The Big(ger) Picture: Why and How Virtual Ethnography Can Enhance Generative Design Research

“Where” are they? What are they “doing?”

Traditional/academic ethnographers immerse themselves in an/other culture for extended periods of time to observe firsthand as rich a temporal slice of the totality of the culture as possible, from relatively trivial folkways to the most sacred rituals. The ultimate purpose of this endeavor: to understand and explain to the ethnographer’s own (sub)culture the norms, values and beliefs embodied in these observable behaviors; the “deliverable” taking the form of an academic journal article, essay, or book.

Ethnography was born, of course, when cultures were far more discrete and isolated entities than they are today, and when all but one’s own individual, interior world was perceivable and available to an observer — ethnographer or not.

Today, however, someone can observe me sitting in a café looking at my iPhone 6+ and have absolutely no idea what I’m “doing” — reading a novel? Communicating with my family? Playing a game? Of course, I am physically among my fellow patrons yet simultaneously elsewhere, with just as much or greater meaning for me mediated by and through my hand-held metal slab. “Where” I am is complex, as is my dual consciousness, leaving the observer of my corporeal self knowing only partially the meaning of my behavior, what I am “doing,” where I “am.” *

Ethnographers and sociologists have studied virtual communities, communication and identities for years now, with the examination of online existence supplementing traditional, geographic locales — or as the sole “site” of the research.

It would behoove design researchers and ethnographers doing generative/exploratory research to conduct virtual ethnography as well — especially given the truncated time frame of a design research endeavor, and the smaller study populations (at least to those trained in traditional ethnographic methods situated mainly in the physical world):

  • Triangulating/supplementing observational, interview and co-creation session data with virtual data greatly enhances understanding of the totality of a person’s (or population’s) understandings, values and preferences.
  • Social media and discussion forums offer the researcher longitudinal data as well, unattainable in the relatively short time frame of design research.
  • The content posted in such forums and formats prior to the research is free of any Hawthorne effect/observation bias, may perhaps be more unguarded, honest, and less a conscious presentation of one’s better self for the study.
  • Virtual ethnography can be conducted covertly, and with no additional logistical coordination, travel or the attendant expenses
  • Insight can be gained into populations who may not be accessible to the researchers, whether due to time, financial or access/entree constraints

What kinds of research studies would benefit from the inclusion of virtual ethnography?

If the goals or insights sought from a study are fairly straightforward — for example, color preference for a tablet case, tactile sensation of an apparatus, or navigation of a website — the insights gleaned from and time invested in virtual ethnography are likely of little value.

However, if the goal is to understand conceptual frameworks and/or mental models — for example, aspirations for home security, cooking culture in America, or how patients and caregivers experience treatment — virtual ethnographic sources offer a wealth of insight and nuance likely inaccessible to researchers within the time, scope, and formal nature of rapport between researcher and participant.

At Sonic Rim we’ve supplemented our traditional ethnographic research with virtual ethnography in multiple ways.

For example,

  • Currently, to better understand “the patient experience,” among other things, we’re supplementing our traditional ethnographic work by studying social media posts, discussion board forums and blogs concerning specific patient conditions, and reading comments on relevant articles in the New York Times.
  • In the past we have used Pinterest when doing research on a specific family lifestyle dynamic in the home. We looked at how people shared creative ideas for managing home chores and the reactions/conversations associated with it to build both problem areas and solution spaces.
  • When uncovering opportunities for supporting developers, we have looked at relevant online forums and tool-specific communities to understand the kinds of issues they talk about, and to determine to what extent and in what ways our client could engage with the communities longitudinally to support product development.

In sum: to various degrees, by individual and population, life is lived, social norms are observed, and meaning is constructed online. When conducting an ethnographic study for the purpose of generative design research, in most cases, virtual ethnographic data will give a richer understanding of who those in the study population are, their everyday lives, goals and problem areas — and ultimately opportunities for innovation.

*Leaving aside for now the fact that no ethnographer could ever “know” the totality of another culture, even prior to modern media/the internet, and that ethnographic data is always biased and subjective to some degree.

Originally published at on January 13, 2016.