Read our article and learn some interesting facts about ethnographic research in UX. In it, we describe what ethnography and ethnographic research is in general, outline the benefits of applying this method as well as advise on how best to prepare for field research.

What is ethnographic research? – table of contents:

  1. What is ethnographic research?
  2. Benefits of applying ethnographic research in UX
  3. How to prepare for an ethnographic study?
  4. Summary

What is ethnographic research?

Every UX researcher knows that what people do and what people say are often two completely different things. That’s why, when comparing behaviors with their descriptions and explanations, it’s easy to get lost. The recollections of survey participants are often inconsistent with the recordings of the meeting, for example. The motivations that drive a given behavior are also not always clear to researchers. This is largely why ethnography was born.

Ethnography is a type of field research in which researchers observe people in their natural environment to gain a more holistic, contextual understanding of their needs. Unlike other types of field research, ethnography requires the researchers to truly “immerse” themselves in the environment under study. In this method, the researcher can even befriend the subjects and collaborate socially throughout the study. This is especially handy when the researcher’s natural or familiar environment differs significantly from the one he or she has chosen to study.

Although ethnography has its roots in anthropology, ethnographic methods have been adapted for research with users in UX. In the context of UX research, it is an ethnography that is also referred to as digital anthropology, field research or contextual research. Ethnographic UX research reveals the insights of users, allowing them to be observed in the context of real-world technical and social environments.

Benefits of applying ethnographic research in UX

One of the most obvious advantages of ethnographic research is simply observing users in their natural environment. The ethnographic approach to research in UX is concerned with how people relate to technology in their natural environment. Through ethnography, designers can gain an in-depth understanding of the daily lives of their potential users and their natural tendencies and behavioral patterns.

An important advantage of ethnographic research is its duration – ethnographic research is continuous, lasting for a given period. In comparison, with a survey, interview, or even a focus group, user insights can only be used on one occasion.

Ethnographic research also provides context. Ethnography allows researchers to observe the situations and circumstances in which a product will truly apply. Some circumstances are crucial(e.g., how quickly are users able to grab and open an umbrella when it starts to rain?) – but there are also less noticeable aspects that can provide further information (e.g., at what point do users reach for the umbrella – after the first thunder or before? At what point between fog and downpour do people switch from hood to umbrella? etc.).

Through ethnographic research, the researchers get to know their end users well. By observing their target audience and developing insights based on real-world behavior, the researcher and UX designer can create a product better suited to the needs of future users.

The last major benefit of ethnography is to understand problems, and gaps and explore opportunities. Ethnographic research takes advantage of the social aspect of product design, revealing the challenges people face when interacting with a product in its natural setting. Researchers observe behavioral cues to discover where technology can help (or where it can hinder) and allow for better, more effective product design.

ethnographic research

How to prepare for an ethnographic study?

There are two main stages in conducting an ethnographic field study – there is the pre-planning period and the part already focused on research with users (participants). Although a field study is potentially open-ended – like any other scientific study – it still requires planning to ensure proper logistics. Before you begin the study, it’s worth answering a few questions:

  • How long will the study last?
  • Where will it be held?
  • Who should be involved in the research phase?
  • How will you record the data collected?
  • What observation methods will you use?
  • What questions are you hoping to get answers to?

Preparing for a survey is a particularly important step, because, for example, some locations may require prior preparation or permit. Sometimes you also need to establish in advance the network of necessary contacts you will need to function smoothly in the chosen setting. In addition, you may need to involve people other than just participants – such as additional researchers, internal stakeholders, parents, or teachers in the case of research involving children. Remember to include these people as early as possible to avoid unpleasant situations.

There are many research methods belonging to field research. They come in three categories: direct observation, active observation (active participation) and interviews – but the same study can include methods from multiple categories.

Direct observation simply means observing someone (or a group of people) to see how they behave in a given situation and why. Ideally, the research participant doesn’t care that you are observing him or her and behaves exactly as if you weren’t there. Under certain circumstances, you may also be able to hide. For example – sometimes researchers observe shoppers in shopping malls or souvenir stores and none of them know they are observed. However, this form of observation has both ethical and practical limitations. In most cases, you will have to explain your presence to the participants and hope that they will simply behave naturally.

Data recording can take the form of free-form notes, the use of ready-made protocols and data sheets, or audio-visual recording (supplemented by the researcher’s notes). Direct observation can be an independent study but is also a great way to gather the information needed to structure later research phases. Active observation is a form of research in which the investigator in a way joins the participant. Data recording is usually done through field notes or journal entries written during breaks from observation.

Recruiting the right participants for UX research is one of the key and most difficult steps of any type of research – ethnographic research is no exception. Like recruitment for other qualitative research methods, user recruitment for ethnographic research involves:

  • Define research objectives and methodology
  • Identify the best types of participants to recruit (define the target group based on criteria such as psychographics, behaviors, demographics and geography)
  • Determine the number of participants needed. For qualitative research, 5-12 people are usually sufficient.
  • Looking for potential participantsuser interviews or screeners can help with this.
  • Screening participants. Go to the Screening Surveys section to learn what, why and how to perform at this stage.

When recruiting, it is also a standard to remember to provide incentives for the study and also formal issues – such as collecting consent from participants.


Ethnographic research does not have to be complicated or time-consuming, nor does it have to involve very specialized researchers. The main part of a field study is to go out to people and talk to them in their natural environment while they handle the product under study. Understand their behavior and motivations. This will allow you to create better, more intuitive products, but also to simply get to know your users – something that will certainly come in handy in the future.

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What is ethnographic research? | UX research #20 klaudia brozyna avatar 1background

Author: Klaudia Kowalczyk

A graphic & UX Designer which conveys into design what cannot be conveyed in words. For him, every used color, line or font has a meaning. Passionate in graphic and web design.

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