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When it comes to defining and describing behaviors in the UX research study, we often have too many blind spots as we try hard to recall what the users did. We ask users to describe their own behaviors and often than not, their recollections do not align with what really happened vs what they believed happened. 

The same is the case when it comes to defining why we did something. We try our best to describe what motivated us to do such a thing and we struggle to name the things that compelled us. Most of the time, we sort of make-up our best guesses just to provide an answer. 

All these things are one of the many reasons why we now learn and conduct ethnography as a user experience research method.

Today article on What is an Ethnographic Study in UX, we will be covering the following topics and subtopics to better understand this research method:

What is ethnography?

Ethnography is a qualitative research method of social interactions, behaviors, and perceptions that occur within groups, teams, organizations, and communities. 

This is an anthropological study that dates back to the 20th century, where its goal is to gather information on how people behave and interact, and to understand how the location, environment, and other factors affect the daily lives of people. 

How does this study relate to UX modern practices? Let’s discuss this further below.

What does ethnographic study mean?

We already know that this study involves talking with people and observing the, perform their tasks in their own natural context. 

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Having said that, what is the difference between an ethnographic study and a usability study? 

According to Nielsen Norman Group, usability study is “a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word usability also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process.”

UX designers use the data gathered in ethnographic research to solve a problem with the use of products or technology.  

What is the difference between ethnographic study and other field methods?

As we already learn, ethnography is a study that takes a wider picture of a culture. On the other hand, other study methods like participant observation, diary studies, interviews, videos, photography, and such, are just different methods in conducting ethnography. 

What are the benefits of ethnography in UX design?


Ethnography research taps and helps in the social aspects of product design decisions. This is a research method that observes people’s interactions and struggles with the environment or with the tool. Below are the benefits of using ethnography in user experience:

Studies the natural, most real behaviors of people in the natural, real world.

Using ethnography as a research approach in UX design looks at how people interact with technology in their natural, real-world settings. Through ethnography, UX designers can learn the natural state of their users, their natural behaviors, and behavior patterns as they unfold.   

Exposure to ongoing studies.

In an ethnography study, you get to decide how long to run your field research. You can take the research on a one-time-only or task-specific context. For surveys, interviews, or focus groups, you can tap user insights into a single event or a handful of events. 

Provides context.

In field studies, UX researchers observe situations and events in which a product will be used. Some of these events are important and useful. However, there are also some data that requires further research and insights.  

This is where ethnography is most useful. It reveals opportunities where technology is most important by observing behavioral cues to know and understand where technology might help or might be interfering with. 

What are the potential pitfalls of ethnographic research study?

There may be an observational bias and observer bias for this kind of qualitative field study approach. 

Observational bias is where a phenomenon when people become aware, they are being studied, and therefore, they act unnaturally. 

This situation is hard to prevent. Therefore, a researcher must know this and should account for it. 

To account for this, the researcher should balance in the results from other types of research, where the users are not aware, they are being studied, or when data comes from more neutral sources.

Observer bias is a similar thing to observational bias, but this time from the observer’s end. It is a phenomenon where the observer’s believed or declared an observation because it is expected or there is prior knowledge to observe. This is hard to prevent but being aware of it is the first step to curtail the situation from happening.  

How and when to conduct a ethnographic study?

User experience researchers should look for patterns of themes from the data. It is also important to look and take note of the challenges and barriers that users have encountered and know-how these take an effect to each user. 

Ethnography is utilized in the earliest stages of a product’s development. It is best used to:

  • Explore concepts of new products
  • Find business opportunities
  • Go out and look where people are challenged by knowing which tech products people want

Overall, this is a method that can be applied to learn how to make a product better and a method that is commonly used to decide what product to build in the first place.  

Since we are now aware of what is a qualitative ethnographic research in user research, and the methods used to conduct this study (e.g. direct observation, diary studies, video recordings, etc.), we shall discuss the methods, where ethnography study is properly utilized:

Passive observation method

Passive observation or known as ‘shadowing’ is where users are shadowed while they do their everyday tasks and are observed by the researcher. 

There are times before the research begins, users are asked to be interviewed on their own or in groups to learn about them and their needs.   

Observations may be documented throughout the day using several methods like note-taking, photographs, sketches, or videos. The research may also be conducted as part of a team so a larger of users can be observed, which speeds up the acquisition of insights. 

This type of observation is one of the best ways for user researchers to see how users go about their day, and at the same time, identify any kind of disconnections when the user tells the researcher one thing but is actually interacting a different way. 

Contextual interviews

Contextual interviews are methods where the UX researcher will interact with users while observing them about their everyday tasks. These interviews are held in a natural environment, to avoid the feeling of being too formal. The researcher will then observe users go about their everyday tasks and ask questions to gain insights. 


The analysis varies depending on the method used to gather the insights. However, in both cases, the researcher should obtain an in-depth view of the users and how they go about their everyday tasks. 

When it comes to analyzing ethnographic research data, it is important to make use of an affinity diagram, which is a project management tool that groups together the number of users encountered and how this affected different users.

Using an affinity diagram allows you to see patterns clearly and in a collaborative manner in analyzing user research data. You can see an example of an affinity diagram below:

What are ethnographic research examples?

Parking study

The research team from Palo Alto Research Center conducted an ethnographic study on parking. The research covered how people searched for parking, how the signs were clear, and were not clear, how easy signages were to read when it came to driving past during rush hours and in traffic. 

In short, the team studied the challenges people encountered like ways how restrictions were defined, what worked when it comes to parking, the infrastructures that existed, and what might help to make the parking experience better. 

The data gathered helped the team design new and better parking systems. 

Social media analytics

Brandwatch survey says that there are 2.3 billion people who are on social media, with an average of 5.54 social media accounts worldwide. 

Let us take Twitter as an example. In Twitter alone, there are 500 million tweets sent every day. There are about 310 million active users monthly. 

The data that Twitter has demonstrates the volume of consumer feedback available to researchers. These data are posted in the most real, most natural behavior of people interacting online, which makes social media analytics a good example of digital ethnography.  

Study on drinking

An ethnographic research was published on the Folklore website about the drinking youth cultures, where researchers observed participants from youth groups in Russia, UK, and Germany. The research has observed the participants on how drinking in youth is mostly used and what prompts them to drink. 

The user experience investigation concluded that drinking among youths is a means of social practice. The consumption of alcohol is not just considered a bad habit or a way to escape reality, but more so, the youth sees drinking alcohol is a way to celebrate, to connect with people, and to facilitate enjoyment, regardless of the horror stories and after effect experience of drinking. 

Online diaries

We are aware of how diaries work. This is a way for people to record their daily experiences. With online diaries, this is a great place to know the user by their nature, and how they handle their day to day tasks. Online diaries provide an immediate ethnographic method to view how a consumer lives. 

A photocopier study

Is a book that reveals how the author’s ethnographic research reveals the triangular relationship of a technician to its customer and the machine.  

The research has revealed how the technicians’ job encompasses elements not included in the official job description, which is vital to success. The book has busted several myths about technicians, and it showed how the technical job different greatly from other jobs. 

YouTube videos

This is another great example of an ethnography study. YouTube paved the way for consumers to record their own reviews and firsthand use of a product. This high consumer engagement recorded and broadcasted in a free video host platform is a researcher’s advantage. 

Participants can record short video messages, where they “think out loud” and share these thoughts online. 

This is a good way for participants to showcase how they do things, without knowing they are being observed. 


Ethnographic studies are considered as great methods to fully understand the users and their challenges as they go about their everyday lives. This research method provides you with insights about your users that you may not have seen yet. 

However, it is also equally important to note that ethnographic studies, like usability studies, are time-consuming and costly. Thus, it is important to get the research method right to get the research questions answered. 

To conduct an ethnographic study, you also need to present your analysis in an informative and meaningful way. This will allow your teams to use the information to make proper changes, without any of the UX researcher’s opinions influenced such findings.

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Mary Ann Dalangin

About the author

A content marketing strategist and a UX writer with years of experience in the digital marketing industry.

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