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Ethnography is observational research where researchers spend time with users in their environments (such as their homes, workplaces or neighbourhoods).

Ethnography produces profiles of users (sometimes written up as a ‘day in the life of…’ profile) and raw information on users’ behaviours that can be used to inform service design. Similar methods can be used with service staff (like counter staff or call-centre staff) to understand the realities of delivering a service.

Why it’s useful

Ethnography is a useful way to get a detailed understanding of users’ behaviour. Ethnography highlights the differences between what people say and what they do: someone might say they have 5 servings of fruit and vegetables daily, but watching them prepare meals tells a different story.

Customers also often reveal more during informal conversation throughout the day with a researcher than they would in a survey or focus group.

Ethnography also shifts the balance of power — you are entering their world, rather than asking them to come to you, which can often be intimidating.

Ethnography provides rich insights into the complexity of peoples’ lives. Observing how people go about their daily lives can reveal insights in unexpected places.

When to do it

Ethnography is useful in the prepare phase.

Prepare phase

How to do it

  1. Identify what you’re trying to achieve with this research. What do you want to gather information about?
  2. Identify your research participants. Who will they be and how will you recruit them? Can you use an agency database, are there intermediaries you could use or do you need to advertise?
    Recruiting users
  3. Think about your sample size. This depends on the time and researchers you have available, as well as the other methods you are using. If your ethnographies will be complemented by in-depth interviews, you may feel more comfortable with a smaller sample size.
  4. Ethics. You’ll need consent forms, some kind of acknowledgement of participants’ time (such as vouchers as a ‘thank you’), and information sheets for participants. If you’re hoping to take photos you’ll also need to think through the implications – for example, making sure interviewees can’t be identified.
    Recruiting users
  5. Approach. Ethnographies are not in-depth interviews. While it’s important to have an idea of the subject areas you'd like covered, a discussion guide is not appropriate. As Helsinki Design Lab says, as an ethnographer you should ‘encourage people to share their thoughts and go about their business freely, while you follow along’.
  6. In his study of night workers in London, Dr Will Norman writes that ‘rather than going in with assumptions and a list of pre-defined questions, ethnography involves the researcher asking questions in response to what they see going on around them’.
  7. Recording. Think about how you want to record the day: notepad and pens, voice recorder, photos, video. Make sure you have the participant’s permission.
  8. Safety. Ethnography is best done by a single ethnographer so you’ll need to think about how to ensure your safety. Think about where you’d feel most comfortable meeting the research participant.
  9. Dress. If you’re observing how senior executives use technology throughout a normal business day, you may choose to wear a suit. If you’re watching how people use a public space, you might want to dress more casually.

Further resources

Social Innovation Lab for Kent has some information on ethnography. They did some ethnography work with families called ‘Just coping’.

Just coping — Social Innovation Lab for Kent

Dr Will Norman’s study of night workers in London shows examples of how ethnography has informed service design.

Rough Nights: the growing dangers of working at night — Dr Will Norman

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