Why Good UX Design Needs Ethnographic Research

Sep 17, 2021 5:25:32 PM

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User experience (UX) designers rely on a variety of research methods and analytics to understand what the end-user prefers in the design of a software solution or product. Ethnographic research is a tool with great potential that UX designers are finding to be extremely insightful in discovering user preferences and pain points regarding product design & development.

Ethnography refers to gathering intelligence about users' behavior patterns by directly observing their interactions with things in their natural environment. It is a sub-domain in the field of anthropology where groups of humans are studied for days, sometimes years to arrive at valuable inferences.

Let us see how ethnographic research factors into the UX design process.

The Significance of Ethnography For UX Research

Designers who need to get an understanding of how users view and interact with their surroundings and the things in them find ethnographic research to be quite useful. This type of research is best applied at the earliest stages of a product's development.

Ethnography provides design teams the required details about the users' tangible, technical and social environments. This relates to UX design as it relies on data about how users describe their experience of interacting with technology. It is then up to the researcher to classify the experiences into qualitative and quantitative research categories.

Next, we discuss the quantitative and qualitative aspects of user representation in ethnography.

User Representativeness: Quantitative and Qualitative Aspects

To determine the best UX design to satisfy as many potential users as possible, you need a large enough group of test users to serve as a sample set. While the quantitative part is important, qualitative research is essential to work out how you need to change the design of your product. The best approach involves the use of both quantitative and qualitative methods.

1)Quantitative Research

Any research methodology values the power of numbers to make varied predictions. Bigger samples, more user tests, and reports with more numbers give us results we can easily measure and derive accurate statistical figures from.

With data gathered from quantitative methods, the researcher can figure out what is happening in the interaction of the user and the product. But these methods are not sufficient for telling us why the said event is happening. Only figuring out the ‘whats’ without knowing the ‘whys’ will not give the UX designers the complete idea about what changes need to be made in the product's design.

2)Qualitative Research

The qualitative aspect of ethnographic research involves finding an engaging representative sample of participants in user research. Product design in an agile development environment requires this kind of research beforehand. Combining this with theoretical sampling, iterative design and small sample usability tests help in arriving at the ideal UX design.

Two factors need to be ensured throughout the qualitative research process. They are:

  • Flexible iterations: In software development, we depend upon iterations that need to be flexible. In a similar way, qualitative research needs to be able to change directions quickly based on research insights. The researchers must also be given the same amount of flexibility in developing a hypothesis and finalizing a representative sample.

  • Generalizability: Getting a wide spectrum of perspectives and contexts can be tedious for researchers to analyze. Qualitative analysis can be carried out smoothly by using methods like naturalistic generalization, transferability, analytical generalizability, and intersectional generalizability. 

Analysis Of Insights From Ethnographic Research

Once the ethnographic study has been conducted and observations have been gathered, the next step is to plan how to conduct the analysis. This can be done by planning through the following steps:

1) The first step is to organize a cross-functional team with enough professional diversity to find the most fruitful insights. More minds will help in finding a variety of perspectives and contexts to aid the changes in product design.

2) As the research hypotheses emerge from the ethnographic study, the sample sets should be observed in iterations. Start with a handful of users first and then go on to bigger groups.

3) Make use of ethnographic notes and transcripts derived from observation sessions. Prepare an affinity diagram to draw conclusions.

4) Use post-its to present the insights on a whiteboard, look for patterns, and group the relevant ones together. Alternatively, you can use a free online whiteboard in case you don't have a physical one.

5) Some design insights are relevant to a product at a particular stage, while not so relevant at other stages. You need to prioritize these insights accordingly in your analysis. Focus on the top-tier insights.

6)Use the insights to iterate the UX design, go back to the drawing board with more insights and repeat the process as many times as required.

Benefits Of Ethnographic Research

Applying ethnographic research for arriving upon efficient and universally accepted UX design has some of the following advantages:

  • Product design has an integral social aspect and ethnographic research helps researchers tap into it. This helps understand how people interact with the product in their natural environment.
  • Researchers get to observe the natural behavior patterns of their potential users. Users are usually satisfied with the product if it integrates smoothly with their everyday life.
  • While surveys and interviews offer a one-time look into users' behavior, this type of research gives repeated exposure to it. In the long run, this can help software producers gain a large customer base.
  • Observing people's cues while operating a product or application gives valuable insights into the little intricacies that make a UX design succeed.

Potential Challenges Of Ethnographic Research

While ethnography is an important driving factor for successfully implementing UX design changes, it has its limitations. Some of the following challenges hold back its full potential:

  • An inevitable issue associated with people being observed for a study is observational bias. This means that these people behave differently if they know they are being studied which may skew the inferences from the study.
  • Small sample sizes in this type of research lead to design preferences that are too specific. The final UX design may not be universally accepted.
  • In ethnography, the hypothesis is formulated as the research progresses. In a lean environment, not having a hypothesis at the beginning of product development is a major drawback. 
  • Merely collecting the data without understanding the feeling behind each user preference is not enough. Researchers are usually not comfortable communicating openly with the test subjects.

ALSO READ: UX Design Ruleboard: How to Design an Interactive Form for Users

Fulfill Your User's Needs With Good UX Design

Great UX design that emerges from thorough ethnographic research keeps users loyal to a brand or product. For consistent business success, it is important to know the customer's journey when using your product. Designers can draw valuable insights by knowing what these product interactions look like in the user's natural environment.

If practical and responsive UI/UX design is your priority and you wish to gain loyal customers, you can leverage the expertise of our team. The first step in your software product or service's success journey is booking a free consultation with the Daffodil team.

Topics: UI/UX

Allen Victor

Written by Allen Victor

Writes content around viral technologies and strives to make them accessible for the layman. Follow his simplistic thought pieces that focus on software solutions for industry-specific pressure points.

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