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Ethnography and User Research

Jorge Fernández
February 17, 2020

Of all the qualitative user research methods, the ethnographic method is probably the most complicated to carry out, the slowest, the most expensive but also the most revealing of all of them. Why? Let's go step by step ...

Exotic Tribes vs. Meeting your users

Etymologically speaking, the ethnographic method is like capturing in a photo the participants of a social event, with their motivations, with their symbols, their signifiers, their multiple interactions and the reasons why.

This technique is typical of anthropology and was used in at first  to "understand" distant and exotic tribes (to avoid saying control. Read about "Indirect Rule" and what it was for).

Today it can be used to understand groups of people who live close. To describe, for example, our daily rituals of life. Have you ever thought of soccer as a modern religion, as a universe of shared practices and meaningful feelings? Or for all those consumers who wait in line patiently to buy the latest iPhone model the entire night before? If so, you probably have some anthropologist skills!

But then, who are the anthropologists? what is the ethnographic method? Explaining this would take many lines and pages of existentialist and methodological debates. Having to refer to the greats of the discipline: Malinowski, Boas, Margaret Mead, Levy-Strauss, Victor Turner, Van Gennep, Clifford Geertz, Marvin Harris, etcétera. To explain it quickly and briefly, it is possible that this recommendation will help you.

A notable professor suggested to me some time ago: “Imagine that you are an alien and that you live your day-to-day life in a normal way with people. And you try to understand from outside what they do on a daily basis ”. Why do you eat what you eat and how do you eat it? why do you need to drink some beers with your friends despite the fact that this month you have no spending money? why is this so different in China than in Spain ... and so on to infinity.

Then, try to explain it to your fellow aliens in a descriptive way that they can understand and...there  you go!! You already have some ethnography in you.

Compatible and useful: the importance of observing and participating

The most important general feature of the ethnographic method, is that the researcher usually creates a relationship or link with the participants, of greater or lesser duration depending on the research, thus taking the data first hand.

The usual technique is participant observation. In this way, the researcher also becomes a subject of study by participating actively. This is in favor of getting more authentic data from the participants, since they will tend to behave more naturally.

The most complicated part, if anything, is that the investigator has to be a solvent off-roader. Not only knowing how to blend and look like one more, but knowing how to deduce and explain what is really happening.

In summary, the ethnographic method is a way of looking at people's lives. It helps us to live and better understand our own and others' reality together with its underlying social meanings.

Ethnography in UX Research: discover and innovate.

Now, what does this have to do with products and services? Well, that understanding of the reality of a certain social group will basically help us design much better and useful products and services. By understanding users we are able to articulate what they really want.

Investigating with this new way of looking, of talking to our users or potential users in their daily tasks with products or services, sharing their social contexts as one more without thinking that they are being observed, is one of the most revealing ways to find meanings and practices that we have not paid attention to and that can become essential to guide our work.

In this sense, we have the famous success story of Lucy Suchman and the Xerox printers. The concept of user experience is derived from it for the first time through the method of situated action. Let me better explain. To improve the operation of the printers, Lucy placed a camera without prior notice in the room, so that when a user did not understand the instructions, an investigator "magically" arrived to help. The user explained why he could not advance or where he was blocked. With this set of problems, Lucy’s team designed the the famous solution: a green button on a printer to start the photocopy. That is how they transformed a previously complex task into something even a child is capable of executing. The user began to be considered for the first time as part of the solution thanks to what could be called natural observation. In addition, this method was inexpensive for Xerox and brought enormous benefits.

Another more recent case happened on Netflix and, therefore, in our homes. Maybe you have never heard of "binge watching" but surely you have practiced it. In other words, watch an entire season of a series in one day. The online content subscription company commissioned anthropologist Grant McCracken to conduct research into the patterns and behavioral changes of watching TV that led to the decision to incorporate this feature. In his own words, his results led to this way of seeing as “a contemplative and intelligent way of watching a certain type of television. It allows a unified vision of the work and must be compared to immersion in reading. "Of course, like everything, with head and responsibility.

Ethnography and UX: adding value in every phase

An ethnographic model is useful in several ways to find information that improves products and services in general:

  • Help discover new features (At General Motors, cars were seen as an extension of the office, where users can drive and talk on the phone wirelessly)
  • To discover the bugs and possible improvements (if your page does not work as you think, do not hesitate to call us. We will help you)
  • To reveal important emotional links that users may have with the services and products they consume.
  • To stimulate the designers' own creativity, by generating new points of view.


In summary, ethnography in the company can be approached in multiple ways and, well planned and done, it can be a source of great ideas. And therefore, increase  economic revenue and improve our existence. With good ethics ahead, of course.

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