112: 4 Ethnographic Research Methods


Looking Chapter in Innovating for People: Handbook of Human-centered Design Methods.  Pittsburgh, PA: LUMA Institute, LLC 2012.  Print



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  1. Interviewing:
    • Gathering information through direct dialogue
    • Purpose:
      • Gain info directly.
      • Deepen empathy.
      • Build credibility with stakeholders.
      • Challenge preconceptions.
    • Preparation steps:
      • Identify interview topic.
      • Prepare questions and recording equipment.
      • Set interviewee selection criteria.
      • Recruit interviewees.
      • Set times and dates for interviews.
    • Implementation steps:
      • Introduce yourself and interview purpose.
      • Obtain consent.
      • Start with easy steps, then draw out specifics.
      • Listen and take good notes.
      • Thank interviewee.
    • Tips:
      • Choose a location with few distractions.
      • Don’t put words into interviewee’s mouth.
      • Resist urge to analyze interview info at this phase.
    • Sample Process:
      • Purpose: Conducting field research, finding data patterns, and conveying insights in a relatable form.
      • Steps:
        • Stakeholder mapping (Understanding).
        • Interviewing (Looking).
        • Affinity Clustering (Understanding).
        • Persona Profile (Understanding).
    • Classroom applications
      • Can interview students who represent interesting patterns in student needs in order to plan interventions
      • Can interview students who seem uncomfortable or unfocused in the classroom and try to learn how to refine classroom culture to suit their needs
      • Can interview successful students to identify what strategies they are using to be successful
      • Can interview unsuccessful students to identify their stuck points and possible ways to support them
  2. Fly-on the-Wall Observations:
    • Conducting unobtrusive field research.
    • Purposes:
      • Reveal what people actually do.
      • Deepen empathy.
      • Challenge assumptions.
      • Build credibility with stakeholders.
    • Preparing steps:
      • Identify research topic.
      • Develop research plan.
      • Consider which people and activities to watch.
      • Choose location.
      • Obtain access and permission(s).
      • Prep materials for capturing what you see.
    • Implementation steps:
      • Observe.
      • Record findings in videos, photos and notes
    • Tips:
      • Blend in with background.
      • Take role of objective bystander
      • Change vantage points.
    • Sample Process:
      • Purpose: Using observations to inform ways of framing problems and to recruit right people for subsequent design activities.
      • Steps:
        • Fly on the Wall Observation (Looking)
        • Abstraction Laddering (Understanding)
        • Stakeholder Mapping (Understanding)
        • Round Robin (Making)
    • Classroom applications:
      • Can observe how struggling student interacts in your class and another class where they are more (or less) successful in order to identify stuck points, successful strategies and possible support
      • Can observe how a struggle team interactions in order to identify what warm and cool interactions they are having and to identify possible solutions that can improve their collaboration.
  3. Contextual Inquiry
    • Interviewing and observing people in their own environment.
    • Purposes:
      • Reveal what people actually do
      • Deepen empathy
      • Challenge assumptions
      • Build credibility with stakeholders
    • Preparation steps:
      • Identify location and people involved
      • Prepare questions and recording equipment
    • Implementation steps:
      • Introduce yourself and purpose.
      • Obtain consent.
      • Ask participants to perform tasks in a normal way.
      • Observe.
      • Ask questions at opportune moments.
      • Record findings in videos, photos, etc.
      • Thank each participant.
    • Sample Process:
      • Purpose: Conducting field research, visualizing discoveries and determining direction for ideation.
      • Steps:
        • Contextual Inquiry (Looking)
        • Experience Diagraming (Understanding)
        • Rose, Thorn, Bud (Understanding)
    • Classroom applications:
      • Can investigate how students solve content problems in order to learn about what strategies they are using (and not using) to be successful
      • Can investigate how teams set and implement goals in order to learn what collaboration strategies they are using and need to learn to be more successful
  4. Walk-a-Mile Immersion:
    • Building empathy through firsthand experience
    • Purposes:
      • Gain firsthand knowledge
      • Foster humility
      • Deepen empathy
      • Inform subsequent research
    • Preparation Steps:
      • Identify experience to replicate.
      • Choose performance tasks and activities.
      • Assemble materials for simulation.
      • Determine best location.
      • Obtain necessary access and permission.
    • Implementation Steps:
      • Conduct target tasks.
      • Do each activity as realistically as possible.
      • Note findings.
    • Sample Process:
      • Purpose: Conducting an immersion experience and using insights to set direction for problem solving
      • Steps:
        • Personal Profile (Understanding)
        • Walk-a-Mile Immersion (Looking)
        • Statement Starters (Understanding)
    • Classroom Applications:
      • Could use this method to try out upcoming classroom activities and search for possible stuck points and areas in need of revision
      • Could use a version of this method to understand the workload that students accumulate across a day and brainstorm strategies to help them manage that workload
Ethnographic research helps researchers / designers investigate stakeholders in their natural settings.  The information gained from these observations can inspire innovative solutions to stakeholder problems and challenges.


Ethnographic research habits can be taught to students to help them gather information related to design projects.  Teachers can use ethnographic research to study students’ working and study habits and use that information to design interventions.


Preparation Steps
  • For teacher use (researching students):
    • Decide research topics (examples: how do students conduct research, how do they study, how do they set team goals)
    • Select method(s) that will help gather most useful information related to research topics
  • For student use (researching stakeholders for project):
    • Brainstorm research topics in projects that lend themselves to ethnographic research methods
    • Design resources that help students prepare and implement methods.  See above.
Early Implementation Steps
  • For teacher use (researching students):
    • Implement ethnographic research methods
    • Follow-up with understanding steps.  See hyperlinks above for ideas.
  • For student use (researching stakeholders for project):
    • Scaffold ethnographic research activities (preparation and implementation)
    • Follow-up with understanding activities.  See hyperlinks above for ideas.
Advanced Implementation Steps
  • For teacher use (researching students):
    • Share findings with students and have them reflect on whether or not the findings have any validity.
    • Develop interventions that address verified findings.
  • For student use (researching stakeholders for project):
    • Have students reflect on ethnographic research methods – how did it work?  what assumptions were challenged? what new things were learned? what new ideas were inspired? how can this approach be used in other settings?



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