Three Superpowers that Make Up a Great Ethnographic Researcher


Trifecta of UXR superpowers needed to excel in Ethnographic Research.  

In this day and age, User Experience Researchers (UXRs) are expected to deliver actionable insights that can meet the demands of teams in agile environments. This means less time spent “in the field” collecting data and more “bite-sized takeaways” that can be quickly disseminated among cross-functional teams. These forces are juxtaposed to traditional ethnographic/exploratory research which can be incredibly valuable when done properly. Considering the financial and human capital investment of conducting in-country or observational research, UXRs and stakeholders have been forced to think critically about how they maximize their ROI (return on investment) on research.

Ethnographic research also referred to as “fly on the wall” research, is conducted through the observation of individuals in their natural settings for an extended period of time.  It is important to recognize that a lot of external factors can impact the success of a research engagement (see KLI’s SVP tackle international testing here), but holding those factors constant, what can we do as UXRs to excel in this type of research?

Knowing this, we at Key Lime Interactive (KLI) asked ourselves, what skills should a researcher possess and perfect in order to carry out an effective ethnographic study?  

To answer this, we look at 3 superpowers that make up a great ethnographic researcher.  

  1. Empathy -  Unquestionably the most important tool in a researcher’s arsenal during ethnographic research. Ethnographic studies require that researchers look at things from the subject’s perspective and evaluate how stimuli in the environment could impact their behaviors, emotions, and actions.  Empathy may seem trivial, but we have found it’s important to be invaluable when conducting ethnographic research. One recent example of the importance of empathy can be seen when evaluating first-time users of Virtual Reality.  Identifying physical reactions like fear, joy under a headset or the body language associated with the symptoms of simulation sickness is critical to understanding the various ways in which these new stimuli can impact participants.  Understanding how environments, even virtual ones, can impact users in a very real and physical way is paramount. (For those interested in how something like simulation sickness can be evaluated see Kennedy Et al.)

  2. Listening - Researchers have the responsibility of acting as the conduit between end users and product teams.  However, the challenge with ethnographic research is the unidirectional aspect of data collection. How do we as researchers translate qualitative/observational data into a defined set of user needs?  Possessing excellent listening skills is critical to being a good researcher. The use of smartphones and apps like dscout offers researchers access to users in their natural environment and the ability to collect data at scale. Documenting and actively listening to insights allows researchers the ability to follow up specific and targeted questions that get past the superficial layer. Interview techniques (conducted post-observation) such as laddering are a great way to model how UXRs should deliver powerful insights by talking less and listening more.

  3. Curiosity -  An analytical mind, an understanding of basic research fundamentals, and intellect are the building blocks for a successful UXR. However, at the core of every truly gifted researcher is a tireless sense of curiosity. Understanding how — and more importantly — why users behave the way they do are the pillars of good ethnographic research. As UX evangelists, we should always be aiming to peel back the proverbial layers of the onion, and to achieve this, there is no better motivator than the sense of curiosity.  Thankfully, there are countless ways to keep your curiosity peaked.  The next time you are at your local mall, take a moment to stop and evaluate the people walking by. What sort of patrons do you see? What are they hoping to achieve? What do they seem to be motivated by?
    Rediscovering your sense of curiosity, even in environments we have grown accustomed to, can be an invigorating experience and something worth nurturing as UXers.

 Rick Damaso is the Lead Researcher & Strategist for Key Lime Interactive.

READ MORE: Methods for Running a Successful Diary Study, Choosing the Right Tool for Quantitative UX Research, How to Plan for a Quantitative UX Competitive Benchmark Study, Planning a Better Usability Study, Interview with Our Four Quantitative Rockstars

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