavior.
  • Field work.
  • Understanding the group members’ own interpretation of such behavior.

It is easy to realize that we can find similarities to user testing, persona creation process, heuristic analysis and card sorting. Let’s play a bit of a game with this.

If we take all those 4 tools and link them to the stressed terms:

User testing:

  • Direct study of people or groups.
  • Participant observation.
  • Interviews.
  • Know their behavior.
  • Field work.
  • Understanding the group members’ own interpretation of such behavior.

Persona creation process

  • Direct study of people or groups.
  • Know their behavior.
  • Understanding the group members’ own interpretation of such behavior.

Heuristic analysis

  • Participant observation.
  • Know their behavior.
  • Understanding the group members’ own interpretation of such behavior.

Card sorting

  • Participant observation.
  • Know their behavior.
  • Field work.
  • Understanding the group members’ own interpretation of such behavior.

If we take a look into the list, it seems that ethnography and UX share some elements.

Ethnographic analysis provides UX professionals an entire toolbox we all should know, work with effortlessly and use it for our daily work. I am an advocate if this methodology, which I discovered circa 2000 in an event where Jakob Nielsen, Jeffrey Zeldman and Steven Pemberton were present.

So, moving on. How about the tools themselves? To me, the key tool for any UX project is the interview as we saw in our latest post.

One of the tools that UX leverages from ethnography is participant observation. However, the participation part should be omitted in UX, or event transformed into passive participant observation. But, why?

Because our main goal must be observing the group in their environment but without influencing either in their actions or behavior.

Last but not least, I refer to one of the issues that is also part of the debate when it comes to ethnographic investigation, that is the quantitative vs qualitative dichotomy:

One of the main problems any research faces is selecting the methodology for the project: quantitative or qualitative. When it comes to this part of the article, we can say that ethnography is a mainly qualitative methodology; as some authors say, if we use a quantitative approach we will be oversimplifying the issue, as mixing methodologies can result on a potential influence by the individual itself.

I can understand that using techniques and methodologies such as user testing or persona creation processes as well as information gathering previous to any heuristic analysis could be more part of a qualitative approach. On the other side, card sorting can be a more quantitative approach in the way data is collected, even though if it can be also considered as qualitative at some point.

Also, we can consider as quantitative all the information collected using web analytics, as this is a complementary technique that helps decision making for UX projects.

Finally, ethnography and all its techniques open a full range of possibilities as well as leveraging from a wide range of new tools for UX projects. This must have been taken into account for any project, no matter if its for concepts, design, redesign or improving experiences.

As a footnote, the main inspiration for this post came reading a passage from The father of Spanish e-commerce, an article about Carlos Barrabés on the Financial Times:

So for six months we spent every weekend wandering the carparks in and around Benasque noting down where the number plates were from, and what people were doing.

At Torresburriel Estudio, we work designing digital products, enhancing customer experience through research and user testing. If you are looking for help from UX professionals, contact us.

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Torresburriel Estudio

Torresburriel Estudio

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