Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic Research


Observe people in their context for insights that lead to desireable solutions

Reading Time

7 mins

Activity time

1 hr - Multiple days

What is this for? Ethnography is a research method based on observing people in their natural environment rather than in a formal research setting. Mindset and core principles - See beyond our preconceptions and see patterns of behavior in a real world context, both rationally and intuitively. - Have a curious and empathetic mindset.


Short Cycle Development - Prep for "Learn" phase (17 min)

Step 1: Define your plans

  • Identify the issue or topic in general
  • Determine your objectives for learning
    • It's ok to be general when it's "exploratory"
    • AND/OR

    • You can also be very specific to address key knowledge gaps
  • Find the people to learn from, in their context.
    • Start simple with family, friends, and your network. People love to help.
    • Or, look to post an ad or recruit professionally.
    • *Only provide generic and high-level information to them prior

      Objectives - Ways to Learn - Who
      Objectives - Ways to Learn - Who

Step 2: Conduct Research

  • Preparing
    • If interviewing, outline a "Discussion Guide" (See Exploratory Research flow to help)
    • Have note-taking and image-collecting devices
    • Plan schedules to be early and hold time for post-debriefing
  • Determine interview responsibilities
    • 2-3 people to interview the participant is ideal
      • 1 "Interviewing" (n/a if only observing)
      • 1 Note-Taking
      • 1 Media (photo/video)
  • Conducting and capturing data
    • How to be in the field:
      • Withhold your judgement and knowledge. Have a beginners Mindset!
      • You're not there to confirm, but to learn. Ask non-leading questions to hear THEIR responses.
      • Be conversational and create a comfortable environment for sharing.
      • LISTEN! (you're there to hear them)
      • ABC-"Always Be Capturing". Observations are data. Wait to analyze separately.
      • Utilize all senses and signals. Record what's being said, emotional responses, physical behaviours, and contextual factors. Go beyond
Exploratory Research Flow
Exploratory Research Flow

Step 3: Analyze Findings

Note: This can be challenging! Analysis has no precise formula for success, but here are some principles to help make sense of data.
  • "Debrief" right after data collection, while it's fresh
    • Reflect on how you felt and the empathy gained
    • Bring together all data sources and observations
    • Highlight/share key data points
  • Look across research and be investigative
    • What patterns/themes are emerging?
    • What is surprising?
    • What didn't you hear (that's insightful data too!)
  • "Answer" your learning objectives and key questions
    • Review your initial plans

Try it now

In your next conversation or meeting, try this out!

Set a learning objective. Then...
LISTEN. Record what people say and do (not what you think about it).
Afterwards, look at the "data" you collected and analyze what it means to your efforts.
Share your brief "summary" with a colleague. Be sure to speak from a human-centered point of view.

Additional Resources

Recommended reading
Additional Resources
Related workshop activities
  • Journey/Experience Mapping
  • Empathy Mapping