Posted by: bbannan | March 22, 2010

Ethnographic research – Kathleen

This week’s blog subject really interested me because it harkened back to my freshman year of college when I thought I might be an anthropologist.  One of the things we had talked about was ethnographic research, and the various methods you can use to implement different research methods.

Our readings this week provided some great ways to tap into ethnographic research.  One thing I think that we all have to be mindful of as we continue to develop our usability research is to keep the user in mind, and there are a few approaches to this.  Do we sit on the side and let users take what we have created and go with it, or do we participate in the discovery process of using our designs with those that are evaluating our designs.  Although in anthropology, it is encourages participant observer, we as instructional designers need to make sure we do not impact the thoughts and ideas of our participants providing us feedback so that they can formulate and construct their own opinions about our design without outside influences.

In keeping with us as designers from having too much of an impact on our participants, and wanted to delve deeply into real world projects where we can see our readings in practice.  I wanted to review these sites for all of us so that we might even get a few ideas for our own studies this semester:

6 Billion Others:

Talk about ethnographic research on a large scale, this interesting site can help us take a look at how to measure attitudes of individuals.  For instance, the goal of this project was to see what types of ideas unite us as human beings.  Basic questions from concepts of love, what have you learned from your parents, and other unifying questions of the human species.  These ideas were captured in an interview on video so that researchers could maintain the record and refer to the results for further use in the study (which is what my team will be doing this week as well, just with a smaller audience).  🙂

An  Ethnographic Primer:

I can’t say how great I thought this materials was in really nailing down ethnographic research from a design perspective.  One great quote from the primer would be this:

“While useful ideas can emerge during casual observation, the most powerful insights come from a rigorous analysis of systematically collected data. During research, a trained ethnographer will collect photos, video, audio and other contextual data. These photos or images may look ‘unpolished’ or ‘rough.’ However, the beauty of ethnography is that what one observes is visually compelling, real and meaningful without being staged. (pg. 7).”

Luckily, as instructional designers, this is what we do.  We want to make sure our designs truly do match what our learners are looking for, and being able to quantify and qualify the success of our design is so important.  Ethnography is a great way to capture feedback in a format that gives us a sense of both the user and the design and how they are inherently connected.

Video Ethnography:

This was a thought provoking article from an architecture magazine about how far is too far when we use video ethnography.  It brought up some great points to consider when conducting ethnographic research using video.  One key quote I gleaned from this article was one to consider when we are doing our own usability testing: “The technique is revealing in ways that question-based research carried out away from a person’s environment can never be because people are not always conscious of how they behave.”  If you can get a chance to have someone in their own comfort zone when you are conducting the research, you might get a better response than you might anticipate in an area away from what the participant is used to.

I’m finding more and more of the overlap of design processes by sitting next to a graphic design co-worker at my office and in speaking with my brother-in-law about design, who is an industrial designer, which is why I included resources from multiple disciplines.  It was important for me to do this because it goes back to one of the drivers of ethnographic research – obtaining multiple perspectives (something we should always strive for as designers).



  1. Great post and links! This was of particular interest to me because I majored in sociocultural anthropology. It brought to mind many funny accounts professors told of their field experiences. You make an interesting point about participant observation. Both the anthropologist and the designer want to get close to the subjects without unduly influencing them. I suspect that the designer may even have the disadvantage here. An anthropologist is generally functioning as an outsider, across a language barrier, and more often than not seen as some kind of nut. The anthropologist often has to first convince the subject that “studying culture” is a legitimate pursuit and not just being weird. On the other hand, a designer might actually be seen as an expert, certainly as a professional of some sort. This lends them a gravitas that the anthropologist nearly always lacks at first. So in a focus group, or in a survey, the way a question is posed might skew the subject’s response, instead of resulting in peals of laughter. “Culture? Haha. No, we don’t have any of that. But you might try the people who live up the river. Now THEY are weird.”
    Yikes! I just read the link to video ethnography. This does pose an ethical problem. However, I would suggest that this is a path anyone who is working for a for-profit company has already ventured down, and not where the fork occurs. A responsible way to use this might be to actually make the videos and methodology public, so that people are aware of what companies look at. I don’t think ethical use of ethnography is impossible, but unethical uses are much more of a danger in the for-profit sector.

  2. The article I read for my post on participatory design was actually conducted using an ethnographic technique. The researchers basically joined a design team and observed the process. I sometimes wonder with ethnography if you can ever get a true sense of the situation once you’ve introduced an outsider. For example, sometimes I’ll catch my son doing something adorable that I think I need to record for posterity, so I get out the camera, and the moment he sees it, he is entranced by it and just stares at the camera (and of course stops doing the thing I really wanted to capture). Perhaps this metaphor is a stretch, but I wonder as designers if we don’t act as the “camera” in whatever group we are trying to observe. No matter how unobtrusive we try to be, does our presence automatically change the situation to some degree? I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m just throwing it out there….

  3. Great article Kathleen!

    “A trained ethnographer brings deep contextual
    and cultural understanding to analysis…” Ethnographic Primer p.28

    When designing and developing our Malaria Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) prototype, a contextual and cultural understanding was needed in order to create the best possible product for our target audience – non-clinical practitioners from or living
    in rural Africa.

    Good ethnographers “delve deeply into the lives of a few people rather than study many people superficially.” Ethnographic Primer p. 30

    In addition, highly detailed personas for variuos types of target audience members helped the team keep the user in mind while designing the RDT prototype. As a newly added group memeber, I thought that the personas were actually derived from actual face-to-face interviews. I was shocked to learn that the personas were created from research. I felt connected to each of the personas which helped me to empathize with the user and
    think from the user’s perspective.

    • By: Jesse

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