What Is Ethnographic field research?

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Ethnography is the social equivalent of usability testing. Where usability is about how people directly interact with a technology in the more traditional sense, ethnography is about how people interact with each other. As UX designers, we’re primarily concerned with how we can use such research to solve a problem through the introduction or revision of technology.

Ethnography methods include direct observation, diary studies, video recordings, photography and artefact analysis such as devices that a person uses throughout the day. Observations can be made anywhere from the user’s workplace, their home or while they are out with family and friends. The length of the studies can vary depending on the research that is being conducted. They can range from a couple of hours of observation, to studies that last several months.

There are two methods for observation:

Passive observation

Passive observation which can also be known as ‘shadowing’ is where a user or users are shadowed while they go about their everyday tasks observed by a researcher. Sometimes before the research begins, users will be interviewed on their own or in groups to learn more about them and their needs. Observations will be documented throughout the day using a number of methods such as taking notes, photographs, sketches or videos. The research may be conducted as part of a team so that a larger number of users can be observed and therefore gaining a greater insight quickly. This observation method is a good way for researchers to see how users go about their day first hand and identify any disconnections of when the user tells the researcher one thing but actually interacts in another way

Active participation

By becoming a member of the team for a week and learning how to do the job—assuming you’ve got the prerequisite qualifications and experience

Advantages of Ethnography research

  • Ability to see first-hand how users interact with technology in their natural environment
  • Identify unexpected issues that you might not have encountered in a usability test
  • Opportunity to test new product ideas before they are released to the market to see what demand is like

Disadvantages of Ethnography research

  • Because there is a greater insight into the user it takes much longer to generate and analyse all the findings.
  • Short studies may not get a user acting naturally as they are aware of the researchers present.
  • The cost of conducting ethnographic studies is typically much higher than conducting a usability test.

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