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Ethnography in UX Research

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When it comes to describing and explaining our own behaviour or recalling things that we have done, people might find themselves hard-pressed to provide explanations. The motivations that drive behaviours are often inexplicable as well. These are the blind spots of the human condition and exactly where ethnography comes in – it serves to shed light on these blind spots to better understand people’s needs.

In the practice, people are observed in their natural environments to obtain a contextual understanding of their needs, therefore requiring the researcher to fully immerse in the environment. In UX design, it is sometimes referred to as digital anthropology. This means that users are observed in real-life technical and social environments.

The research practice could be applied to learn how to improve a product, find business opportunities and discover the products that people would like to see.

Benefits of ethnography in UX research and design

The user experience can be understood through the user, the interface, and the context, with context being the combination of the environment and situation. The research method is focused on discovering unknown insights. When done in the long term, the benefits are plentiful. Perhaps it could be seen as a more immersive way to conduct usability testing or user testing of customer experience

  • Products are designed for people, which has an integral social aspect. By employing ethnography in UX, designers can understand how people interact with the product in their natural environment.
  • Researchers get to observe and assess the natural behavior patterns of their potential users. This can inform the design of products that integrates seamlessly into everyday life.
  • Surveys and interviews offer a one-off look into users’ behaviour. However, ethnographic research, gives repeated exposure to it. In the long run, this helps businesses gain a large customer base.
  • Observing people’s behaviourall cues while operating a product or application gives valuable insights into the little intricacies that make a UX design better and more effective.

Research methods for ethnography in UX research

As a UX researcher, one is likely to encounter two of these settings:

Active vs Passive

  • Active setting: In such settings, the UX researcher participates in activities like any other member of the community. Such an approach makes the group more comfortable with the researcher’s presence. However, it could also disrupt the regular functioning of the group. At the same time it affect the researcher who has to carry out tasks together with their users and unable to take notes
  • Passive setting: The ethnographer stands back from the activities of the community they are studying. Researchers behave as a distant observer who is not involved in the community’s activities. This approach allows for careful observation and note-taking by the researcher. However, it may cause group members to behave unnaturally knowing they are being observed by an outsider.

Overt vs Covert

  • Overt: The intention of the ethnographer is known and stated clearly and it confirms their role as a researcher. Overt ethnography is preferred for ethical reasons, as participants are informed, provide consent, and also able to show their interest in the research.
  • Covert: The intention of the researcher is not known and comes up with some other pretense to be present in the community. This gives the researcher can fully observe users without them acting unnaturally.

Photo by Taras Shypka on Unsplash

Gaining access to participants

It is important to note that ethnographic research in UX can be extremely time-consuming. An important consideration for this approach is the question of access to users. The hassle of gaining access to the setting of a particular ethnography varies greatly:

  • To access a wide and diverse range of new users, researchers cna send out questionnaires, survey forms and bulk mails
  • To access users in an active setting, ethnographic UX researchers will have to connect with them and build rapport.
  • Researchers can also enlist the help of informants, who are people involved with the group and can function as a primary source of contact. These people facilitate access and assist in the researcher’s understanding of the group. Especially in instances where the researcher is unfamiliar with the group, tapping on an informant can be a great asset and tool.

Considerations of UX research

  • Think longitudinal: Ethnographic UX research has the potential to look into long-term research, which can be done through a diary study. The process involves getting participants to report on their activities and experiences of a product or service over a period of time – through photos, videos, text messages, or email and may be collected before, during, or after on-site UX interviews. Diaries can supplement researchers with the data by providing context of use, but also heighten user awareness.
  • Recreate scenarios: Get a fuller understanding of what goes on in an environment by recreating situations and improvising. Take note of variables that could impact the use of your product such as time, people, and physical surroundings.
  • Stakeholder debriefs: After each user research interview, it is good practice to debrief with any stakeholders who observed the session. This can function as an in-depth interview with stakeholders who are closest to the product, with a full view of the complexities and intended uses.
  • Look out for surprises: During your sessions, researchers should take special note of things that users say or do that surprises them.

Photo by Amélie Mourichon on Unsplash


Ethnographic UX research can greatly inform the UX design process through valuable insights on how the product interactions look like in the user’s natural environment. It goes without saying that with a more intimate understanding of a customer journey or user experience, more attentive products can be created. In turn, that translates into brand loyalty and better business outcomes.