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Explaining ethnography

Spend time with the people your organisation cares about, in the places they care about.

Spend time with the people your organisation cares about, in the places they care about.

Ethnographic research is a qualitative method that sits between research and anthropology in which researchers observe - and sometimes interact with your target users and customers in their real-life environment. When combined with user-research, this can be an incredibly useful tool for creating a deeper understanding of design problems.

By using applied ethnography, you can gain the ability to understand your product or service’s relevant domain, its processes and audiences, as well as its goals and contexts of use. For many, it is a way of getting ‘under the skin’ of a design problem, to enable cross-cutting solutions that fit within a wider context or system.

Unlike anthropologic research - in which researchers spend years immersed within their subject group or society - deep and immersive ‘live and work’ ethnography is rarely required in the field of user-research design. Instead, short ethnographic studies can be very useful for user-centred projects.

When to use ethnography:

Ethnography is usually reserved for more complex and critical design problems, those that require a detailed understanding of a number of different factors. Similarly, research involving high stakes (in which failure can lead to disaster) can also justify such significant research methods.

To get the full benefits of ethnography, we would recommend using it at the earliest stages of your research. This is because this methodology is most useful in developing an understanding of your main design problems and supporting future design decisions – all of which will happen later in the user-centred process.

If the design or service already exists, ethnographic methods – such as participant observation – can also be valuable in evaluating their effectiveness.

The benefits of ethnography:

The main benefit of ethnography is that it can help identify and analyse issues that may go unnoticed using other research methodologies. It is useful for reframing questions and transforming perspectives. It delivers highly detailed representations of users’ attitudes and behaviours, which can be used to uncover relevant approaches and responses.

The pitfalls of ethnography:

Applied ethnography may not require as long a period of time as anthropological ethnography, but – due to its richer output – this methodology still tends to take longer to carry out and analyse than others. Subjects may not act naturally during a short study, feeling that they need to act out how they live, work or play. Studies that are longer build trust and counteract this issue.

Choosing an ethnographer:

The choice of ethnographic researcher is critical to a study’s success. This individual will design, conduct and analyse the study’s findings – so it is essential that they have the skill and experience to make sure the study is representative, accurate and fair. At Polar Insight, we recommend using an ethnographic researcher with expertise and experience in the area you’re exploring. For a complex study to be successful, they should have experience of short term and long term observations, as well as a deep understanding of bias in subject selection, data collection and analysis.

If you would like to hear more about applied ethnography, please get in touch.

Martha Schlee