Margaret Mead- Ethnography applied to UX

Ethnography is a technique developed largely by anthropologist Margaret Mead. It involves behavioral observation, contextual interviewing and analysis of users in their work, home or play spaces. The key strength to ethnography is context. Context provides insight into not only who users are (demographics) but what is important to them and what causes them to act and make decisions (psychographics). 

Ethnography goes by a few different names. The most common include: Contextual Interviewing, Field Studies and Task Analysis.  My personal contribution to the field, called "Cognitive Archeology"(PDF) involves an analysis of user behavior and environment with an emphasis on understanding decision-making, problem-solving and the interaction of tasks, values and beliefs.

What is Ethnography?
Essentially, ethnography involves a "walk in their shoes" or a "day in the life" study. It is a method of observing human interactions in their social, physical and cognitive environments.

Leonard and Rayport note: "(Ethnography) is a relatively low-cost way to identify potentially critical customer needs. It's an important source of new product ideas, and it has the potential to redirect a company's technological capabilities toward entirely new businesses."

Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey F. Rayport, co-authors of "Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design".

Core Ethnography Techniques

Contextual Interviewing: Visit users in the environment where they perform the tasks your website or application help solve. Why? Meeting users in a focus group room or conference room removes an important aspect of contextual inquiry- user behavior is triggered by environmental, social and emotional cues. Analysis of user tasks and goals can only be properly accomplished by going to user workplaces and conducting observation and open-ended interviews there.

Task Analysis: Observing users as they perform their "tasks" in the current state. This may included identifying coping strategies, shortcuts or gaining insight into the conditions, variables and contexts behind a user need or behavior.

Diary Studies (Pagers, Disposable Cameras): Giving users a diary to record their thoughts and experiences in conjunction with a pager and a disposable camera can elicit important information that might normally be overlooked in the presence of a researcher. These types of studies are valuable for gaining intimacy and probing matters of personal or emotional relevancy. This technique is best used in conjunction with contextual interviews, using the photos or entries as a way to trigger discussions, values or everyday routines that may normally be out of your user's awareness.

Some Data Analysis Methods

  • Affinity Diagrams: a method for brainstorming and determining relationship or "clustering" between information.
  • Task Flows: a method for organizing the flow of user actions, issues and system responses based on how users want the system to work (note: Use Cases are based on how the system will act- the subject of another post...)
  • Scenarios: a method for synthesizing observations in a scenario that provides meaningful insight into user intentions, expectations and actions with the new system.
  • Journey Maps: a diagram that lays out a user's journey through a service, product or experience highlighting their tasks, pain points, problems, opportunities and goals.

Learn more in this 1 day User Research Methods Training UX course...