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Making the Most of Ethnographic Research

by Jessica Weber, John Cheng
7 min read
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When employed to its full potential, field research done in unique user environments can uncover opportunities to innovate customer experience.

Even the most seasoned researchers can’t always get people to articulate their unmet needs.

It’s challenging, at best, to gauge interest in non-existent products, particularly digital ones, through a survey.

It’s virtually impossible to verify self-reported behaviors outside a lab setting, and forget about realistically evaluating multi-platform interactions.

That’s why business stakeholders who are accountable for digital product innovation, strategic roadmaps, or multi-channel user experience are increasingly looking to ethnographic research. Although this research tool has its origins in 18th century anthropology—studying the customs of individuals and cultures—its application to technology innovation has never been more relevant. Applying ethnographic methods to digital experiences can yield myriad benefits that go beyond simply validating that something works or identifying opportunities for improvement.

Ethnography reveals how digital and physical processes work together to help businesses address gaps and focus on the entire customer experience. Anyone who has done ethnographic research can attest to its value, and to how expensive and time-consuming it can be. That’s why it’s critical to reduce the risk of investing in it. The investment does pay off, and this article presents five techniques to help ensure you make the most of your investment and reap the many rewards ethnography delivers.

The Benefits of Ethnography in User Experience

The user experience can be thought of as a composite of the user, the interface, and the context; context being an amalgamation of environment and situation. In ethnography, research is conducted in the field, where users’ real-world behaviors and interactions with products and services take place, so that researchers can gain insight into how context impacts the user experiences.

Ethnographic research is all about discovery of the unknown … and uncovering unexpected insights

Ethnographic research offers several key benefits for defining a long term, multi-channel UX strategy, including:

  • Identifying user needs that have yet to be met
  • Testing market demand for products that do not exist
  • Providing a holistic view of a problem space
  • Exposing opportunities for competitive differentiation

The principal advantage of ethnographic methods is the ability to see the impact of the physical world on factors that could drive digital design. Ethnographic research is all about discovery of the unknown—disproving assumptions about user behavior and uncovering unexpected insights. Whenever you’re in the field, something you see is going to surprise you, and those surprises are almost always at the root of innovation.

5 Techniques to Get The Most Out of Ethnographic Research

It may be challenging to get organizational buy-in to pursue ethnographic research because of its long time horizon for results, its cost, and the perception that it may not deliver actionable insights. (It’s always easier to get support for improving product conversion than to get funding for discovery.) If you successfully make the case for ethnographic research, you will want to ensure that you get the most out of what this method can deliver. Here are five techniques to do that:

1. Recruit on the Fringe

Be prepared to cast a wider net when recruiting for ethnographic studies. Participants should span the spectrum of user types. Unlike usability studies, where participant experiences are lumped together and summarized, the objective of ethnography is to unveil unique use cases and anomalies. Therefore, diverse representation is essential. By including a wider range of user types, you increase the likelihood of groundbreaking discoveries.

New and less-skilled users are often great sources for real-world insights; helping to identify obstacles and workarounds they’ve developed to address barriers. Power users often uncover novel applications. In ethnography, individual stories prevail; what works for one person may reveal areas of opportunity where you can conceive the most compelling ideas.

In a consumer mobile banking ethnography study conducted for Wells Fargo, researchers intentionally recruited a wide range of users, both demographically and geographically (from the San Francisco Bay Area and Charlotte, North Carolina). In many cases, it turned out that financial complexity was a stronger driving force for mobile adoption and usage than traditional factors, such as age and comfort with technology. Some of the older participants were the most advanced mobile bankers because they managed their own businesses and had to manage retirement accounts and mortgages, while college-aged students often only had a single checking account.

2. Go Long(itudinal)

Think about incorporating a longitudinal aspect in the form of a diary study. Diary studies require participants to self-report their activities and experiences with a particular product or service over a set period of time. Diaries can be submitted in the form of photos, videos, text messages, or email and may be collected before, during, or after on-site interviews. Diaries are an effective way to gather additional data about the context of use and to help raise participants’ awareness of their own behaviors—rather than relying upon reconstructive memory during the interview process.

If collected prior to on-site visits, diaries can establish patterns of behavior and provide a wealth of information about your participants’ proclivities, habits, and opinions that will help shape individual interview scripts and maximize takeaways. Diaries are also valuable supplements to ethnography because environment and context often change over time; you may be able to capture something unique or out of the ordinary in a diary versus what occurs during a single ethnographic interview.

3. Recreate Use-Case Scenarios

When conducting interviews on-site in participants’ homes or workplaces, aim to get a complete picture of what goes on in their environment, including variables that could potentially impact their use of your product—like time, people, and physical surroundings. Don’t restrict questions and interactions to your discussion guide. Be prepared to improvise and, particularly, to recreate situations if needed.

For instance, if a participant describes using his smartphone and laptop computer simultaneously for different tasks, ask him to demonstrate these modes of use and discuss them in real time. Observation is critical in ethnographic research, and most likely to reveal the unexpected. Users may be unaware or unable to articulate the how and why of their behavior, so the most profound insights come from watching them in action. Showing is better than telling.

In the previously mentioned consumer mobile banking study, researchers asked users to describe and re-enact other mobile banking use cases and scenarios. Several users reenacted the process of finding the closest ATM and, in almost all cases, used Google Maps rather than the mobile banking app. It turned out that in the first release of the banking app, the ATM locator required 8 distinct steps in order to provide the user directions to the nearest ATM. The product team quickly addressed the issue and significantly streamlined the ATM location experience in a subsequent release.

4. Include Stakeholder Debriefs

After each participant interview, make time to debrief with any stakeholders who observed the session. You can treat this as another in-depth interview with its own discussion guide. Stakeholders are closest to the product and will understand all of its complexities and intended uses, so they are often best suited to identify the “aha!” moments and surprises. Capture what’s top of mind for them and begin to explore recommendations and opportunities. This debrief should be considered mandatory since there is so much to gain from brainstorming with these subject-matter experts while the experience is fresh.

5. Look for the Surprises

Finally, consider how you analyze and report your data. During your sessions, take special note of anything users say or do that surprises you. Revisit your early hypotheses and see if and where they’ve been disproven. If possible, leverage what stakeholders observed during debriefs and focus on what surprised them. Many of the best opportunitites are rooted in the disruption of established beliefs. Remember that edge cases hint at innovation. For each interview, imagine what it would take to create the ideal experience for that user. Many of these ideas will be unrealistic or too specific, but you will likely uncover a few opportunities and innovations that could apply to a broader audience.

One of the biggest surprises from the consumer mobile banking study was how frequently and heavily users relied on the mobile channel for their financial needs. Prior to our research, the assumption had been that mobile banking was more of a secondary channel, serving emergency and ad-hoc requests when users were away from their computers. In reality, users were checking their balances and paying their bills while they were cooking in the kitchen, sitting on buses, watching TV, waking up in the morning, or even using the restroom. They wanted or expected to bank on their mobile devices at any time of day and any place, even if a computer was available.


To design and develop optimal user experiences, companies must answer the right questions at the right time. This means choosing the appropriate research method for each stage of the product development lifecycle. By getting out of the lab to explore how your users behave in the context of their natural environments, conducting ethnographic research delivers deep, strategic insights that can drive the innovation of new products and features—especially when it’s done with these techniques in mind.

Image of diver with whale shark courtesy Shutterstock.

post authorJessica Weber

Jessica Weber, This user does not have bio yet.

post authorJohn Cheng

John Cheng,

John Cheng is a Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab. He specializes in qualitative user research methods, such as traditional lab testing, IDIs, and ethnography. He has worked extensively with clients in a range of industries and platforms, including online retail, mobile/tablet, financial services, biotech, automotive, and social media and gaming. In his spare time, he enjoys "geeking out" on various food-related hobbies, with his current pursuits being bread-baking, barbecue, and coffee/espresso.


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