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  • Valentina Vidaček

Ethnography — a Traditional Research Method as a Solution to Modern Market Problems


Knowledge is power, as the old saying suggests, and this has never been more valid than it is today. To obtain knowledge, we require data. Data that leads us to new discoveries and that can verify our hypotheses. The problem of modern business is how to collect data that is useful and accurate.

The modern market is saturated with technological innovations. We live in a society where it's normal to download 10 different apps in one week, and where people switch from one tech supplier to another without thinking twice. These are beautiful times when we are encouraged to speak up and to demand a better environment to live in, but also better products to use in this environment. The question is how can the market meet these demands? Not only is the tech market filled with competition, but it is also faced with users who feel no attachment or loyalty toward one particular brand or company. The solution to this problem is quite simple. Investing in UX research guarantees results through methods such as ethnography because no other method stands out for its accuracy or relevance as ethnography does.


According to the book User Experience in Libraries (Preston & Borg, 2016), methods that are usually used in UX research (qualitative data based on social media data, number of downloads, etc.) do not reveal almost anything important about the users. This should not surprise us because everyone who has basic knowledge about human psychology, knows that people are layered creatures and society is a complex construct. Quantitative data can give us some direction, but not enough to create a long-term sustainable difference in the business world. Therefore, UX researchers eventually started to use ethnography to get all the needed pieces of information for creating sustainable products.

Ethnography is a complex method that requires skill, time, cooperation, ethics, and much more. Modern-day ethnography evolved over time to adjust to the ever-changing social environment. The ethnography that UX researchers use as a research method is different from ethnography in the traditional sense. It is more affordable, less time-consuming, and requires less contact with people. However, can the results of this type of ethnography give an equally holistic view of user experience? If not, how can we successfully balance traditional ethnography and the modern market demands?

Traditional ethnography is more in line with the ethnography of its founder Malinowski, who spent a long time living with the South Pacific islanders to create a narrative about them (Emerald Publishing). He was an observer, a part of the community, but what is most important, he was there long enough to build their trust, test hypotheses, and get a holistic perspective on their daily lives. His ethnography was thick and focused, and he had a deep understanding of the society he was observing. He collected data, tested it, interpreted it, and then published it. This method, of course, had flaws (such as the observer's attachments to people, his life philosophy, and subjective descriptions, to name a few) but we can't deny its effectiveness and holism. Another famous ethnographer was Clifford Geertz. He created the thick description to provide cultural context and explain the meaning of human behavior (Emerald Publishing). However, UX research does not have the time or resources to make such deep observations, so it has to find alternative ways to combine Malinowski's and Geertz’s practices to create high-quality data. To produce quality data UX research should combine many different resources. As Margaret Mead said "What people say, what people do, and what people say they do are entirely different things" — UX research needs to take into account ways to cover these blind spots (Research Field Guide).


Because they have less time to spend with actual consumers, UX researchers need highly structured plans. Before even starting to dive into research, they need to understand the product, along with the main goal and philosophy of the company. After understanding the intention and making sure it meets ethical standards, UX researchers can further create research plans corresponding to the type of the product and users. This plan usually includes thick research about target clients gained through secondary data (books, published articles, local ethnography or documents, etc.). At this stage, UX researchers need to decide the type of ethnography they will conduct: field studies, ethnographic interviews, mini ethnography, or digital ethnography (Research Field Guide). Each type has advantages and weaknesses, and experts in the field often suggest a combination of multiple methods that are included in different types of research.

Sometimes lengthy research is not necessary, and it’s enough to dedicate time to one aspect of the development process. One good example is Bjarke Ingles, who needed to represent Switzerland's watch brand in its historical and cultural context. In order to do so, he took a trip to a craftsman's workshop. After his observation, he found his inspiration and said ''After talking with that watchmaker — looking at his hands and his tools and really seeing how precise and meticulous his work was — suddenly, the penny dropped and I got really excited. I could really feel it” (Christian Madsbjerg, 2017). While Ingles got enough by experiencing the production, most research needs to be planned in detail — defining goals and methods, defining and finding the best type of participants, defining time and place, collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data, presenting research, and much more. This well-defined process eliminates stress and misunderstandings and leads to well-structured data.

Despite the type of ethnography, the researcher chooses (having the product and users in mind), all ethnography needs to include: real people, social context, testing the hypothesis, and valuable suggestions. They can ask participants to film themselves, to write a diary, and they can gather data through already existing apps and software (Indeemo, Maxqda, QualSight, Cintextmap, etc.) (Research Field Guide). Modern UX researchers mostly include these methods, but what they miss to include in the ethnography are their reflexivity and introspection. This is where anthropologists stand out among UX researchers of different backgrounds. Anthropologists have polished observational skills; they can create a proper atmosphere to nurture the element of trust where their informants reveal more than they believe they know. This doesn’t mean that an ethical breach is made but simply that anthropologists create the feeling of a pleasant everyday conversation. In most other cases, where such methods are not applied, informants feel like "test subjects" which creates feelings of uncomfortableness and leads to less accurate data. Anthropologists can notice behavior patterns that users are not aware of, and they can change interview questions according to the flow of the conversation (Research Field Guide). As UX researchers, anthropologists can find blind spots that can play a crucial role in accepting or developing some products.


Users are people involved in high-demand daily routines; they are willing to help companies if it means better products for their needs, but they need to feel that their time is being valued. Scheduled interviews or observations make sure that users feel like their contribution aids in the process of development and makes a change in the creation of new products. So, having a well-trained anthropologist who understands society on a deeper level will lead not only to accurate data but, in many cases, to more highly valuable data than was expected.

Even though modern time is different from the time when Malinowski established ethnography as a method, what stayed the same is the reciprocity of giving and receiving — users will respect companies that provide them with products that fit their needs and in return, they will gladly participate in the process. UX research is the bridge between those two sides. It is a very complicated and demanding type of research but there is no substitute for it in the modern market.

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