The ethnographic study: the foundation of successful products


Recognition of user needs in the real use context

An ethnographic study is always particularly useful when the exact user needs in the context of everyday use are to be determined. Many problems often only occur in the real usage environment when other factors influence the usage.

Surveys or classic interviews are of no help here, as they can only ask for the opinions and views of users, but do not provide insight into the actual use of products and systems in a personalised environment. However, it is precisely this insight that is crucial for companies to develop products that are accepted on the market and address the real needs and problems of users. Because what people say they do is often not what they really do.

The Polish ethnologist Bronisław Malinowski could hardly have imagined that almost a hundred years after the publication of his successful work "Argonauts of the Western Pacific", in which he describes the everyday life of the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands, his methods are being used to optimize smartphone apps and corporate websites.

The approach to ethnographic studies used in UX today differs in some aspects from classical ethnographic research:

Malinoswki coined the term "native's point of view". Malinoswki coined the term "native's point of view" to illustrate the importance of seeing things from the perspective of the "informants" in ethnographic research and not to interpret the observed information in a biased way. This ethnocentrism, i.e. looking at other cultures from one's own learned and considered superior point of view, should also be avoided in UX ethnography. Instead, one should always try to adopt the users' point of view (emic perspective) and develop products based on real usage observations.

Data collection through participatory observation

By combining different methods such as ethnographic interviews, participant observation, taking photos and video recordings and continuous recording of notes, a comprehensive picture of the research situation can be captured during the field stay.

Participatory observation forms the core of the ethnographic study. It combines the methods of classical interview and classical observation, in that the researcher interacts with the research participant and asks him/her questions while using the products or systems. On the one hand, this allows the observation of how the user deals with a product or system in its natural context of use, and on the other hand, the researcher can have certain things explained to him or her that he or she might have misinterpreted in a pure observation.

By taking photos, videos, audio recordings and classic notes, the researcher can finally present a comprehensive picture of the usage situation and use it for later analysis.

The ethnologist James P. Spradley names three fundamental dimensions of a social situation that can be found:

For example, in every ethnographic research there is a place where research is carried out, the actors who are in this place and the activities that are carried out by the actors. A special focus on these fundamental dimensions makes it possible to make specific observations in view of the multitude of sensory impressions one is exposed to in the research situation.

The benefits for companies

An ethnographic study offers many advantages for companies, as it directly shows the everyday actions of users and, instead of merely documenting opinions, it also documents behaviour that is crucial for researching real needs and problems when using products.

Further advantages:

Design decisions can be made based on real contextual usage data.

Difficult to describe usage paths can be made visible.

Additional products and services used by users offer inspiration for innovation.

Detailed basic research minimizes the risk of later costly changes due to wrong assumptions.

Michael Wörmann

Moritz Flues

Moritz is especially interested in ethnographic research approaches that focus on the users' context of use. He sees the observation and questioning of individual behaviour as a central aspect of user experience research.