Ethnographic Methods in UX, by Anne Kehlet


After a long hiatus, last night I attended another great Cambridge Usability Group event.

The topic was Ethnographic methods in UX and was delivered by Anne Kehlet who is an Anthropologist turned User Experience Researcher, with extensive experience in ethnographic methods and, more importantly, how to transfer these methods into the more pragmatic world of UX.

Anne started by showing us how she adapts the academic process for organising an ethnographic study, to use in user research for organisations:


The main issue is around the timeframes for research, with organisations imposing much tighter deadlines for accomplishing the full spectrum of research tasks.

So, how to make sure we don’t waste a lot of time collecting a lot of data we won’t be able to use? Anne gives us five pieces of advice to tackle this and other challenges commonly encountered when doing ethnographic research for organisations:

1. Make a plan and expect it to change

Expect design projects to be chaotic. Make a plan of how you intend to organise your research, but be flexible enough to accomodate change as you go along.

Manage your stakeholders’ expectations. For instance, if you’re asked to go to the field with a list of dozens of questions to ask your participants ahead of the start of the research, propose a more efficient use of your time by suggesting that the answers to most of those questions should arise organically throughout the fieldwork.

2. You will be part of the research field whether you want it or not

There is no way to completely remove the Hawthorne effect when you’re doing participant observation, so the best thing to do is to acknowledge it and work around it.

The Norwegian short-film ‘Kitchen Stories‘ portraits this in a humorous way. Here’s the trailer:

Instead of trying not to interfere with the environment, try to adopt a role where you can observe participants in a position of equality. For example, if you are observing students in a classroom, try sitting on a desk next to them (as if you were one of them) instead of being in a position where you are singled out. Put yourself in a situation where you feel natural in the environment you’re studying to try and avoid confirmation bias.

3. Reflect on your own bias and position in the field

Note down your hypothesis before you do any research.

In your field notes, make your biases very clear. For example, if you observed a situation that made you feel uncomfortable, note down your throughts and feelings. That will help you on your analysis later on.

4. Take notes

This is one of the most important things you’ll do in ethnographic research. There are several ways of going about doing this:


Write-up your notes as soon as possible while they’re still fresh in your head.

Choose a framework (see above) and set time aside.

Decide whether documenting has more value than resolving one instance of the situation. Even if you are observing an uncomfortable situation and feel sorry for the person you are observing, try and avoid interferring in the situations as much as possible. For example, if you are observing a receptionist strugling with using a booking system and getting stressed out because he told the customer the wrong appointment times, try not to interfere as you are there to understand where things go wrong and try to find solutions for that.

If appropriate, don’t be afraid to ask to take a look at paperwork that participants deal with as part of the actions you are observing, when you have the time.

5. Share your findings in many different ways

  • Field notes
  • Videos
  • Word clouds
  • Diagrams, journey timelines


Qualitative data can be hard to convey in a fast-paced software development environment, so find the best way to recreate the experience and create empathy in the stakeholders.

At the end of the talk I asked Anne if she had any advice for those researchers who have to observe their users quite closely, for instance when observing how a user is using a certain software package. Her advice was, again, to try and fit into the environment as much as possible. Even if we’re there just for a few hours, it is worth using the excuse of the travel to try and get a spot to work alongside the users in their own environment, instead of just going straight for observation.

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