UX and the ethnographer’s toolkit

As a tool suited to a variety of contexts ranging from open-ended, generative field studies to evaluative inquiries, ethnography can bridge the theoretical and applied domains of UX. A robust understanding of ethnography can offer important insights about data — what constitutes ethnographic data, how does one collect it and to what ultimate goal — as well as the ways this data can inform UX design. Ethnography is more than the sum of its parts (interviews, observations, analysis, field study). By examining its impacts, its unique data, and fieldwork, we can see ethnography’s usefulness as a tool for UX.

Creating Knowledge and “Moving the Needle”

To be useful, knowledge must have an impact; it must “move the needle.” In academic and applied contexts, both ethnography and UX must justify their use relative to other, less expensive methods as well as by their ability to generate insights and be impactful.

In the academy, funding research requires not only compelling topic, but also a “value-add” to the discipline. The latter is a key evaluation point for funding bodies and entails a mix of intellectual merit and broad impacts. Your research must hold the potential to advance knowledge and benefit society (i.e., “move the needle”). This is not to say that all funded research is transformative. Rather, you must be able to frame your research project in a way that it draws attention to its potential impact and use in other contexts. It is up to you to communicate how your research will do this.

UX offers a wide array of tools, with ethnography one of many. In contrast to the academy, ethnography in a business context requires justification and an understanding of what it can accomplish. Comparatively, ethnography is expensive and time-consuming, though its components are widely used and accepted: interviews, observation, and in situ field study in search of the Holy Grail of UX, empathy. Analogously, to be actionable UX requires “buy in.” The more you can communicate ethnography’s upside and understand the types of data it generates, the more likely you are to find champions who will appreciate its unique data and insights. Which brings me to the topic of data…


We are overwhelmed with data. A 2013 study noted that 90% of data in the world was generated over the last two years. These numbers have undoubtedly increased, and there’s no denying the growing importance of big data today. Yet data divorced from reality is useless. The data ethnography generates is neither neat nor machine readable, and therein lies its usefulness: it can provide a human-centered context that big data often cannot. Field study and ethnography are capable of generating insights about the intangible, non-quantifiable aspects of social reality. Given ethnography’s open-ended vis-a-vis other methodologies, it can occupy any point on the exploratory-evaluative research continuum.

During field study, any interaction, however fleeting, constitutes data. Some data may be background static, while some might constitute signals or seemingly isolated signposts pointing to future trends, anxiety, pain points, or uncertainty in a given sector. The ethnographer’s job is to sift through these inputs and, together with informants, try to make sense of them. Ethnographic data can range from observations about how dress, facial expressions, how someone greet strangers, and mundane interactions on public transportation to formal data like structured interviews or focus groups.

Engaging the real world

Engaging the real world on its own terms is key with ethnography. As an example, when studying how an unrecognized separatist state in the former USSR functioned in a world that did not acknowledge its existence, it was imperative to understand the sources of authority important to locals. Over time, ethnographic observation allowed for an understanding of not just the moral, economic, and political sources of authority, but also how these sources were intertwined with informants’ lived reality. After spending some time in the field, it became clear that the dominant narrative of “Russian-backed rebels” did not hold. Ethnography didn’t set out to confirm a preconceived answer. Rather, ethnography allowed for an examination of an idea in whatever context or medium it appeared in. This example shows the degree to which the insights and data generated by ethnography are dialectical, the result of a revelatory process of give and take with informants and interlocutors.

The structure of interaction during fieldwork generates ethnography’s unique data. The initial entry into the field requires an object of study. The observer’s inquiring position is relatively stable, though the observer/researcher must leave familiar confines for the “field.” In academic anthropology, this is the image of the intrepid anthropologist encountering those they will study in foreign lands. Today, this is akin to leaving the lab or office to study your users. The second position is generative and constitutes a realization in which you encounter a more complex reality than expected. The act of observation changes both you and those you observe. You are no longer a fly on the wall, but an active observer and participant in their shared reality. The third, generative moment occurs when you bridge the gap between the first two. You are neither the dispassionate observer nor a full participant. Instead, you are a co-generator of data. What you see, your self-presentation, how you ask questions, and your very presence creates a fundamentally new space for research. This ill-defined horizon is the creative “sweet spot” of ethnography and its value add.

Ethnography should not be viewed in opposition to “big data” or quantitative insights, but as a complement to it. Big data is normalized, standardized, collected, and must be “clean” to be machine-readable. By its nature it is often divorced from the rich context that generated it. Ethnography relishes context and uses it to uncover the narratives, subtexts, and models that structure a given worldview or perspective.

Ethnography is a natural vehicle to uncover human-centered patterns. A playful, informative give and take lies at the heart of good ethnography. If your field studies are ticking off boxes and generating bullet-points, you might not be doing it right. To realize its full value, fieldwork must be driven by a desire to understanding a specific context thoroughly. As a practice and method, ethnography truly embodies the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Interviews, observations, analysis, and other components of field study can be used at various points during the research process. But to truly get at the granular richness and detail that will create unique insights that can radically expand understanding of a product, need, or user group, ethnography is a method best served as a full meal as opposed to à la carte.

Michael Bobick

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