Ethnography in UX: Easily Misunderstood

Ethnography involves a lot more work than user experience design, because it involves deeper immersion, more personal commitment, a greater willingness to learn from one’s own observational failures, and the ability to work across cultural boundaries.

This is only a small part of what user experience design attempts to accomplish, and depending on how you apply ethnographic methods in UXD, it can add as much value to a design as it can damage it.

Here’s an ethnographer’s take on how usability tests (usually done after or during implementation/prototyping) and focus groups (typically done during the research phase) may not be of *any* benefit to a user if the cultural context has been completely misunderstood.

“While usability tests and focus groups are useful for specific phases of app development, they aren’t as useful for understanding cultural frameworks and practices because by the time an app is being tested, it already has accumulated so many cultural assumptions along the way in the design process that users are asked to test something that functions in the programmer’s world, not the user’s world.”

– Tricia Wang, “My Suggestions for Making Google’s Services More Relevant for Non-Elite Chinese Users

While working on my MSc dissertation with Abigail Sellen from Microsoft Research’s Socio-Digital Lab and Jennifer Rode, my previous supervisor from UCL, I learnt how quickly and easily it was to misunderstand the work of ethnography and anthropology. These fields have had a much longer history than the field of user experience has, and yet – they’ve become instantly popular because of UX, and its terms can often be misinterpreted and misused.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the ethnography or anthropology, but having read some classic ethnographic literature (e.g. Clifford Geertz), it’s clear that there’s a lot more going on compared to something like Holtzblatt and Beyer’s “Contextual Design”, though both of the authors have fairly strong academic affiliations.

Designers and UX practitioners need to read beyond commercially popular business and design books if they really want to get at the heart of how to understand cultures, humanity, and people. The fields of ethnography and anthropolgy tend to be more academic and research-focused, and there can be complications over viewpoints between different schools of thought in the related fields – thus it takes time to really go through the literature, but that’s the cost you pay in order to re-skill oneself in the art of understanding people.

(Update: do read Paul Dourish’s 2006 CHI paper, “Implications for Design“, which presents a more constructive argument about ethnography and its use in the design of interactive systems)

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