Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research provides means for gathering external user perspectives that can be harnessed as important intelligence during a systemic design session.  Ethnographic research most commonly involves interviewing end users (either in person or by phone) to gather their perspectives on a particular initiative, issue, or problem.

Ethnography involves:

  • Studying people, ideally in their context;
  • Exploring not only their behaviors, but also the meaning behind those behaviors;
  • Making sense of the data using inference, interpretation, analysis, and synthesis;
  • Using those insights to point toward a design, service, product, or solution.

When to use it?
Look: Ethnography is useful at the outset of a systemic design inquiry as it allows for the gathering and synthesis of user input that may be useful throughout the framing, generate, and adapt stages.

Generate: Ethnography can be used also at the outset of the generate stage to understand user needs and perspectives that will help inform the development of prototypes to be tested with end users.

How to do it?

  1. Define the main focus of the interview: what is the issue and who are the users that are most impacted?

  2. Develop an interviewee list;

  3. Select an interview setting:  Decide if one wants to conduct interviews in person, over the phone, use of another communication medium, or a mixture of these options;

  4. Determine if you need to formal permission from the interviewee or another party to conduct the interview;

  5. Conduct interview and record information (determine if written capture is sufficient or if additional assistance is needed such as audio/visual recording).

  6. Synthesis and production of information for use.

Varies greatly depending on the design of the ethnographic inquiry.  Given the nature of this tool, a process for identifying appropriate end users is advisable to ensure the research is most impactful.

10 mins-3 hr. (depends greatly on the subject matter being explored.

Pros and Cons

  • Provides means for gathering and including end user information into a design session;
  • Can expedite process by offering more efficient means of engaging with end users;


  • Feedback gathered can mislead the design process if information is not collected accurately/objectively.
  • Depending on the issue being explored, it may be difficult to identify whom the appropriate end users are, or whom the priority end users are.

Important details when conducting ethnographic research:

  • Check your own worldview at the door. Your opinions, assumptions, and views are irrelevant
  • The goal is to build rapport in order to open the interviewee up to telling stories about specific events that reveal their thoughts, feelings, fears and hopes.
  • Your goal is to talk as little as possible and use active listening to generate follow-on questions that dig deeper into the interviewee’s experience and needs.
  • It’s ok to ask questions you think you know the answer to. Make the interviewee feel like the expert, you are the curious novice.
  • Plan the interview in order to be agile during the interview.
  • If the interviewee tries to become the interviewer, turn the question back on them: “What would you expect it to be?”
  • Pay attention to your body language during the interview. Maintain eye contact and convey your interest in the interviewee’s responses.
  • Accept that the interviewee may feel awkward, uncomfortable, or disengaged. Your job is to continue to work to them feel comfortable. Give them plenty of ways to succeed by asking easy, straightforward, factual questions.



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​Additional Resources

Government Service Design Manual: UK Government

Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences