Some of the mess from the study

Ethnography and Field observations are both research methods that helps the researcher to see how people act in the wild.

There are many different types of ethnography, such as diary studies and contextual inquiries, but for this section we will be focusing on observations(hence the title of the page.)

This method is a user research method, since you are studying the user to learn more about them. The context you might use this method in is anytime you want to get a in depth look at a culture or a part of a culture to build ideas off of.

Description of the Method

Basic description

"Design ethnography approximates the immersion methods of traditional ethnography, to
deeply experience and understand the user’s world for design empathy and insight"
- Martin and Hanington, Universal Methods of design

True Ethnography is a very very long process, where the researcher tries there best to immerse themselves into an culture so they can understand them better and see it first hand. 

On of the most important things about Ethnography is getting the people you are studying to help you. This can be very difficult, due to the fact that people tend to "act" when they think they are being watched. For instance, they might do what they think you want them to do or try to hide things they do. Its like the movie we saw, with the guy up on the high chair, the guy he was watching felt weird around him, and it took him a long time to warm up to him. Colin from the studio is another good example of ethnography, since he watched us in the studio all of last semester when he was in there. 

Because of this, you have to really immerse yourself into the culture, which is why traditional ethnography takes so long. Because of this, designers often shorten this, only sampling bits of the culture, through diary studies, contextual inquiries, observational studies, etc.

The big thing about observations is you can understand how your subjects really do things and notice habits the culture does that even them themselves do not know they are doing. Sometimes while just interviewing them they forget things, remember them wrong, or straight up fabricate the truth a bit if its embarrassing or weird, and observations solve many of these problems.

Actually Doing the method

First thing when doing this method is finding a place to do it, and that should be based of what you are trying to find out. This part can be pretty hard, since you have to find a group that is willing to go along with everything you want to do.

Once you set up a place and time, make sure to do a run through of everything, just to make sure everything will go smoothly during the observations. Check batteries, run through the script, get all materials such as notebooks and pens ready, etc. 

When observing your subjects, every observer there should have a notebook to take notes. You could as well have a recorder or video camera to take down information that you do not pick up with your notebook. Because of this, it is good to right down times next too stuff you put down in the notebook, so you can match it up to times on the recorder or video camera footage. It is also good to note the surrounding areas around where you are observing, and doing this by making a small overview map of the area. 

Right after a session, it is good to go over at least somewhat of what just happened, while its still fresh in your head. Same goes with transcriptions, its good to get those done ASAP, so you can add in your own thoughts while you transcribe. 

Positives and negatives


  • Learn detailed parts of there everyday lives
  • See first hand how people do things
  • Great for learning more about a certain type of culture
  • Possibly see behaviors about the subjects that even they do notice they do.
  • Allows you to see people act in the wild.


  • People can and most likely will preform for you as you watch them
  • Takes a lot of time to get done, so very hard to do on short term projects.
  • Have to have subjects willing to give up a lot of time in order to help you.
  • May come up with next to nothing in the end, and with a method it adds up to a lot of time wasted.

Tips and Tricks

  • Try not to lead the person your talking too or observing into doing something or saying something.
  • Try to get to know the person on a more personal level if possible, so they start to feel more comfortable around you. You don't want to be the guy in the high seat, looking down at the person your watching, completely removed from the situation.
  • Make sure to note down body language, or thoughts that pop into your mind during the observation. 
  • Its always good to interview your subjects to get more information.
  • Interview as many of the people in that culture as possible, to get different angles on different situations. Some people may think of things completely different then another. 
  • Make sure to take note things that are not there as well as things that are, sometimes the things you expect to be somewhere and are not are the most interesting. 
  • In interviews after observations, its good to run some of the things you saw back at the subjects, so they can either elaborate on it or conform your findings.

Project we used it for


More of the mess from the project

ur ethnography was actually probably a lot shorter then most should be, but we only had a week to get everything done, so we had to rush. We ended up doing it on clutter, and went to a house filled with 4 college students, 3 of which were fraternity brothers, to analyze it. We ended up going 2 different times within two days, and got to interview 3 out of the 4 of them. We also got two tours of the house from two different people, in order to get different opinions out on different things.

Through this we got a lot of really interesting information, especially on the differences in mindsets between roommates. We also learned that if possible, get everyone for an interview. We missed out on the fourth roommate while doing this, and he is just kind of a mystery to us. All we know about him is what other people say, and what we saw in his room.

We analyzed the data for this one later on in the Elito method part, but for this one the main goal was to get the information and transcribe said information. To do this, we looked through the video and audio a few times, and then transcribed 7 minutes of audio each. I ended up doing close to double, since I realized it probably would be more useful to get another part of audio as well. In this transcription, I also put down thoughts I was thinking at the time as well as thoughts I think now. Above the transcription, I put down the landscape map, which is scene too the side. This was to get a better feel for the place afterwards.

Hughes's Corner

I think ethnography as a whole is really useful, and very needed in most research. It really helps you understand what you are looking at. Other than that I really don't have much to see, just that its a good method and I may use it in the future if I have to do research like this.

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