How to conduct Ethnographic Research?

What is Ethnographic research? #

Ethnography research is a qualitative field study method where you observe and analyze your users in their natural real-life environment. You either participate directly with the users in their context or silently observe their day-to-day behavior from a distance. 

Field Research Study Methods-UX

When is ethnographic research most useful? #

Ethnography is most useful in the discovery phase of your user-centered design project because you will be able to get an understanding of the design problem. Its methods will help you investigate very complicated or critical design challenges. The results will be able to support your team’s future design decisions along the entire user-centered design process. 

Ethnography is utilized in the earliest stages of a product’s development. It is best used to:

  • Explore concepts of new products
  • Find business opportunities
  • Go out and look where people are challenged by knowing which tech products people want

For example: in order to understand the way a restaurant operates with the in-store music, as a User Experience Researcher you would conduct an ethnographic study by working and socializing with its staff for a month. You should collect a mix of participant observations, interviews, and surveys to get a holistic and deeper understanding of your design problem.

You can choose the ethnographic methods to evaluate an existing design. For example, you should consider this method when your team wants to re-design an existing product or service.  The true value of this method comes from developing an early understanding of the relevant domain, audience(s), processes, goals, and context(s) of use that has a highly complex process.

In recent times, ethnography has been adopted to the internet in the form of netnography. This means that you now can study how online communities interact in order to identify social communication patterns.

What kind of ethnographic methods can I choose from? #

  1. Ethnographic field research
    You choose this ethnographic field research method if you are looking for a deeper understanding of your end-users. You conduct the research by observing and/or interacting with your user or a group of your users in their real-life environment. The timeframe of this method can take from one hour up to several weeks up to months. Short ethnographic studies work, however, users may not act naturally during the short period, as it might take them a time before they start to grow to trust you and start behaving naturally.
  2. Ethnographic digital research 
    You choose this ethnographic digital research method when you want to observe how your users interact online. It is a faster method than traditional field research because of the use of digital tools.
  3. Ethnographic photo research 
    You choose this ethnographic photo research method when you want to understand your user’s day-to-day behavior without interfering. Instead, you ask your users to take a picture to capture the moment of their lives using your product or services with complimentary detailed notes.  

What are the pros vs cons of an enthongraphic field study? #


  • You get a deep understanding of your user’s behavior, culture, and conventions. 
  • You will be able to collect a detailed and faithful representation of users’ behaviors, emotions, and attitudes.
  • You get to observe and interact with the activities and behaviors of your users in their natural habitat.
  • It will help you identify and analyze unexpected issues.
  • You take a step back and look at the behaviors of a population and design products to meet the unmet needs.
  • When your team is at crossroads wondering what to do next.
  • You will be able to test the need for products that yet don’t exist.
  • Ethnographic research can enable a very bespoke approach to a single niche and enable you to develop products that fit that niche so well that it shuts out your competitors for good.


  • Won’t always produce results that you expect.
  • It is a time-consuming and costly method.
  • Requires detailed and long-term planning.
  • You can exhibit biases.
  • You need to be highly skilled to avoid all the potential pitfalls.
  • Choosing the right users that are a true representation of the larger user audience.

What are the steps to conduct a field study? #

Field Research Study Steps-UX Research
  1. Define the subject and the purpose of your study. What are you and your team trying to discover by conducting a field study?
  2. Define your hypothesis.
  3. Choose the right research method, a mix of surveys, interviews, case studies, and observation.
  4. Identify a research site and visit it.
  5. Write the research plan.
  6. Start collecting data by observing the user’s interaction with the context.  
  7. Analyze the data.
  8. Present and share the findings with your team. 

What are some example questions I can use? #

Product & service research questions:

  • What do you enjoy most about our product or service?
  • What do you enjoy least about our product or service?
  • Why do you use our product?
  • What specific needs does our product meet for you?
  • What specific needs does our product fail to meet?
  • Does the pricing of the product equate to its value? 

Teaching research questions:

  • Do you enjoy our teaching method?
  • Do the teachers allow for feedback in their classes?
  • Does our teaching method communicate objectives clearly? 
  • What is your attitude toward learning through this teaching method?

Medical research questions:

  • For how long have you used our drug?
  • For how long have you been on our treatment? 
  • What positive changes have you noticed so far?
  • Have you noticed any side effects so far?
  • Does this medication or treatment meet your needs? 

Ethnographic Research Not Template #

Ethnographic Research Note Template