Ethnography: Why It’s a Process and Not a Specific Method

Ethnography: a research process that holistically examines a cultural phenomenon.

Recently, I had a conversation with a senior user experience researcher at a tech company in the Bay Area. We discussed my research experience and how my anthropological background has influenced my work outside academia. This researcher then recounted the work she has done. Based on the kinds of projects she has completed, she considered herself an expert in conducting usability tests. After establishing this point, she then casually mentioned how although I’ve conducted many ethnographic studies, it is simply not valuable in the the tech world because of its lengthy process. I thought she was joking, so I laughed. However, she was serious. So, I replied that usability test is just a few of the many methods used in an ethnographic study.

Ethnography is not a specific method. It is a process; it is a process of understanding a particular cultural phenomenon through various methods such as participant observation, usability tests, eye tracking studies, focus groups, interviews, and more. By using various techniques, the research aims to holistically produce an in-depth and detailed description of the cultural phenomenon.

As outsiders attempting to gain an insider’s perspective in the research community, anthropologists often go into a community without prior exposure to it and conduct participant observation. Participant observation entails understanding cultural processes and practices through intense involvement with the research community. To gain an understanding of their lives and their cultural practices, anthropologists have to go in with a clean slate of mind, and as part of their fieldwork, they have to ask the community members – the experts – how they accomplish tasks that may be as simple as getting water. A usability test, a test that asks users to carry out a task, is a modified method of traditional participant observation. Usability tests are usually conducted in a lab environment. Rather than having a participants complete a task in a highly controlled environment, anthropologists often conduct usability studies in situ, which provides a richer set of data due to the fact that the task is situated within the context in which it would normally be performed. Usability studies and participant observation are what anthropologists do on a daily basis in their research community as they immerse themselves within the community and attempt to gain the insider’s perspective. Whether it is exploring the pottery shaping process of the indigenous peoples of the Americas or examining how residents of New York use a car service application on their phones, documenting and analyzing the participants’ thought processes and actions are part of the ethnographic process.

After providing her with my abbreviated explanation, the researcher still claimed ethnography is something that’s not feasible in the tech world when in fact she uses an ethnographic tool on a daily basis to inform the design of her company’s website.

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