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Last updated on 10/3/22

Conduct Field Research and Ethnography

You've made your research plan, recruited users, examined how to ask questions, and conduct an interview. Now, all you have to do is pick up the phone and start calling people, right?

If you're trying to understand the habits and behaviors of users, rarely does it make sense to hop on a phone call or even a Skype call. Instead, you need to get out into the real world and talk to people in their own environments. It is often referred to as fieldwork or field study, and it's what ethnography is all about: observing and understanding users in the contexts they work and live in daily. 

Context Is Everything

The strength of ethnography is that it establishes context through observing people in their natural environment, whether it's a home, office, or place where someone spends a lot of time. Insights uncovered through ethnography can lead to solutions that better connect with user needs and desires. Ethnography can also lead to more creative solutions that you may have never considered had you not witnessed something with your own eyes. Seeing is believing, sometimes.

Now that you know the value of observation in context, let's set goals for this experience:

  • Look closer.

  • Notice habits and behaviors.

  • Determine how context impacts the user.

  • Understand beliefs and attitudes.

  • Discern values and meaning.

  • Unlock additional questions.

  • Compare what people say with what you see in reality.

  • Find inspiration in unlikely places. 

Ethnography – sometimes referred to as contextual inquiry – is not complicated. However, there is a lot of nuance to ensuring it will be valuable to your research.

Getting people to talk. This video is a bit dated, but the ideas remain true. It helps to watch examples of ethnography in action, along with reflections and expert interviews. There are great tips, including how to make sure you look interested and engaged while interviewing and how to avoid awkward responses like "oh, that's interesting." [33:15 min]

The first step is determining in which context you're most likely to find valuable informants. If you're trying to design a tool for increased productivity, don't only rely on what the informant tells you or talks about. See if you can spend the day with them at their office. Have them walk you through the different "systems" they use, from how they rely on their paper notebook to how they organize their computer files. Let them tell you about it, and ask follow-up questions. For many people, the way they work is just something they do, and there's not a tendency to reflect on or think about it often. Your job is to ask questions. The challenge is to think differently about any assumptions you may have. 

Woof woof! 🐶 🐩 🐕 Back to your research on dog toys. Sure, you could start at a pet store to see what kind of toys exist, but that's more market research. You may get a sense of which ones are most popular (by display or inventory), but this doesn't mean the owners that bought the toys even use them, let alone that dogs like them. Here's where ethnographic research comes in; your interest (as you've already defined it) is in outdoor dog toys. It would help if you got outside, away from what you know, and see these toys in action. Let's say you've recently moved and don't have any friends with dogs. A trip to the local dog park is a logical start. 

You can observe dogs interacting with their toys (and with their owners). Chances are you'll be able to strike up some conversations that may unfold like:

You: "Wow, that toy is really cool. I've never seen anything like it."

Dog owner: "Thanks, it's a [toy name] by [brand]. My dog LOVES it!

You: "I can tell. Is it pretty durable?"

Dog owner: "Yes, but this is already our third one in two months. This time I altered it myself and added the hefty rope so I can throw it better. This one has lasted longer than the other two combined."

You: "What inspired you to do that?"

You get the point. You just got way more insightful research in one minute than you could have after hours of aimless internet searching. Also, when you see something with your own eyes, it's likely to make a bigger impression than someone telling you about how they use it. Sometimes informal interviews can be just as effective as pre-planned formal ones. You may find that some of your strongest insights come from "in-between" moments before an interview starts or once the informant thinks it's over and they let their guard down.

Shake Up Your Context

Cross-cultural situations and environments are interesting to consider. Sometimes when a context looks and feels like home, you may assume the same rules apply. As a design researcher, it is your job to look past the surface and uncover the realities.

A few situations that are good for shaking things up:

  • Observe situations in a foreign country (sometimes you don't even need to use a passport. Start with a trip to a grocery store specializing in international foods).

  • Try something you've never done – or haven't done for a long time – where you already live: ride the bus, spend the afternoon at the public library, volunteer for a non-profit.

  • Arrange an interview with someone from a different demographic and meet them in a setting that's natural for them.

Depending on the kind and depth of research you're conducting, you may find yourself leading a 30-minute contextual interview or spending days, weeks, or months observing a community. Remember, UX relies on applied research, so you probably won't have the luxury of time and money to conduct endless research. Besides, don't forget you also have to make sense of what you observe and learn. Make sure you leave ample time to analyze the data.

Get a sense of how user research works in the real world as Steve Portigal shares "war stories" inspired by his book Doorbells, Danger and Dead Batteries.

User research war stories – check out the replay of this InVision DesignTalks webinar about stories and lessons learned from the field. [25:12 min]

Additional Resources

 Let's recap! 

  • Ethnography, referred to as fieldwork, is about observing and understanding users in the contexts they work and live in day to day.

  • Ethnography can lead to more creative solutions that you may have never considered had you not witnessed something with your own eyes.

  • Look past the surface. Test your assumptions and uncover the realities.

 We’ve seen the importance of ethnography. In the next chapter, we’ll focus on the concept of participant observation and what we can learn from this!

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