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What is ethnographic research?

PostsDesign & UX
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

June 12, 2024

Have you ever tried an outfit on in a shop, loved it, bought it, then hated it back home? Maybe the changing room had flattering lighting, or a shop assistant pressured you to buy — whatever the reason, you feel differently once your product (in this case, an outfit) is recontextualized in reality. 

Ethnographic research is built on the principle that people behave differently when they’re in their natural environment. Give someone something to use in a lab, and you could end up with a changing room situation: False positive feedback that doesn’t hold up in the real world. But give them a product to use in their natural environment? That’s when you get honest results. 

What is ethnographic research?

The word ‘ethnographic’ comes from the blending ‘ethno–’, which means ‘people’ or ‘culture’, and ‘ –graphy’, which refers to the process of writing or recording something. So ethnographic research? It’s all about studying people. 

It’s a qualitative research method where researchers immerse themselves in the daily lives of their subjects to learn about their thoughts and behaviors. Originally used in anthropology, it has since been adopted by the UX and design world. By watching people in their natural setting, designers can get useful insights into their real-world experiences, uncovering honest details often missed by other methods. 

What makes ethnographic studies special?

This approach involves more than just watching. Researchers actively engage with the community to see the world from their perspective, revealing social dynamics that drive behavior. 

Surveys and interviews rely on self-reported data. Ethnographic research captures real-time, contextual information. This can include everything from daily routines and social interactions to cultural norms and practices. 

  • Thick description: Researchers capture human social data that includes opinions, feelings, and observations. It’s called ‘thick description’ because the data gathered is densely textured and detailed.
  • Natural environment: This research takes you right into your subjects’ lived experiences, giving you unmatched contextual understanding and real social interactions.
  • Immersive: When you spend time with your subjects, you build trust and notice more, both of which yield deeper understanding.
  • Flexible: The freer format allows researchers to adapt and explore new areas as they emerge, leading to richer insights. 

Ethnographic research examples

Ethnographic research is flexible in approach and outcome, depending on the setting and the subjects. Here’s a taster of its versatility. 

1. Studying workplace culture

Researchers might spend weeks or months within a company, observing interactions, meetings, and daily routines. This helps them understand the company culture, spot any issues, and suggest improvements.

2. Exploring consumer behavior

A company might hire researchers to trail individuals through stores (with their consent, of course), noting their choices and areas of friction. The goal is to improve store layouts and the overall shopping experience.

3. Investigating user interactions with technology

Ethnographers might watch how people use smartphones, websites, or interact with other devices in their daily lives. The aim here is to uncover usability issues and opportunities for new features or products.

4. Understanding community dynamics

Researchers might participate in local events, visit homes, and engage in community activities to learn more about a community. This helps them uncover cultural practices and community needs, which is useful in urban planning or community services.

5. Analyzing healthcare environments

Spending time in hospitals, researchers can observe patient-staff interactions, workflow inefficiencies, patient satisfaction, and so on. They can then use their learnings to make better informed recommendations for improvement. 

Advantages and disadvantages of ethnographic research

Before you leap in, here are the pros and cons to help you work out if it’s the approach you want.


  • Deep insights: By immersing themselves in people’s lives, researchers gain a deeper and more accurate understanding of their behavior, including needs and motivations. This helps product teams (and businesses) create solutions that genuinely fit into their users’ lives. 
  • Uncovering hidden needs: Sometimes, people don’t realize they have certain needs until they’re presented with a fix. Ethnographic research can uncover these hidden insights, leading to industry-shaking creations — like Deliveroo (solves the problem of not being able to get restaurant food in takeout format), and Airbnb (solves the issue of having to stay in expensive, impersonal hotels).
  • Building empathy: Spending time with users helps researchers and designers build empathy. This emotional connection can drive more user-centered designs.


  • Time-consuming: Ethnographic research requires a big time investment. Researchers need to spend extended periods in the field, which can delay findings and insights. There’s no shortcut here.
  • Costly: Due to the time and effort involved, ethnographic studies are usually pretty expensive. They often require travel, extended stays, and sometimes additional resources like recording equipment.
  • Small sample size: Typically, ethnographic research involves a small sample size. While the insights are deep, they may have limited representation. 
  • Subjectivity: The immersive nature of ethnography means researchers’ perspectives and biases can influence their observations and interpretations. Ensuring objectivity is a real challenge.
  • Ethical considerations: Engaging deeply with people’s lives raises ethical issues, like privacy and consent. Researchers must be careful to respect participants and handle sensitive information responsibly.

4 ways product designers can use ethnographic research 

Users sit at the heart of great product design. Here’s how ethnographic research centers them for the benefit of your creations.

1. Improving product design

Ethnographic insights reveal how customers actually use products, highlighting usability issues or features that are particularly valued. This feedback helps designers refine existing products or mastermind new ones that better match user needs and preferences.

2. Improving customer experience

When designers know how people interact with a product, they are in a better position to create something that truly adds value and slots neatly into their users’ lives. This might involve improving website navigation, adding features, or creating a brand-new app altogether.

3. Building brand loyalty

It’s nice to feel understood. By showing attention and empathy, designers (and the wider business) can build stronger relationships with their users.

4. Shaping business strategy

Ethnographic research is grounded in the real world. This is a great foundation for strategizing — whether you’re planning to enter a new market, reposition your brand, or create a new website. 

Ethnographic research methods

Ethnographic research involves various information-gathering methods. Here are the main approaches to have on your radar.

Participant observation

Observing participants sits at the heart of ethnographic research. Researchers plunge themselves into their subjects’ lives, taking part in (or watching) daily activities while noting down key behaviors. This helps them understand the group’s cultural norms and social dynamics. 

In-depth interviews

This is all about having a detailed, open-ended discussion with the participants. The goal is to learn about their thoughts and feelings in their own words. It adds a personal layer to observed behaviors, as well as greater clarity.

Field notes

Field notes are records of observations, conversations, and reflections made by researchers during their time studying subjects. They’re one of the primary data sources, so they should be detailed.

Artifact analysis

This approach is about examining the tools people use in their daily lives, with the goal of uncovering cultural insights and the practical significance of said items. By the end of their studying time, researchers should have a clear understanding of how these items shape behavior.

Visual methods

Visual methods include photo and video documentation, as well as mapping exercises. Researchers might ask participants to take photos or create maps of their environment, which gives additional context to the subjects’ lives.

Ethnographic surveys

Ethnography is primarily qualitative, but surveys are a good complementary tool for all that observational data. Use them to capture attitudes, which will give a broader psychological context to your qualitative findings. 

Online ethnography (netnography)

Researchers are increasingly using netnography to study digital communities. This method involves observing virtual environments like forums to understand how people communicate and form relationships in online spaces.

Contextual inquiry

This involves watching and interviewing participants as they complete tasks in their natural setting. For example, researchers might hang out with a firefighter using a new tablet device during a routine inspection, so they can see it in use.

This real-world approach helps researchers understand how people truly use products or services day-to-day, which often yields more accurate results than observation in a lab environment. 

Ethical issues (and how to avoid them)

Ethnographic research potentially involves a lot of deeply personal data drawn from close interaction with your subjects. This raises ethical considerations. Observe strict ethical standards to protect the well-being of your participants, as well as for the integrity of the research. Be mindful of the following.

Informed consent

One of the most important principles of ethical research is getting consent. Researchers should clearly explain the purpose of the study, what participation involves, any potential risks, how data will be used and stored (GDPR/CCPA is important here), and so on. 

Participants should also voluntarily agree to take part without any coercion, whether that’s verbal pressure or financial/material exploitation. 

How to avoid issues: Always provide a detailed consent form and discuss it with participants. Ensure they understand their rights, including the right to withdraw at any time.

Privacy and confidentiality

Ethnographic research often involves dealing with sensitive information. Protecting participants’ privacy and guaranteeing confidentiality is a must.

How to avoid issues: Use pseudonyms and anonymize data where possible. Store information in a secure place and limit access to it. Clearly tell participants how you’ll use and protect their data and what their rights are in terms of asking for it to be deleted.

Respect and sensitivity

Researchers must treat their subjects with respect and sensitivity, especially when dealing with vulnerable demographics or sensitive topics. They must also be aware of and respect cultural norms and values. 

How to avoid issues: Ignorance is no excuse! Dedicate plenty of time pre-meeting to learn about the community you’re studying — even if you think you know them already. For example, if you’re working with children, you’ll want to talk to child psychologists beforehand to learn more about that demographic’s unique requirements. Be mindful of your behavior and language, and avoid actions that could be seen as intrusive or disrespectful.

Minimizing harm

Ethnographic research should not cause harm to participants. This includes physical, emotional, and psychological harm.

How to avoid issues: Be aware of the potential impacts of your research activities. Avoid topics or questions that could distress, and offer support resources.

Transparency and honesty

Transparency and honesty are crucial for building trust and ensuring research integrity.

How to avoid issues: Be open about the research goals, methods, and funding sources. Avoid deceptive practices and make sure participants are fully aware of what the research involves.


Ethnographic research usually involves taking a lot from participants in terms of time and personal information. It’s important to consider how the research might benefit them in return. Remember that no one is obliged to participate, so think about how you can make it worth their efforts.

How to avoid issues: Think about how you can give back to the community, whether that’s sharing research findings or contributing to community projects. Show appreciation for participants’ time and contributions verbally, at the very least. 

Essential tools for businesses doing ethnographic studies

Now you know the what and why, let’s take a look at some of the tools that make this process easier, and the insights richer. 

Recording devices

Capture every detail with high-quality audio and video recording devices. These tools ensure you don’t miss any nuances during observations and interviews. Use them, no matter how good you think your memory is.

Examples: Digital voice recorders, video cameras, smartphones

Field note apps

Use digital note-taking apps to document observations in real time. Better yet, these apps usually come with tagging and categorizing features, so you can easily sort through your notes later. 

Examples: Evernote, OneNote, Notion

Data analysis software

Organize and analyze your qualitative data with powerful software. These tools help you identify patterns and themes in your observations and interviews.

Examples: NVivo, ATLAS.ti, MAXQDA

Survey tools

Complement your qualitative insights with quantitative data. Survey tools make it easy to gather additional stats and context. 

Examples: SurveyMonkey, Google Forms, Qualtrics

Collaboration platforms

Keep your research team connected and organized with collaboration platforms. Share notes, recordings, and analyses seamlessly.

Examples: Backlog, our own project management tool, offers a central hub for data, tasks, workflows, and more.

Mapping tools

Create visual representations of physical spaces or digital environments with mapping tools. These visuals help contextualize your findings, not to mention make them easier to process. 

Examples: ArcGIS, Google Maps, Maptitude

Ethical compliance tools

Keep on the right side of ethical standards. There are plenty of tools designed to protect privacy and data security, including checklists and templates for consent forms.

Examples: Dedoose (for secure data storage), Consent form builder apps

Online ethnography platforms

Dive into digital ethnography with platforms that let you observe and analyze online behaviors and interactions. Understand how people communicate and form relationships in virtual spaces.

Examples: NetBase, Brandwatch, Recollective

Diagramming tools

Last but not least: Diagramming tools. Visualize relationships, workflows, and key elements with these easy-to-use platforms. Visuals make complex data easier to understand and share, which is ideal when you’re presenting back to teammates and stakeholders.

Examples: Our own tool, Cacoo, comes with plenty of templates and a drag-and-drop interface for easy drawing. Ready to take it for a spin?



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