Ethnography research

This is about observing people in their natural working or living environment. Some people describe ethnography research as "discovering the unknown".

Ethnography: "The scientific discovery of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences." (Oxford Dictionary of English)

The key here is to spot and capture the "aha!" moments while discovering user motivations. These "aha!" moments are usually surprising and they can be the source of great innovation.

Ethnography research is valuable because it gives lots of insight in context, which can be hard to get from other, more formal testing techniques. Learning more about this context helps us to understand how it affects the UX, outside of lab conditions.

What is it good for

  • Testing market demand for products which don't even exist
  • Unveiling context for your product, to help you to tailor the UX
  • Unveiling unique use cases and come up with new product ideas
  • Unveiling anomalies and unexpected behaviours and activities
  • Delivering deep and strategic insights

How to carry out ethnography research

Observation modes

  1. You can either passively observe your users from a distance.
  2. Or you can actively participate, to immerse deeper into their environment. Here, you can actively ask questions to the participants.


  • Pair up with a designer for the research who can take notes and spot issues from a further perspective
  • Ask your participant to 'think aloud' while working through the exercise
  • Ask questions, but don't interrupt
  • Take as many research notes as possible
  • Pay attention to asking the right questions and in the right time. Make sure you don't interrupt conversations and activities, and turn the situation into a more formal user interview process, which might affect the user's behaviour.
  • Debrief the user right after you have finished and capture important observations, especially the "aha!" moments.

An example of an ethnography research

Hanno Uber research included a quite deep user research from Matt and Jon.

So, after downloading the app onto our phones, Jon and Matt said “so long” to the London public transport system, and started riding with Uber, to and from their co-working space and meetings. Uber's offerings in London at that time were divided into two camps—UberX (a direct competitor with London's taxi drivers) and Uber LUX (the luxury option, rivalling private car hire services).

So we split our time equally between the two, asking questions to home in on the benefits of the app. We decided to keep a log of each journey and record the answers we got.

Further reading :book:

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