Using Ethnography in Design Research Can Unearth Problems You Never Knew Existed
Using Ethnography in design research can reveal rich human insights.
What if, instead of sending out a survey or bringing people into the lab, you went out and watched how they behave in the real world?
Ethnography is a human-centred research method where you immerse yourself in participant’s environment to gain a more in-depth and often profound perspective of their lives. With it, you can uncover problems and solutions you might never have known existed.
Ethnography in design research might include unobtrusive observation of how people spread out or move through a hospital cafeteria, tagging along with someone using public transit to travel between appointments, an on-site interview with a retail staffer, or a conversation with someone in their own home.
If you’re looking for deep human analysis and behavioural insights, it’s time to throw away your formal surveys and invest your time into ethnographic research practices.
It’s important to keep in mind that ethnography is an exhaustive approach that requires intensive interviews, ideally spread out over multiple days. It’s also sensitive in nature due to the personal data you collect and your presence in other people’s environments. Learn more about this below and continue to familiarize yourself with this design research method before jumping into the process.
Ethnography (from the Greek words ethnos: “a company, people, or nation,” and graphy: "field of study") developed in anthropology as the study of people and cultures where the researcher makes observations from the point of view of the subject.
Pioneered by Bronisław Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands of Melanesia (c. 1915) and the American anthropologist Margaret Mead in Samoa (1925), ethnographic fieldwork has become the model for an up-close and in-person approach in other academic research, UX product design, and experiential design research.
Ethnography Compared to Other Research Methods
- Immersive and field-based
- Exploratory and open-ended
- Ideal for small groups and individuals
- Complex and time-consuming
If prepared and followed through with care, ethnographic research can generate:
- Profound stories
- Experiential data
- Deeper insights
- Unexpected results
- Awareness of behaviours and attitudes
- A more thorough understanding of people and the contexts in which they live
Gaining Profound Perspectives with Ethnographic Research
For academic purposes, a researcher might insert themselves into a community in order to collect the required data. You might find a sociologist conducting long-form interviews with community members right inside that community or within the actual homes of those participants. Instead of bringing participants to them, a scholar would conduct their research in the participant’s natural, and most comfortable, environment.
Some UX designers use ethnography in the early stages of product design. It’s ideal for thoroughly testing a product or digging deeper into the behaviours of your target audience. Immersing themselves into distinctive user environments can expose unique opportunities to improve and innovate the customer experience. This is why people in the UX industry are looking more and more to research methods rooted in human-centred design.
Before attempting to design or redesign anything, it’s important to understand how users currently approach the problem, and how current solutions succeed or fail at supporting them.
Spotless, a service design agency from the UK, for example, uses ethnography to conduct user experience research. They noticed that people relaxed once they became used to being observed, and behaved as they normally would. While observing an insurance claim processing system, they watched people shift from standard procedures to shortcuts and workarounds, all useful to the redesign of the system.
📚 Here’s more on when and how Spotless uses ethnographic research.
How Overlap Uses Ethnography for Design Research
Ethnography adds deeper layers to Overlap’s human-centred research work. Long-form interviews in a participant’s own environment set the stage for emotional stories that can reveal profound insights. This unique research method informs better solutions—ones you could never have hoped for through other lighter-touch, conventional, and/or quantitative methods.
Recently, Overlap was tasked with building capacity for human-centred design in a city’s healthcare system. The project focused on the aging population, so that’s exactly where Overlap's designers went. The team visited a series of aging community members in their homes and leisure spaces where they heard stories and observed participants in their own environments.
Hearing health stories first hand and seeing how these aging members moved around their homes and got through the day revealed data filled with powerful narratives. The team was blown away by how much they learned about people’s priorities, challenges, workarounds, and resilience. They were able to apply this deep knowledge to suggest better, human-centred solutions.
The knowledge obtained informed a set of design principles. It’s the start of what designers need to keep in mind as local organizations build and evolve programs for their aging communities.
Taking the Time to Listen to People
It all comes down to listening.
In 2016, a couple of Overlap designers visited an ethnography participant at a hospital. Partway through their conversation, the participant gestured to the hand sanitizer dispenser on the wall visible from the bed, and said: "I wish they would take that damn thing away."
The statement resonated with our team members. Access to hand sanitizer seems imperative in a hospital, but for people who suffer from an addiction to alcohol, hand sanitizer is an easily accessible substitute and an uncomfortable addition to an already difficult process.
And at the hospital it's free.
It’s also everywhere, and the emotional impact of staring at your addiction all day often isn’t considered. It makes a big difference to the experience of care, and it makes the decision to seek medical help extremely difficult.
With this in mind, there are lots of ways hospitals and designers could make that specific situation more manageable for those struggling with addictions.
Asking simple questions like: "How do you feel in this room?” or “If you could change anything about this room, what would you change?" can make all the difference to a patient’s experience, and possibly their life.
Those connections were made through being there, and listening to real people in their own space.
It’s important for us all to listen, and as designers, that’s all the more critical to the success of truly human-centred products and services.
Overlap utilizes the power of ethnography in our human-centred design research with hospitals, libraries, and social programs. For certain projects, and when time allows, it has proved to be an ideal approach for uncovering meaningful, deeply human stories that leave lasting impressions. After gaining insights from these ethnographic experiences, we can use surveys and other familiar methods to work out how widely those insights apply and to improve the effectiveness of our solutions to a broader user base.
Make sure you and your team are prepared before jumping into any ethnographic research.
The unexpected results and insights are invaluable, but there are also many ways this practice can go sideways. Ethnography is highly sensitive work and a very personal type of research. Whenever you’re working with people, you have to be especially careful about participant privacy, and there are even more guidelines to follow when it comes to using ethnography in design research. Proceed with caution and never expose the identities of your participants without explicit permission. Do your homework to learn all that you can before getting started.
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