How reading ethnography has helped me to understand the power of observation and gain greater empathy with my users
As you know, observation is one of the vital components of User Experience Research. That said, one can feel powerless when confronted to observing in situ or interviewing users. What should you be focusing upon during your research? How to gather intelligible and actionable insights that can be leveraged by your designers?
Ethnography and Anthropology have a great deal to teach us when it comes to understanding people and communities. And since human-centered design is a process that starts with the people you’re designing for, I thought it would be worthy to share with you what I’ve learned in terms of observation by reading an ethnographic book.
I recently finished reading Reindeer People and it gave me a better grasp of how to behave and what to observe when you go out of your comfort zone. When you try to understand a culture you are not familiar with. The book is the result of 20 years of long-term field work among the Eveny of Siberia, carried out by the anthropologist Piers Vitebsky. The latter embedded himself in the culture of the Eveny Reindeer herders, studying and examining the various aspects of their lives.
How to observe
Observation is a key ingredient of all qualitative research, and since there is a lot to research, my first advice is to start by splitting your research in three domains : the physical, cultural and spiritual life. It will enable you to see the large picture of what you are focusing on and therefore be able to dig deeper and concentrate on the right details with a methodological framework.
To do so, start reflecting on time and space. What does a typical day look like? Ask yourself how people structure it : where do they go? To do what? How do they manage their time?
Then again, try to get some perspective : what have you learned? What does it teach you about their view of the present? What about their projection into the future? Space and time perception tell you a lot about the mindset of the people you observe. This opens the path to build relevant user-personas with actionable dreams and aspirations.
The right attitude at the right moment : know how to strike a balance
Now, what attitude should you adopt to make sure you appreciate other societies in terms of their own cultural symbol and values? How can you distance yourself as much as possible from your individual prism?
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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?
Last but not least : what tools do you need to constantly carry with you? Ethnographic work is qualitative work, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to collect any data on the research field.
- 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?
Observation requires you to constantly challenge your intellectual curiosity. It is all about alternating between objectivity and subjectivity, and this is the reason why I would recommend you to actively participate in your user’s activities to get true empathy with them, even though sociocultural ethnology and anthropology are guided by the principle of cultural relativism and try to avoid any sort of judgement.
Adopting the right posture at the right moment is no easy challenge, but I am convinced that a great observer has to keep his senses awake constantly. The search for valuable insights takes time and one has to focus on details to capture what makes a single individual or a larger community what they intrinsically are, what they aspire to be and what they dream about being.
Now, keep in mind that being a good observer only accounts for half of the job. Translating your observations into a story that others can connect with is equally important. Only by doing both can you help designers build a service or a product that fits your users’ needs and desires. In this regard, Piers Vitebsky’s book is a model of its kind.