Amlan Sarkar

Unearth the unknown: Embrace ethnography in UX

In a world where everything is increasingly interconnected, why do people do what they do? What is the method behind their madness? UX research aims to study user behaviours. But behaviour needs to be studied within a certain context. That’s where ethnography comes in. To put it simply, ethnography is the study of people & their culture, in their natural environment. In this article, we at Team Codesign take a look at how embracing ethnography can add insight and perspective in the UX process, allowing UX designers to unearth the unknown.

Benefits of Embracing Ethnography in UX

Ethnographic research essentially inverts the way we approach market research. Instead of bringing participants to the researchers, researchers observe participants in their natural environment. It helps UXers determine the effect of the physical world on digital decisions. In this context it is also sometimes known as digital ethnography. Let’s delve deeper into its benefits.

  • 1.  A real-world Setting
  • Why do people choose to use or not use a certain app? Perhaps they generally enjoy using the app, but are unable to at a certain time. Maybe that time-frame is crucial to the success of the app. For example, a grocery store does all its billing through an app. Some customers may be able to do this, while others may find it difficult to open the app while they are trying to find the best way to carry all that they have purchased. Observing users in a real-world setting allows UX designers to understand the natural tendencies of people.
  • 2.  The Long Run
  • When a UXer observes a certain user behaviour they usually do so over a single isolated occasion, such as when they conduct an interview or a survey. With ethnographic research however, the UX researcher can observe behaviours over multiple occasions & multiple subjects. The UX researcher is in control of how long the study should carry on, essentially giving them the option of going all- in for the long run.
  • 3.  A Contextual Understanding
  • Perhaps the most important aspect of ethnographic research is the contextual understanding it provides i.e. – The answer to why people do what they do. For example - Some online shoppers enjoy creating a wish list, but others may directly go in for a purchase. An ethnographic study will be able to explain the thought process & context behind both these behaviours. For UX designers these insights can help explain where their technology adds value and where it acts as a hindrance.
  • 4.  Genuine Feedback
  • When it comes to digital ethnography, one of its biggest advantages is that the feedback one receives is as genuine as can be. How is this possible? Well, it’s because technology allows UXers to conduct research through mobile devices. The participants don’t need to do anything differently and nor do they have to be at a particular location, face-to-face with the observer. This space allows subjects to behave completely naturally and therefore share genuine feedback.
  • 5.  Immediate Feedback
  • Another benefit to digital ethnography is that the feedback one receives is instantaneous. It allows UX researchers to collect data as and when the user is actually using the product. To present an analogy, imagine you run a restaurant. One way to obtain feedback from your diners is to ask them to fill up a form after their meal. Another way would be to notice their facial expressions when they take a bite of your food. Which do you think would be more accurate? That is the advantage of immediate feedback through ethnographic research.

As you can see, ethnographic research helps highlight the ‘user’ in the process of user experience. It allows UXers to observe individual differences within a larger group. It incorporates different viewpoints, perspectives and preferences. All in all it makes the user experience more human. At Team Codesign we believe that achieving a good user experience all boils down to asking the right questions at the right time. Feel free to contact us, if you need to unearth the unknown about your customers.