We use a lot of terms in the UX world. Sketching, wire-framing, personas, journey maps, etc…. It can become confusing rather quickly if you're sitting through a sales pitch or poring over a statement of work. One particularly fancy term that you may have heard thrown around is ethnographic research. Ethnographic; that's a big word, four syllables. It must be important. But what exactly does it mean?
Ethnographic research has its roots in the field of anthropology. It's the process of immersing yourself into the environment of the subjects you wish to study. Think Jane Goodall studying apes in Africa or an intrepid researcher getting dropped in some remote, headhunter village in the Pacific Islands. The idea is that by getting out of your own familiar surroundings, and into those of the group you are studying, you can develop a deeper understanding not only of who they are and what they do, but why.
That's neat, but most of you probably aren't building apps for apes or cannibal islanders, so why is this important to you? One of the main goals of ethnographic research is to develop empathy for your research subjects. In fact, "empathic" and "ethnographic" are often uttered in the same breath or used interchangeably in the context of design and user experience. Another main benefit to being on the ground with your users is that you can 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.
Let me illustrate with a quick example. A while back we engaged with one of our clients to build an iPad application for patients who are facing possible surgery. The main idea behind the app was to present patients with options and information about the procedure. After meeting with the client to gather requirements, we began work on a prototype. With prototype in hand, we went out to visit some potential users. After talking with a surgeon, office staff and a patient, we realized we were on the wrong path. Luckily, we found this out early in the process and were able to change our approach and rework the application from the ground up. Our work paid off. The app currently has a five-star rating in the App Store and recently won a Brandon Hall award. More importantly, we were able to deliver an application that met the needs and expectations of the intended users.
As the example shows, it is critical to have a very clear 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 we can't cover everything here. It all boils down to one fundamental principle though. Get out of your office, studio, whatever. Get out and observe people. If you have the budget, go to where your users are (if you don't have the budget, go back and ask for it, it's important). Observe them, talk to them, listen and watch for the things they don't say as much as the things they do say. Ethnographic research isn't always easy or cheap. And to be perfectly honest, it's not always fun. It can be kind of uncomfortable at times. However, the benefits you gain from the information that you uncover is always better than what you'd get from a focus group or phone interview and the end result is a much better product.