Minimum Viable Ethnography

One question. Fifteen minutes. No excuses.

Erika Hall
Mule Design Studio
Published in
6 min readFeb 18, 2014


After reading yet another account of how so many entrepreneurs and business people find excuses to avoid research, I want to expose these objections as the fear-spawned, ego-propelled straw herrings they are.

No time? No money? No stomach for diverting energy away from building? I challenge you to a single-question remote user research study that will cost you no more than $329, take 3 days, and yield priceless real-world insight.

All you need:

Genuine commitment to learning. The point of this exercise is to increase your understanding and challenge your assumptions. If you find yourself or any of your team getting defensive, you’re doing it wrong.

ethnio. A good set of recruiting tools made by good people. Starts at $79/mo. Free for the first 14 days. Sure you can make a survey using Google apps that will work in a pinch, but that’s harder and doesn’t have as much built-in guidance.

10 incentives @ $25/each. Incentives decrease bias by attracting people based on the criteria of who wants free money or gift cards, which is basically everyone. And it doesn’t take that much. (I’ll continue shilling for ethnio*, which has recently started offering a lot of options beyond the traditional Amazon gift card). If you don’t offer an incentive, that’s going to skew your sample towards people who have a lot of free time or an ax to grind.

A telephone. Or ideally something like or Zoom, so that you can record the phone calls and refer back to them. No need for video. It’s better without so you can focus on listening.

Also, consider getting Just Enough Research, which is very short.

Day One: Recruit

You’ll want to start pretty early in the day to have as much time as possible for logistics.

Sign up for ethnio and create your screener. Offer $25 in return for a fifteen-minute phone call. Only people who complete the call get the gift card. Your survey questions should include age range, location, e-mail address. You get one bonus behavioral question you can use to find people who are closer to your target. How often do you shop online? How often do you eat out? How often do you book travel? How many children under 12 do you have? Whatever. (Don’t ask the closed question “do you…?” Everyone will answer yes to be included.) No more than 5 questions!

The sole purpose of the screener is to get you a pool of people to talk to. In and of itself the screening survey does not constitute user research. Ethnio offers fantastic instructions and examples in the course of setting up the screener. Include a response deadline of “today”.

Get everyone you know to share the link to the survey. If you get a decent amount of traffic on your website, you can do a javascript pop-up through ethnio. That will only nab people who know your site exists, so keep that in mind. If you get at least 10,000 people a day, you can do live recruiting and invite people to talk immediately. On your calendar set up 15 20-minute slots with at least 10 minutes in between. So, this gives you 2 per hour with wiggle room to reschedule and handle no-shows. You can hook Calendly up to Zoom and it’s all easy peasy.

The recruits will magically populate ethnio. (If it’s insufficiently magic, do more sharing.) Once you have 40 responses, pick 20 to e-mail to set up time for a conversation the next day. This should get you 10. You want a broad distribution in terms of age, gender, and geography. If you are honestly targeting people of a certain age range or geography, filter to those.

At least two people from your team should participate in reviewing the recruits to root out as much sampling bias as possible. Don’t stress too much. You are trying to get useful insights about people who are not you quickly, not meet a statistical standard.

And maybe it will take you a day and a half to recruit and schedule. Sometimes these things take a little longer. But short calls with a broad population are pretty easy to fill up.

Day Two: Interview

Put all the interviews on the calendar. Designate someone to take notes. Have as many people from your team listen as possible. Call your participants.

Your interview script:

Walk me through your day yesterday.

That’s it. Present that one request. Shut up and listen to them for 15 minutes. Do your damndest to keep yourself and your interests out of it. Bam, you’re doing ethnography (not to an academic standard, but to a “learning about people in their social context” standard—like how dropping Mentos into Diet Coke is doing chemistry).

OK. To be fair. You should pop a wrapper on that query to be sociable. Here is the full extent.

Hi, my name is [name]. I work for [company] and I am doing some research to help us improve our work by better understanding real people like you. This should take no more than 20 minutes. Do you mind if we record this call for notetaking purposes only? The recording will not be published or shared outside our team. [Optional 30 seconds chat about weather and/or sports]

Now, walk me through your day yesterday. [And really, really just shut up and let them talk. This can be very difficult.]

[You may, if the opportunity arises, prompt for detail “Tell me more about that” “What type of device are you using?” or ask a clarifying question, “And what led you to do you do that?”. If there is a gap in the conversation, sit with it for a few moments. The participant will usually fill it in. Don’t talk over them, but don’t let it get too weird either. ]

Is there anything you would like to add before we wrap up?

Thank you so much for your time. Your input has been very helpful. Is [e-mail address] the right place to send your $25 thank you? We will be sending that out within the next 24 hours.

At the end of the day, send out the gift cards or other incentives. You can batch send them. It will take 10 minutes.

Day Three: Analyze

Get your team in a room [Zoom, these days—ed.] for 90 minutes. Bring all of your previous assumptions about how people behave and what they value. Talk about what you heard. Answer the following questions:

How did these conversations challenge our assumptions?

What do we offer of value to the people we spoke with?

Do their needs align with our business model?

What are the greatest challenges we face getting them to adopt our product?

How else might they already be solving the problem we want to solve?

What are the greatest opportunities to serve them?

If you approach these questions honestly and in good faith, this discussion will probably prove quite illuminating. In the highly unlikely case that you didn’t learn anything new or useful, carry on with enhanced confidence in your direction.

I am absolutely sure that this exercise is well within the budget, timeline, and expertise of every team working on any product or service. If it is not, I question whether creating a product or service is within your means at all. And once you get a small taste of user research at its quickest, I bet you’ll be eager for more.

*I get no money from ethnio for hyping them. In fact, I pay them. They are some of my favorite people in the business. You can listen to our chat with founder Nate Bolt here.



Erika Hall
Mule Design Studio

Co-founder of Mule Design. Author of Conversational Design and Just Enough Research, both from A Book Apart.