A great deal of human interactions with brands now take place digitally – so how can organisations stay up to date with thier customers lifestyles?
There has been a surge in the need for UX research to help brands operate optimally in the digital world, ensuring that their products are easily operated and understood by users.
However, it is important to keep in mind that user testing only offers a partial understanding of consumer needs. The ‘lived experiences’ of digital consumers must also be taken into account. Indeed, failure to take this holistic approach may lead to blind spots for digital products.
Combining user testing with ethnography can be incredibly effective to uncover the holistic aspect of a product’s usability, revealing individual dispositions, cultural issues and the environmental context in which products live.

The varying forms of Ethnography

Ethnography originated in the late 19th Century Europe as a means for Social Anthropologists to document and understand peoples of foreign cultures and their interactions and practices.
It has since been adapted as a method to understand human behaviour for the purpose of market research and, more recently, to contextualise user experiences and usability of products and services in the digital era.
Ethnographic data collection can be divided into three techniques: participant observation, self-reporting, and passive observation (Masten, Davis and Plowman, Tim, 2003).
Participant observation is perhaps the most common form of ethnography.
It requires researchers to be present at all times observing when, where and how a product or service is used to fully ascertain the rituals that surrounds it and the context in which it operates.
This can involve spending an entire day with users, being physically present, observing them in their home, travelling around with them, watching them interact in retail environments, taking part in social gatherings, etc.
Researchers will also enter the digital space in which users operate and can remotely interact with them, using apps, video calling on smartphones, Gopro cameras and the like, to experience ‘the moment’ with users.
Self-reporting can be employed in a variety of ways: Users can record activities on their phones or laptops using screen recording, or by sharing photos, sending messages, blogging or within forums.
However, researchers need to be wary of the extent to which respondents are able to edit their self and what is left out of the frame. After all, we are only aware of what we consciously observe in ourselves.
Passive observation overcomes this issue because the researcher never speaks to the user – instead, the researcher observes the way in which products are used and applies a professional interpretation. The researcher will set themselves up in a specific environment – retail, workplace, restaurant – with an objective to determine how users interact with it.
For example, how well do digital interfaces perform in poorly lit environments, could the user experience be improved taking into account the employees workflow, or what can we learn about website architecture from the routes users take through the retail store?

The value of ethnographic research

What makes ethnography so effective is its emphasis on observing current behavioural patterns and using these observations to understand where problems occur in the real world and where innovation opportunities exist.
In practice, ethnography also enables researchers to internalise findings, as they themselves are immersed into the lives of users, observing them, seeing the world through their eyes and understanding their needs in more detail.
Taking a step back, observing users in the real world and letting their actions and behaviour reveal itself naturally can often result in more profound and innovative insights that resonate with users.