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The Underutilization of Ethnography in User Experience Research

by Jared Jeffers , 21.10.2010

This article is re-posted from User Centric’s blog.

As someone who studied anthropology and ethnography, I’m always curious why the discipline isn’t utilized more often to gain insights into the user experience with a product or technology.  While ethnography is being utilized more often in market research settings, for some reason, it is underutilized when trying to uncover usability issues.

One possible reason why ethnography might be underused is that many clients either require or favor hard metrics to measure the user experience.  For them, it is important to know that 40% percent failed a given scenario or that the average satisfaction rating was 5.67 on a 7 point scale or that it took, on average, 95 seconds to complete a particular task.  These are things for which ethnography might not be best suited.

However, if one is interested in how someone actually uses a product or piece of technology in the real world on terms that are much closer to their own compared to a usability lab, then ethnography might be a better choice over a usability test.  While the richness of the information that can be gleaned from ethnographic interviews can lead to a product that better meets a customer’s needs, it can also inform how a usability study is set-up and what actually happens during the session.  This could lead to hard metrics that are better and more accurate than if the lab is built and sessions are run based on a client’s or researcher’s expectations or assumptions.  In this sense, ethnography can help make the hard metrics a bit more meaningful.

Ultimately, I think a major reason for ethnography’s underutilization in user research is the mystery that surrounds the term.  It seems that, often, our clients cannot see through the smoke and mirrors that have been built up around the term over the years to see what it really is: a narrative account in a respondent’s own words of their world and daily interactions.  Instead, clients might get caught up in one or more of the following questions:  Isn’t ethnography really just sitting around in a person’s home and chatting over coffee?  Is it journaling?  Blogging?  Talking about artifacts?  Would participants actually want to have discussions about seemingly mundane aspects of their life or the everyday things with which they are surrounded?  Is it safe to rely so much on the respondent to lead discussions?  Is it possible to employ ethnographic techniques in a focus group setting?  How about in a lab?  Is the information actually valid with the typically smaller sample size of much ethnography?

The answer to all of these questions is of course yes and no.  A skilled researcher can employ ethnography in a variety of ways, in a multitude of settings, to elicit rich narratives from respondents by encouraging and supporting the effort that they must contribute to the study, and to produce valid information that leads to direct improvements in a product.  It should be our job to ensure that we talk about ethnography in ways that remove the questions above from the minds of our clients, and I’m not sure we’ve done the best job at that so far.  Until we as ethnographers can clarify the term and remove some of the mystery and confusion that surrounds it, the discipline will most likely remain unclear to clients and a low priority when budgets are being allocated for user experience research.