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Exploring the user experience through ethnography (Anna Wilkie, cxpartners)


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Exploring the user experience through ethnography (Anna Wilkie, cxpartners)

  1. 1. Exploring the user experience through ethnography ! I have a background in Anthropology, which shares some similarities with UX in that it studies people and their patterns of behaviour. So I thought I’d share a bit of background on ethnography, as well as some of the things that I picked up that are relevant to UX, in the shape of 5 tips from ethnographic best practice.
  2. 2. Ethnography is the study of social interactions, behaviours, and perceptions that occur within groups, teams, organisations, and communities through participant observation. Image: ‘Padlong Tribe Woman’ © Davidlohr Beuso, 2010,
  3. 3. ! Participant observation involves living and breathing the life of the people that you are trying to understand. This is typically through long stints of working ‘in the field’ that usually last around a year. The aim is to explore the nature of a particular social phenomenon, rather than setting out to test hypotheses about it. Image: Untitled © Mary-Ann Ochota, 2013,, Quicksilver Media
  4. 4. ! This way of working can be traced back to anthropological studies of small and often remote societies that took place in the early 1900s. Researchers like Malinowski (the chap sat with Trobriand islanders in this photo) participated in these societies over long periods (often up to several years) and documented their social arrangements and belief systems. Image: Wmalinowski triobriand isles 1918, © Unknown (maybe Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1885-1939), Public Domain,
  5. 5. ! But this type of ethnography is by no means limited to tribes or to remote rural societies. For example, the TV series The Wire was based on and developed through what can be deemed ethnographic research by its creator David Simon. Image: ‘The Wire 333 Idris Elba Wallpaper © Andrew Wallinski, 2014,
  6. 6. ! This kind of qualitative research methodology can be used in UX to gain insight into the lives of the people we’re concerned with: their point of view, what’s important to them and what things mean to them. The findings then inform the design process to make a product that works better for the people we’ve studied. Image: Untitled © cxpartners, 2013
  7. 7. ! Here are my 5 tips for ethnographic best practice within UX: 5 tips
  8. 8. ! 1. Try to avoid preconceptions and remain open-minded. This may sound obvious, but it’s easy to end up trying to prove something. Open-ended discovery can lead to completely new terrain and considerations that haven’t even crossed your mind yet. Image: ‘Open’ © Tom Magliery, 2007,
  9. 9. ! 2. Always probe deeper Don’t just listen for the factual statements that a user makes about the interface. Make sure you dig a bit deeper about what certain things or objects mean to them: their feelings, attitudes, perceptions and values. It is often seemingly irrelevant, unprompted comments or actions that can give the most insight. Image: ‘Imperial probe droid' © Jessica Spengler, 2011,
  10. 10. ! 3. Use what ethnographers refer to as 'thick description’. This involves taking note of everything, even if it seems 'unremarkable' at the time. This is most likely to involve reading the user’s ‘non-verbals' - their inflections, gestures, posture and facial expression - as well as the sights and sounds of the environment in which they’re using the product.
  11. 11. ! 4. Be reflexive Take note of the way people relate to you and acknowledge your own subjectivity and the part you play in your work. Remember that you affect the user’s environment, which may result in them behaving in a different way than if you were not there. Image:‘Sam I am’ © A Golden, 2008,
  12. 12. "If you want to understand how a tiger hunts, don't go to the zoo. Go to the jungle." A.G. Lafley, former P&G CEO ! 5. Get out of the office & into the field. This is what ethnography is all about. There’s so much more you can learn from observing the natural environment in which people use the product. Of course this is not always possible, due to time or budget restraints, but even half a day in the natural environment of a user will provide greater insight into what affects them and makes their experience of the product easier or more enjoyable. Image: ‘Tiger’ © Koshy Koshy, 2010,
  13. 13. Thank you Anna Wilkie Junior UX Consultant !