Ethnography (You don’t know what you don’t know)

Usability | May 2016

Ethnography is a research method which immerses you in the world of your users and gives you a deeper understanding of how your product or service is used in the real world.

Skilled researchers blend into the background and observe what is important to your users and what their unmet and unspoken needs might be, to provide your design team with valuable inspiration.

Why ethnography?

People in streetThere are many valuable ways to inform new products, features and services.  Market research, analytics, user testing and putting your ideas in front of a group of users are all useful ways to develop a strategy.  However, to run this type of research you generally need an idea of the scope of the research and the questions you want the research to address.

Taking this one step of targeting your research could already be narrowing the scope of insights you uncover and consequently the level of innovation that you are able to achieve.
The point is, you don’t know what you don’t know.  Ethnographic research can help you uncover what you don’t know.

How it works

Ethnography is derived from anthropology and is, in academic settings, conducted over long periods of time such as weeks or months.  However, in commercial settings we often don’t have the time, budget or need for these longitudinal studies.  Therefore, ethnography has become more rapid for commercial use.

We conduct the research wherever your users are interacting with your product; at home, at the supermarket, in the airport.  We usually need to spend a full day with someone to get a good feel for how the product fits into their life, the attitude they have towards it, the other artefacts that interact with the product and observe any unmet needs.

Man putting up trellisThis type of research is generally not “representative”, does not need to include large numbers of participants and does not always include a sample from each of your personas – maybe just the more extreme ones.  It is about delving deeply into your user’s lives and seeing how they behave in their natural environment rather than relying on them reporting how they think they behave.

The results of ethnographic research often produce findings that surprise your team (and us!) and it is these insights that can be used to drive innovation and act as a springboard for future, more targeted research.

You may know your customers very well from conducting regular surveys, testing sessions and focus groups.  However ethnography can provide a platform for improving or creating new products/services which are grounded in consumer needs and behaviour.  You may even be able to answer questions that you haven’t even thought of at the start of the research.

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