5 Methods For Getting The Most Out Of Ethnographic Research

When field research has been employed to its full potential and performed in unique user environments, opportunities to enhance and innovate the customer experience can be uncovered.

Customer needs that are unmet can be difficult to uncover, even for the most seasoned of researchers. Gauging interest in nonexistent products through a survey, especially digital ones, can be challenging.

Verifying behaviors that are self-reported outside of the lab setting is essentially impossible and the concept of realistic evaluation for multi-platform interactions is quite far fetched.

For these reasons and many more, business stakeholders who are accountable for multi channel user experiences, digital product innovation or strategic road maps are turning to ethnographic research at an increasingly larger rate.

This research tool’s origins date all the way back to the 18th century and deals with the study of individual customs and cultures, but its application to technological innovation has never been more relevant.

By applying ethnographic methods to digital experiences, a variety of benefits are yielded, benefits that go above and beyond simple validation and the identification of improvement opportunities.

Ethnography lends valuable insight into how digital and physical processes come together to provide businesses assistance in addressing their gaps and improving on the overall customer experience. Those who have conducted ethnographic research in the past are able to attest to its value and can also speak to how time consuming and expensive it can be.

That is why reducing the risk of investing in it is pivotal. The investment pays off and the following five techniques will help to ensure that you get the most of your investment and reap all of the benefits that ethnographic research has to offer.

How Can Ethnography Benefit The User Experience?

User experiences are a combination of the context, interface and the user themselves. The context is an amalgam of situation and environment. Ethnographic research is conducted in the field, where a user’s interactions with goods and services takes place, as well as their real world behaviors. This allows the research to collect valuable information about the impact of context on the user experience.

Ethnographic research focuses on discovery of the unknown, in addition to unexpected insights. It also offers numerous important benefits for defining a multi channel UX strategy over the long haul, including:

1. The identification of unmet user needs

2. Testing market demand for nonexistent products

3. Providing holistic views of problem spaces

4. Uncovering opportunities for competitive differentiation

The most crucial advantage of all? Being able to gauge the impact of the physical world on factors that drive digital design. Ethnographic research is all about discovering the unknown and the surprises that we discover in the field are typically at the root of all innovation.

5 Methods For Getting The Most Out Of Ethnographic Research

Organizational buy in can be hard to come by, due to the cost of ethnographic research, its long term process and a common perception that it may not deliver actionable results. When you make the case for ethnographic research, you’ll want to ensure that you can get the most out of it. These five methods will help you do just that.

1. Fringe Recruitment

Casting a wider net during ethnographic studies helps to improve your results. Participants should run the gamut of user types. Ethnography is designed to uncover unique anomalies and diverse representation is essential. The more user types included, the higher the likelihood of groundbreaking discoveries.

Newer users are helpful for providing real world insights, while advanced users often uncover more advanced applications. The individual story typically prevails in ethnography and what works for one person can reveal areas of additional opportunity.

Wells Fargo recently conducted their own ethnography study, by recruiting users from a range of demographics and geographic backgrounds. They discovered that financial complexity was a stronger driving force for the adoption of mobile banking than traditional factors, such as age and comfort with technology.

2. Incorporate a Longitudinal Aspect

Incorporating a longitudinal aspect in the form of a diary study is a crucial aspect to getting the most out of ethnographic research. Participants are asked to report about their experiences with the product over a set period and the diaries can be submitted in e-mail form or as photo/video/text messages.

These diaries help to gather additional information and raise the self awareness of participants, instead of relying on reconstructive memories during the final interview process. When diaries are collected prior to on site visits, they can lend valuable insight into user habits and opinions, thus maximizing takeaways. Changes to environment and context are also captured, allowing researchers to capture unique information, as opposed to relying on one single interview.

3. Recreate Typical Scenarios

During interviews at the user’s home or workplace, being able to get a complete picture of their environment and the variables that impact product usage is pivotal. Don’t limit the questions to the ones listed in the discussion guide, be willing to improvise if needed. For example, a participant that relies on simultaneous usage of their smartphone and laptop can demonstrate the process in real time and discuss their thoughts and concerns.

Ethnographic research thrives on observation and this is when unexpected discoveries are made. Showing is better than telling and it is easier for a user to demonstrate than it can be to articulate. In the aforementioned Wells Fargo study, participants were asked to re-enact the process of finding an ATM. When their banking app was first released, the ATM locator needed 8 steps to provide the user with directions and Wells Fargo immediately addressed the issue for a later release.

4. Debrief Stakeholders

After each participant interview, make to debrief any stakeholders who observed the session. This should be treated as another in depth interview with a discussion guide. Since they are closest to the product and truly understand its intended usage, they are well equipped to identify “aha!” moments. Learn more about what is on their mind, explore their recommendations and consider the debrief to be mandatory. There is much to be gained by brainstorming with knowledgeable stakeholders when the experience is fresh.

5. Search For Surprises

Take time to consider and report the data, making special note of surprising user actions and statements. Revisit your initial hypothesis to see if it has been disproved. Leverage the observations of your stakeholders, focus on their surprises and be willing to disrupt established beliefs.

Remembering that edge cases typically hint at innovation is pivotal. During your interviews, try to imagine how to create an ideal experience for the user. While these ideas are usually unrealistic and too specific, they can lead you to innovations that are best applied to a wider audience.

Hearkening back to the Wells Fargo study, their ethnographic research uncovered that users were more frequently relying on their mobile channel than expected. Wells Fargo learned that mobile banking was incredibly important to their customers, who want to be able to check their balances and pay bills during the course of their daily activities.


To develop and design optimal user experiences, the right questions need to be answered at the right time. The appropriate research methods must be used at each stage of the production development cycle and getting out of the lab to explore users in their natural environments is critical.

When conducted with these techniques in mind, ethnographic research delivers deeply valuable insights that can lead to the innovation of brand new features and products

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