Ethnography in UX

I have had several recent discussions with companies I am consulting with about ethnographic research that can help with internal processes as well as to understand how different employees withing the organization utilize the tools we are developing.

This application of ethnographic research has a different flavor than the traditional uses. This article is focused more on how teams work together and create social entities rather than the individual and I feel it addresses a shortcoming in my and others’ approaches to research that forgets to take into account how groups vary from an individual.

Originally posted on UX Matters By Nathanael Boehm

In his book The Human Factor, Kim Vicente presents the Human-Tech Ladder, which categorizes human and societal needs according to five factors: physical, psychological, team, organizational, and political. Many UX professionals are familiar with usability testing, which focuses on the first two rungs of this ladder—the physical and psychological factors of people’s interactions with technology. However, in this article, I want to look at ways in which UX professionals can conduct research, usability testing, and evaluation for the upper rungs of the Human-Tech Ladder—the social elements of technology design and how people interact with a particular technology while working together within an organization.

On my current project, I’m designing and implementing a framework for business that provides workflow management and supports information gathering and reporting. While there may be a software component further down the track, for now the technology is taking the form of procedures, reporting templates, and guidance material. This technology is both intellectual and social. Its goal is to support teams within the organization, and it requires people to work together.

The biggest challenge with designing and implementing such technology is not creating code or a user interface, but ensuring its compatibility with team dynamics.

This is where ethnography comes in.

What Is Ethnography?

UXmatters has already published several articles that touch on the subject of ethnography. In my discussion of this topic, I’ll introduce ethnography as a social research tool in UX design—in part, through a review of the book Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, by Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw, which I read recently. I’ll start with a quotation from the book that introduces the topic of ethnography:

“Ethnographic field research involves the study of groups and people as they go about their everyday lives. … First-hand participation in some initially unfamiliar social world and the production of written accounts of that world by drawing upon such participation [is the core of ethnographic research].”
—Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw

Ethnography is the social equivalent of usability testing. Where usability is about how people directly interact with a technology in the more traditional sense, ethnography is about how people interact with each other. As UX designers, we’re primarily concerned with how we can use such research to solve a problem through the introduction or revision of technology.

Understanding Teams

To design a system for teams, it’s important to first understand how the people on teams work together. Although you can still apply the techniques of one-on-one interviews, focus groups, surveys, and card sorts to extract that information, it’s also important to observe those teams in action while they work. You can do this through either

  • passive observation—as though you were a fly on the wall
  • active participation—by becoming a member of the team for a week and learning how to do the job—assuming you’ve got the prerequisite qualifications and experience

The latter approach lets you gain extensive insights into not just how the team works, but how the team inducts and integrates new team members. This provides an important novice user perspective for any technology the team is using or developing.

Gathering Information About Teams

What information should you gather while observing a team? The first step is to have a goal you can focus on. But keep in mind that you don’t want to go in with a blinkered view that could exclude important contextual information. Sometimes you won’t know what’s important until after your research is complete, when you’re analyzing your research notes and applying them to technology design. For example, while you may be interested in a specific team, you can’t ignore that team’s interactions with other teams, the rest of the organization, friends and family, customers and the public—though you should regard them as peripheral.

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes provides a few useful ideas about what information you should capture:

  • descriptions of the scene—Describe the physical aspects of the work environment, including the layout of workstations, desk space and clutter, collaboration and conversation areas.
  • key events and incidents—What happened, and who did what? What is your impression of these incidents, and what are team members’ thoughts in regard to and interpretations of these events? How do they feel about them? Emerson fully supports the inclusion of your own thoughts and feelings in your research notes—as long as you clearly identify them as such and keep them separate from evidence.

The purpose of ethnographic research is to put yourself in the shoes of those you’re observing, get into their heads, understand their perspectives and expectations, and accurately record and share that gained knowledge in an objective way that you can then use to support design decisions later down the track.

Some might consider this type of research to be contextual inquiry, but I think people usually associate that term with watching someone use a computer. In the field of UX design, such techniques and outcomes are not new. However, in this case, the focus is different—it’s about observing social interactions rather than observation of a human-computer interface. Although you could perhaps combine the two activities.

Capturing the Information You Need

Your passive / active stance in ethnography can also influence how you record your observations at the time you perform your research. This is a topic that Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes spends quite some time on. How do you balance the amount of jotting you do while observing and ensure that you record enough information, without failing to participate and engage in the social setting or missing important events and interactions? What aspects of a scene should you bother to record in detail—such as explicit quotations—and when should you paraphrase?

The important thing to remember is that ethnography is active. You should be asking questions. However, it isn’t a group interview, so don’t interrupt the team too much. You can’t get into people’s heads without asking them what they think or feel about a situation. If taking notes from a video recording could replace your idea of field research, you aren’t taking advantage of this opportunity to better understand people. You shouldn’t settle for simple transcriptions or reports. Get yourself embedded in the team or teams you are researching. Spend time with them, understand how they work together—or how they don’t—and record your observations in a way that can support objective, evidence-based choices later on.

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes

I highly recommend the book Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. While it has an anthropological focus, the information it provides is still very relevant to UX design and user research. The book goes into detail about what to look for and how to record and report your observations—with different styles such as first-person, third-person, real-time, and end-point—and how to record dialogue. It also provides some information on coding and writing up full ethnographic texts. The authors admit that, if you actually want to learn about ethnography, you’re probably best off starting elsewhere. But I found it highly informative in that regard, too.

In Conclusion

Taking notes of observations is not enough. You need to be able to analyze your notes and present your analysis—in an enlightening, meaningful, and credible way—to your peers and others who may need to take advantage of your insights from  field research.


Vicente, Kim. The Human Factor: Revolutionizing the Way People Live with Technology. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Emerson, Robert M., Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Google Chrome Now Includes Built-In Flash Player


Do you ever get tired of plug-in updates every time you update your browser? How about the incompatibility with your favorite plug-ins?

How about your work computer where you have to contact IT every time you need to get an update to your Windows 95?

Hopefully Google’s Chrome browser is paving the way towards a new way for software to work, where the plug-ins that make the web ‘just work’ do so right out of the box.

Earlier this morning, Google released a new stable version of Chrome, the company’s increasingly popular browser. This new release for Windows, Mac and Linux is the first stable version of Chrome to be distributed with a built-in version of Adobe’s widely used Flash Player. Just two days ago, Google enabled the built-in version of Flash in the beta channel versions of Chrome, where it had already been available earlier this year, though Google then disabled this feature after a while.

Even though Google is a strong backer of the open HTML5 and CSS3 standard, which can replicate a lot of Flash features, the company is also acutely aware that a lot of users and web developers still rely on Flash. When we talked to Bran Rakowski, Google’s product manager and director for Chrome, last month, he noted that Google thinks that by coupling Flash to the browser, Google can ensure that users will run a very recent and secure version of Flash.

Don’t Like Flash in Chrome? Just Disable It.

If you don’t want to use Flash in Chrome, you can just type “about:plugins” in the address bar in Chrome and disable the plug-in.

Google’s update mechanism ensures that the browser stays up to date, without any intervention from the user. In addition to this, Google can also test the specific version of Flash it distributes with the browser and ensure that it is stable. With its new crash protection feature in Firefox, Mozilla is also working hard to ensure that crashing Flash content can’t take the whole browser down and Apple and Opera offer a similar features in their browsers.

As CNET’s Stephen Shankland rightly notes, Adobe is also working hard to keep Flash relevant and with the latest version of the Flash Player (10.1), Adobe is also trying to gain a foothold on mobile devices. Google’s own Android operating system is one of the first to support mobile Flash.

from an article on Read Write Web

International UPA 2010 Conference: Research Themes and Trends

UPA International Conference 2010

I was not able to attend this year’s conference, but was involved in its planning and was excited to see the presentations that occurred.

I just read a review of Research Themes and Trends by Michael Hawley posted on UX Magazine.

He split the sessions he was able to attend into categories:

Optimizing and Extending Existing Research Methods presentations included optimizing testing to occur in a week or less, which I find reminiscent of Steve Krug’s recent book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy. Another described methods to combine web analytics with usability testing to create richer data sets through quantitative and qualitative data.

The Importance of Storytelling There was a presentation on InfoPal, a way for subjects to share their thoughts ‘diaries’ through multimodal processes using not only a written diary, but also recordings, pictures, drawings, voice memos etc to provide more information to researchers as well as improve the participants’ ability to share their thoughts in more places and in more ways. A discussion around how to use stories from users to help stakeholders understand more clearly what their product needs to provide.

Eyetracking Continues to Evolve and discussion has moved beyond whether or not it is a useful tool and now focuses on what results are most useful to usability professionals and how best to analyze those results.

Research Beyond Usability There were several meetings that discussed the continuing desire by designers and researchers to provide delightful, easy interfaces and create products that take the psychology of happiness into account.

Maturing the Profession Possibly the most important aspect of what we do at the UPA conferences is work towards helping to promote our goals and profession. We are striving to make our research more scientific while not losing the ‘art’ of usability research and the study presented (where different teams found very different results) brought the results of opinions in usability research into stark focus. Mentoring of not only junior associates but colleagues in our workplaces was also presented.

The next UPA conference:

UPA 2011 International ConferenceAtlanta, Georgia

The 2011 conference will be held at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, Georgia from June 20-24th.

Mobile Phone Next Steps

Apple’s contract is confirmed for a 5 year exclusivity (iPhones only on AT&T until 2012).

There has been this constant buzzing & chatter about iPhones on Verizon since Jobs blessed the early adopters with his mobile golden egg.

As always, these rumors continue although as recently as a week ago, with the release of iOS4 and AT&T’s ‘free’ or discounted upgrades to the iPhone4, the industry reads into it more possibility that a CDMA version or alternative iPhone will be made available to Verizon customers.

It was on that article that I was introduced to the idea of LTE. Now, I have heard of 4S, the next progression from 3G, but hadn’t really thought about what it could mean in terms of technology. This actually sounds exciting and it looks as thought the technology will be adopted by all the major carriers.

This means that regardless of your carrier, or even your phone, your upload and download speeds should increase exponentially.

Getting All the Parts to Work Together

Like most things in life, the proof is in the action.

People judge themselves by their intentions, and are judged by others by their actions.

Like other early adopters. I scan the net and do my best to know a little something (just enough to get myself in trouble) about all the new toys to keep a finger on the proverbial pulse.

Sometimes it is simple consumerism, full of memes, cult status videos and images (a great source I recently found is Urlesque. WARNING it is a time waster!)

But other times, and here is where I am having some trouble, it is a matter of finding out that there are technology add-ons, code snippets or cutting edge ideas that can make something “easier”…but its a matter of climbing the learning curve, which often means overcoming bugs.

The downside of wanting to try things out before others is that we become perennial beta testers. We find the bugs, we get frustrated so others don’t have to.

My most recent adventures in free beta testing:


WP to Twitter feed

SimpleNet (getting it to work with Snow Leopard)


and as always, Google Labs

The original reason for posting this article is to verify I have ‘fixed’ the WP to Twitter plugin. If not, well… I guess I have more fodder for my bug report.