Posted by: bbannan | March 22, 2011

Ethnographic Research- Who are the users? How do they operate within their cultures? – Andrew

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, ethnography is “the study and systematic recording of human cultures; also : a descriptive work produced from such research.” (  As I began to investigate this form of inquiry and how ethnographic research can be used, I did not understand how a field rooted in anthropology had much relevance to the instructional design and design research fields.   After exploring different resources, I realized that we have been involved in ethnographic research throughout our entire experience in design research these past two semesters.

Research techniques we have discussed, read, and practiced are rooted in ethnographic research methods.  If you have conducted a task analysis and examined the culture that your target audience works in, this is ethnographic research.  If you have conducted an in-depth interview with a target audience member about the context of their work and the internal processes they follow to perform their tasks, this is ethnographic research.  A recurring idea throughout Mike Kuniavsky’s book (2003) is to observe and gather information from the users in order to facilitate the process of design research by gaining a strong grasp of the contexts within which the users operate.

When I think about it further, ethnographic research is essential to the design research process.  It is not enough to ask users what features they want a product to have.  Ethnographic research gives the researcher/designer the ability to use techniques like interviews, contextual inquiry, focus groups, and others to understand in-depth the user context(s).

One example of an application of ethnographic research is the design project that the IDEO organization ( undertook in redesigning the checkpoint experience.  The goal of the redesign was to make the airport security more effective and therefore make the environment for the airport passengers and airport and TSA personnel calmer (  IDEO used ethnographic research to observe the physical space and interview individuals with different roles within this environment to achieve a greater depth of understanding about the culture of airport checkpoints.  The organization then used their ethnographic research findings to go through the process of developing and refining prototypes of the physical layout from the physical lobby to the checkpoint.  Additionally, IDEO developed a training curriculum for Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) that focused more on the understanding of “behaviors, people, and security measures.”  Through the ethnographic research, IDEO is implementing modifications in the environment to spur change within the TSA culture to focus more on human intelligence and passenger interactions, which will hopefully improve security as a result.

I have found that ethnographic research is broadly defined and is still going through the process of gaining mainstream acceptance despite its use in a range of contexts.  Wilcox (2008) explains how another application of ethnographic research can be used to make design decisions (  He uses the design of medical devices to illustrate principles of achieving validity in the ethnographic research process.  The author posits that ethnographic research can be done with more of a quantitative foundation to facilitate the design decision making process with more validity.   The author proposes a form of quantitative ethnographic research as an alternative method to surveys.  Gilmore (2002) emphasizes the qualitative aspects of ethnographic research and uses these aspects to make the case that the rich narratives, which are engendered, strengthen the design process (  The author makes a distinction between ethnographic research and market research by indicating that “… there is a philosophical difference between research conducted to inspire design and that conducted to validate design—one is about idiosyncracies and little details and the other is about averages and generalities.“  He states that it is important to highlight the different goals of the two forms of research.  Additionally, Gilmore (2002) states ethnographic researchers view every user as having valuable information to contribute to design research.  He contrasts this with market research, which aims to find so-called “average” users for the purposes of observing and gathering information.

To me, it is important to recognize that ethnographic research is continuously evolving.  Each method must be evaluated based on its merits and contributions to the design research process.  The goal of ethnographic research is to understand the users and their cultures at a deeper level.  Intuitively, I feel that this goal contributes to the continuous evolution of the methods used in ethnographic research, which improves the products that are designed by a wide variety of designers.



Kuniavsky, M. (2003).  Observing The User Experience.  San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann.


IDEO TSA Checkpoint Design Case Study (

Wilcox, D. (2008). Ethnographic Research and the Problem of Validity. MD&DI. February 2008 edition (

Gilmore, D. (2002). Understanding and Overcoming Resistance to Ethnographic Design Research. Interactions. Ma y + june 2002 edition (



  1. Ethnographic research is indeed something that is very helpful to many different areas of study especially in design. However I would not necessarily call focus groups and some of the other research methods use ethnography. At least not in an anthropological standpoint. While there are several kinds of ethnography that are used in the field the majority of them deal with much more of a hands off naturalistic observation style. With the individual only asking questions that would be appropriate once they have been accepted by a group. I don’t feel that focus groups necessarily fits the idea for ethnographic research as was commented above. Despite these discrepancies. A better term for this research is naturalistic observation which is a much more broadly encompassing term than that of ethnography.

    • Thanks for your comment Matt. I think your point about how focus groups do not fall into the ethnographic research definition is valid since the individuals are not being observed in their natural environment. I think it is interesting to see how ethnographic research has evolved from its anthropological roots and that designers are using various forms of it in their design research. Your post made me think about the challenge of how can the designer fully integrate themselves into the environment to gain acceptance in the group. With the IDEO project at TSA, I think it was fascinating to see the observation and interview methods used and it makes me wonder how fully accepted they were by the various personnel at the airports.

  2. Andrew,

    Thanks for your post on ethnographic research. This isn’t a term I’ve heard much in our program, but as you mentioned, we have been engaged in it as instructional designers whether we realized it or not. A big point I’ve learned from your post and cited articles is that there is heavy emphasis on the “environment” and understanding/observing how “something” will be used within that environment, first hand. This research doesn’t consist of interviews at a neutral site, but rather direct observation, in social contexts as well; such as the case of TSA checkpoint design. I can see how this style of research would be very valid/valuable in certain contexts and provide more ROI in design of products, etc.

    I love the comment from the TSA article, “As TSA leadership became more familiar with IDEO’s research findings and as other organization shareholders became involved, the project gained buy-in across all levels.” I think with such high visibility projects like this, ethno research will continue to gain popularity and prove its potential.


    • Thanks so much for your excellent post Windy! I think you hit upon a major point about the idea of focusing on the environment and how things will be used in the environment makes ethnographic research a more in-depth approach to doing analysis. I loved that comment in the TSA article that you noted in your post. In fact, I read it twice when I first read the case study. I’m seeing a trend of stakeholders wanting to shortchange analysis in the design phase. I’m hoping these high-visibility projects showcase helps designers, stakeholders, and other personnel understand that understanding the multi-faceted environment through ethnographic research has the potential to greatly improve the instructional and environmental solutions that are designed.

  3. Really interesting stuff, Andrew. I see Matt’s point in that we are not necessarily “systematically recording human culture.” But I think this idea of ethnographic research can really open up our thinking about the analysis phase and encourage us to look deeper into the various contexts relating to the design project. What do people actually do in a given situation? How do they use existing solutions? How do they adapt to and work around problems? How do their perspectives affect how they interact in the environment? By thinking about this from an ethnographic angle, it can push us to go beyond the step-by-step task analysis.

    That TSA article was a fun read. I appreciate what IDEO was trying to do, but it looks like that article was written in 2009, before the naked body scanners. I guess you could call that “human centered,” but I don’t see how that development in airport security has led to a calmer passenger experience. 😉

    • Very interesting post Philip! I agree that the general task analysis process that instructional designers use do not consider these very important questions you brought up and these questions align to a more ethnographic approach. Windy mentioned above about how more high visibility cases might increase the visibility and practices of ethnographic research. I really appreciated your comment about how task analysis can be expanded upon by thinking about things from an ethnographic angle.
      Your comment about the TSA project made me wonder widely they implemented the solutions that IDEO recommended I am actually curious to visit BWI and see the “live working prototype in the Baltimore-Washington International Airport” that they designed. Although maybe it’s not open to the public and maybe TSA decided not to implement the solution across lots of airports. Or maybe we are seeing these solutions in the airports now. If this is the case I’m not really seeing the current airport checkpoint designs align to the solutions that IDEO developed.

      • Andrew,
        I think ethnographic research is going to become more relevant as we continue to become an informational society. Merriam, S.B., Caffarella, R.S., & Baumgartner, L.M. (2007) proposed that our rapid technological advancement has had the same level of impact on our society as the industrial Revolution. In this context we will have to become more aware of the anthropological perspectives of the cultural shift technology is creating. This semester I also believe that because we were working with Homeschool we were interacting with cultural aspects.
        I also believe several of your points on the TSA roles over into the participatory design.

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