Ethnographic research

Ethnographic research usually involves observing target users in their natural, real-world setting, rather than in the artificial environment of a lab or focus group. The aim is to gather insight into how people live; what they do; how they use things; or what they need in their everyday or professional lives.

How ethnographic research works

Ethnographic research relies on techniques such as observation, video diaries, photographs, contextual interviews, and analysis of artefacts such as for example devices, tools or paper forms that might be used as part of a person’s job.

Observations can be made at home, at work, or in leisure environments. People can be studied with their family, on their own, with work colleagues, or as part of a group of friends. Often one participant may be recruited, but several more may be studied as part of that person’s family or friends.

Data collection can range from a 4-5 hour contextual interview, through to following a participant for several days, or even a longitudinal study over several weeks or months to investigate, for example, how a particular product or service might be used over time. It doesn’t necessarily involve ‘full immersion’ in a person’s life: it can involve a depth interview in a person’s home or it might involve a person simply maintaining their own video diary over a period of time.

Where and how you might use it

Ethnographic research can provide extremely rich insight into ‘real life’ behaviour, and can be used to identify new or currently unmet user needs. This approach is most valuable at the beginning of a project when there is a need to understand real end user needs, or to understand the constraints of using a new product or service by a particular audience.

When not to use

Ethnographic research can provide a significant amount of qualitative data, and analysis can be time consuming.

NOTE: The term ‘ethnographic’ can be misused, it’s currently a bit of a ‘buzzword’ with some agencies who may not fully understand the approach. It is recommended that a specialist agency is used, who can demonstrate successful case studies (collecting and analysing the data).


In principle, anyone could participate in this type of research. As with any user research, the recruitment of suitable participants is key. The full implications of the research should be fully explained to potential participants, as some may not feel comfortable with this level of intrusion in their lives.


Depending on the study needs and the approach, but 6-8 weeks from briefing to results can provide rich insight. It may take time to build trust with participants, and the analysis period needs to be sufficient to be thorough.

Ethnographic research can be expensive and time consuming, but this depends on the needs of a particular project. The benefits derived can be extremely valuable.


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