We use a lot of terms in the UX world. Sketching, wire-framing, personas, journey maps, and so on. All these terms can quickly become confusing if you’re encountering them during a sales pitch or when pouring over a statement of work. One particularly unusual term that you may hear thrown around is ethnographic research or ethnography. Ethnography — that’s a big word. It must be important. But what, exactly, does it mean?

The origins of ethnography

Ethnography has its roots in the field of anthropology. It describes the process of immersing yourself into the environment of the subjects you wish to study. Think Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees in Africa or an intrepid researcher getting dropped in some remote, headhunter village in the Pacific Islands.

The idea is centered around getting out of your own familiar surroundings and into the world of those you’re studying. This helps you develop a deeper understanding not only of who you’re researching, but also what they do, and why.

While this is cool and all, most of you probably aren’t building apps for chimpanzees or headhunters, so why is this important to you?

Why ethnography matters in UX

UX (user experience) design is all about creating a great experience for users. You want to create an experience so intuitive and engaging that users never feel confused, frustrated, or bored. To do this, you need to understand how your users think. You need to empathize with them.

It’s no surprise, then, that one of the main goals of ethnographic research is to develop empathy for the main focus of your research. In fact, “empathic” and “ethnography” are often uttered in the same breath or used interchangeably in the context of design and user experience. To create empathy, you need to perform ethnographic research. In UX, this means being on the same ground with your users, also called digital ethnography.

Being on the ground with your users has another benefit besides developing empathy. It helps you learn an incredible amount of information through observation and first-person experience that can’t be gained by simply reading a research report or even through a phone interview.

Making ethnography practical

Let’s create a hypothetical example. Say you engage a client to build an iPad application for patients who are facing possible surgery. The main idea behind the app is to present patients with options and information about the procedures.

After meeting with the client to gather requirements, you begin work on a prototype. With prototype in hand, you go out to visit some potential users. After talking with surgeons, office staff, and patients, you realize that you’re on the wrong path. Luckily, you find this out early in the process, and you’re able to change your approach and rework the application from the ground up, focusing on the direct information you gained from spending time with the users.

Your work pays off. In fact, the app gains a five-star rating in the App Store and wins an award. More importantly, you deliver an application that meets the needs and expectations of the intended users.

OK, we confess that wasn’t actually hypothetical. That’s actually a very real Maestro-made app experience. But the point still stands. Direct observations of and conversations with your users give you the most valuable ethnographic research.

The key principle of ethnographic research

It’s critical to have a close-up and personal understanding of your users and how they operate. Ethnographic research is a great way to gather that information. But how do you do it? There are entire college courses taught on the subject, so obviously it’s too much to cover in a single post. But it all boils down to one fundamental principle: get out of your office, studio, or wherever you work. Get out and observe people.

You can do this in a few different ways.

1. Passive observation

People get nervous in research interviews, and often they’ll change their behavior consciously or subconsciously (the Hawthorne Effect). To avoid this effect, the ethnographic research team shadow users in their day-to-day lives without direct interaction. This reveals more accurate data when users confront the problem the UX researchers are looking to solve.

2. Contextual interviews

Unlike passive observation, this involves researchers asking users direct questions. However, to diminish the Hawthorne Effect, researchers create an environment that is as natural as possible. Often this means researchers accompany users throughout their day, asking questions and taking notes.

3. Data analysis

All the ethnographic research in the world is useless if it can’t be turned into useful data. Taking field notes is a mustand it should be done during passive observation or contextual interviews. After the user research is finished, bring your research team back together and look for key themes, similarities, and patterns in the research. Compare key points, organize them into topics, and start brainstorming how everything fits together.

Do research that matters

If you have the budget for passive observations or contextual interviews, go to where your users are. If you don’t have the budget, go back and ask for it — this is important. Observe your users, talk to them, listen and watch for the things they don’t say as much as the things they do say.

Ethnographic research takes time and hard work. But the benefits you gain from ethnography is always better than what you get from focus groups or phone interviews. It gets right into the lives of the users, uncovering the most valuable responses.

And the end result? A better project and satisfied users.