Getting the most out of Ethnography for User Experience

©Eva Madezo
Among the Tsaatan community of Reindeer People — © Hamid Sardar-Afkhami

How to observe

©Eva Madezo

The right attitude at the right moment : know how to strike a balance

  • Juggle between objectivity and subjectivity
    An anthropologist has the duty to avoid judgement in his work and simply accepts what he sees as it is. My opinion is that a UX Researcher has to juggle between emotional detachment and attachment. Both are complementary when it comes to diving into a new culture. Piers Vitebsky for instance does not merely observe impartially during all his time in Siberia — “like a fly on a wall ”— but also actively engages into the every day life and therefore get’s closer to the core culture of the Eveny : their animals. The anthropologist rides them himself, breeds them and uses them for milk, cheese and fur. Only by doing this can he get a complete understanding of the relationship between the animal and its master.
  • Alternate between active and passive observation
    Participant observation allows you to get more empathy with your users and understand their latent needs and desires. The ones your user would not be able to tell you himself. By getting involved in the everyday activities and rituals, Piers Vitesbky fully embraces the life and customs of the Eveny. He sees what make them happy and what everyday problems they encounter, which in the design process translates into pain and gain points. All you need to remember is to reflect and write about your own experience.
Old woman feeding a Reindeer — © Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
  • Observe the minutia of life
    Most of the time people will have difficulty expressing their needs. They lack the self-awareness or vocabulary to articulate them. True empathy is about understanding their latent needs, and I believe that focusing on details is the right thing to do. The little life hacks and habits that people do without thinking about it, their routine and automated tasks : this will tell you a lot about your user. Real insights are often to be found in the detail of things.
  • Put yourself in other people’s shoes… and don’t forget to take them off!
    Empathy is a two-step movement. Everyone knows that it’s about merging with your user but observers often forget then to retrieve and write about their experience afterwards. Don’t forget to do both.
Empathy is a movement — ©Eva Madezo

What you can observe

  • Beliefs and life-expectations
    Do the people you observe believe in a god or any kind of transcendency? What do they dream about? Vitebsky documented himself a lot on that topic. The book’s gallery of unforgettable personalities includes shamans, psychics, wolves, bears, dogs, fire and river spirits, and buried ancestors. Any knowledge in this regard will help you build reliable personas.
A shaman performing his art — © Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
  • The historical context
    Your user is not a statue with fixed personality traits and characteristics. One thing I learned from the book is that you want to observe people in their historical context. In The Reindeer People the reader follows the diverging fate of three charismatic but very different herding families through dangerous political and economic reforms led by the Soviet Union. Understand your users in their proper context to see them in a larger political and social ecosystem. With memories, goals to achieve and dreams. Question is then how can you help your user fulfill his or her dreams?
  • The environment
    How does living in a specific environment influence the life of a community? What does it tell you about who they are, what their reasoning is and how they behave? Look at objects, animals, homes and meals… Piers Vitebsky suggests from the beginning that it may actually be the reindeer who have domesticated these hunters and transformed them into herders, rather than the other way round. He shows how Eveny social relations are formed through an intense partnership with these extraordinary animals as they migrate over the swamps, ice sheets, and mountain peaks of what in winter is the coldest inhabited region in the world. Why does it matter so much ? Because the relation we maintain with our environment has an unconscious impact on how we behave between each other and with our surroundings.
  • People’s interactions and the language itself
    How do your users communicate within the community? What kind of conversations do they have and what words do they like using? Language is the key to the soul. It tips you off about the geosocial background and is often a direct path towards the understanding of a community as well as a way to truly empathize with someone. In this case of the Eveny language, Vitebsky explains that it has a great complexity : more than 1500 words are devoted to the description of body parts, diseases, diets and moods of the reindeer. He writes : the language itself is “founded on the use of animals as metaphors for relations between humans”. My advice is to focus on specific keywords : for example if you are to conduct research in a field with a cohesive community such as firefighters, policemen or doctors, it may be useful to notice what kind of words they use to communicate. That way you can ease the learning curve of your solution by adopting proper communication design.

What kind of tools can you use?

The toolkit for observation — ©Eva Madezo
  • Always carry a notebook and a pen
    The best way to collect your thoughts and your observation is by taking quick notes and drawing the scene you’re at. This way you’re sure not to forget anything and you can get some perspective later and see if it makes any sense or not.
  • Take pictures, and record video sequences
    Not only for you and your work but also for the people you are going to tell the story to after your research.
  • Listen to your senses
    What you see, what you smell, what you ear. They are your best friends when it comes to getting a good grasp of what surrounds you. Piers Vitebsky keeps writing about its feelings and it is one of the best ways to faithfully include the reader and transmit his experience.

In essence, what did I learn from this tapestry of life in the frozen taiga?

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Product, Design (UX/UI) & Writing.

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Quentin Parizot

Quentin Parizot

Product, Design (UX/UI) & Writing.

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