Ethnography and UX research

7 min readSep 19, 2021

The role of UX researchers is to understand the behavior of respondents, their intentions, and actions. Surveys, questionnaires, or even lab experiments are great tools for the identification of respondent’s needs and thoughts, but they can miss significant opportunities. The missing puzzle pieces can be described by ethnographic research. When looking for new business opportunities, the ethnographic study can give you valuable insight.

What is ethnographic research?

The field of ethnography is studying the characteristics of societies, cultures, communities within their natural environment. The main aim of this method is to study the interaction among subjects and also with their environment.

Okay, cool, but I am a UX researcher. How can it be helpful in my work? There is one aspect that is often forgotten when conducting UX research. Humans are not empty boxes through which the input only passes. The behavior that we see is not only caused by initial input. The environment, prior experience, genetics, shape who we are, how we think, and how we interact with the world. This is the reason why it is important to look at human beings from a global perspective. As a result, you can understand how people interact with the product or design and how they feel about it.

Think about it this way: let’s try to replace cultures and communities with users. Ethnography research in UX means understanding the behavior of respondents and their interactions with the design. As the description indicates, it is a qualitative research method that helps to understand social relations. Researchers are learning about interactions on the scene, not in the controlled lab environment that gives them authentic insight.

When to conduct an Ethnography study in UX?

Observation of respondents in their natural interaction can change their responses with the design. But when is the right time for this type of research?

In the beginning

You can think about implementing ethnography at the beginning of the product’s life cycle. Are you thinking about developing an app? Conduct research and find whether it fits users’ needs.

During the process

Maybe you have a cool app with workout tips and calorie countings. Observation of users can give you valuable information such as when are they using the app, when are they writing down calories, making food plans, what time of exercise do they prefer, do they use smartphone or computer when exercising, where is the device located while exercising. Ethnological research makes sense not only at the beginning of development but also in production. Are your intentions understood and used in a way you planned?


There are 2 main techniques of how to do the ethnographic research:


Ethnographic research is happening on the scene, in the natural environment of respondents. You should also make notes, photos, videos, but don’t forget them in the bushes. You can also ask respondents to write a diary in the form of videos or written text and analyze the pure experience. Elaborating on the subject without the presence of a researcher can support respondents in expressing their authentic thoughts.


On the other hand, there is a possibility to conduct ethnographic research online. In this case, you should also be informed about the environment of respondents. It is important to know whether they are working on smartphones, tablets, where they are currently located. Online tools enable researchers to see real action, real-time responses to the design. Website testing tools are designed in a similar way to offline research. You can look at the design from the perspective of your users. Good UX tools are allowing you to test real users, see their actions in real-time and unveil the potential issues.

UX tools understood the importance of listening to the real-time thoughts of participants. This is the reason why Thinking-Aloud features are implemented in many online UX tools. Hearing the thoughts of respondents while interacting with the design can give you valuable data. Learn more about the Think-Aloud feature in and listen to your respondents.

Advantages and limitations of ethnography research in UX

There are several benefits you can gain from ethnographic research:

1.Respondents are interacting with the design in the environment that they know what leads to reduction of stress that occurs in lab conditions. Controlled conditions can cause stress to some respondents which influences the way how they perceive the design.

2.Authentic reactions and opinions are the main advantages of ethnographic research. Ethnographic research unveils important aspects of the complex reality.

3.Ethnographic research in UX will allow you to spot information that usability research is lacking. Usability testing is focusing on the energy expenditure of participants, or rather said how easy it is for users to interact with the product. Usability research can tell you how easy or hard it was for users to interact with the design but an ethnographic study can explain why they interacted with the product in a certain way

On the other hand, there are some limitations with ethnography research in UX. Even though the results of such research can be interesting, it can’t replace usability testing as such. Another issue with ethnographic research is that it can be time-consuming. The observation time varies from a few minutes to months. Also, there is a question, whether the answers of participants are unbiased and authentic when asked by researchers.

Observe in a non-creepy way

Now you are probably as excited as I am about ethnographic research, but you are not sure how to start. There are two kinds of ways to approach ethnographic study. One requires your army camouflage jacket you bought at the beginning of the lockdown and for the second one, you need to be a good listener.

1.Passive observation

Imagine National Geographic documentaries, a deep voice is saying: “.. and now the young sloth is ready to reach for the flower”. You are doing something the same. Yes, this is the point when you put on your camouflage clothes. Passive observation means that the researchers are following a subject but without any active interaction. Please, observe in a non-creepy way and always ask for consent.

2.Contextual observation- interviews

Leave your cargo pants and home. This time you are allowed to interact with your respondents. Researchers can ask questions to understand the interactions of respondents. Don’t hesitate to ask why they did certain things, what are their immediate intentions and thoughts. Try to use informal language and questions that would support respondents in their actions.

Respondents in Ethnographic study

The question is, who is going to appreciate your Camo clothes? Then conducting ethnographic research, you should include a variety of participants, not only your target group. Hide in bushes and study people living in rural areas, in cities, those who use internet banking, those who use cash only, sports fans, nerds, everybody. Understanding patterns in diverse audiences can give you valuable information. For instance, you can analyze the behavior of unique cases and how they react to the design.

Ethnographic research can be an improv show sometimes. You need to be ready to ask clear, explicit questions that are not suggestive. You want to understand the authentic experience. Therefore, you should also ask questions regarding the environment of participants, to make sure they are fine and relaxed. Respondents are sometimes occupied with the task and you can only see their behavior. Don’t hesitate to ask questions that will explain their responses and thoughts. Learn more about the art of asking good questions in UX research.

What is the result of ethnographic research in UX?

What are we looking for in an ethnographic study? As the result, the researcher will have tons of notes but it is important to find patterns and common signs within the context. Analysis of patterns will help in identifications of challenges and issues that respondents have with the design. Try to find spots where respondents got lost or they spent a long time.

Look at the specific cases and look for something unexpected. An example of an unexpected fact could be the finding that respondents are using your product on smartphones but the last step of the shopping process- payment, is happening mainly on other devices such as laptops. Remember the app for calorie counting? Surprisingly, users are not adding calories when cooking but a day before when they are planning their food. This is a surprise that makes a difference.

Make a difference

The results of ethnographic research in UX can be that one aspect that separates success from mediocrity. Understand your users, their behavior, responses, thoughts about the design. Observing people in the context they are familiar with gives you as a researcher a new perspective. Live their life and see your product with their eyes. You are one step closer to understanding the complexity with ethnographic research.




UXtweak is unique set of research tools to conduct qualitative studies on your website #UXResearch #UXTesting