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How ethnography can help improve UX

Author's avatar By Robert Jones 19 Apr, 2018
Essential Essential topic

Short ethnography studies can help to create personas and improve your website user experience and usability

Anyone who reads my Smart Insights blog posts will probably know by now that I try to achieve two things:

  • Show marketers that research isn't too difficult, time-consuming or expensive (ok that's actually three things there)
  • Show marketers the benefit of research and why it's worth the effort

The next method I want to talk to you about is a particularly time-consuming type of research: ethnography, which are long-term observational type studies, however, I also believe that a simple short-term ethnography study can also yield fantastic benefits for user research and building personas which I recommend contain these features:

Ethnography doesn't need to be time-consuming and there are ways of using this research method on a short-term basis to help increase your conversions and focus your marketing by helping you to understand your audience.

What is ethnography?

Ethnography is the process is observing users to understand their behaviour, culture, needs, challenges, desires and developing a product or service based on this depth-insight. Getting the right person to observe is key and being as involved with them or interrupting them is also very important. Ethnographers observe, nothing more. They interpret behaviour and can use this insight to improve a product or service. It's important not to be tempted to ask questions, but purely to listen and watch. Ethnography studies usually involve various research methods such as observation, interviews, surveys and could also include diary studies, though diary keeping may not be required if you're observing and this alone could be a separate study, along with interviews. Diary studies usually eliminate the need for meeting with a participant.

What can I used it for?

Ethnography can help with understanding users to create personas and assist in the persona research. It's all about observing your customer in their natural environment, for example observing shoppers in a grocery shop of their choice. It can be used to help design websites, services and products to meet customer needs and provides a deep understanding compared to conducting surveys on their own.

Short ethnography studies you can do

A great use of ethnography research is when creating personas, personas are best created with depth information and ideally multiple research methods, such as depth-interviews, ethnography and using the data you have in your database.

Ethnography also helps with understanding how your customers can use your product. If you're a B2B product that supports marketing teams, you could observe marketing teams in their business as usual tasks and in their marketing team meetings. You can use this insight to understand how your service can help them, how it would fit into their daily activities, the challenges it can help with and the benefits you need to express to prospects to encourage them to purchase.

How to approach ethnography

The simple way of doing ethnography is to spend time with your customers, have a list of things you want to understand and the scenarios you need to observe them in. For example, if you're an online retailer of men's clothes and you want to understand what encourages gym goers and fitness fanatics to a certain brand, as well as understand what inspires them, you could watch them having a conversation with friends, observe them in the gym and observe them research online for gym clothes and gym products.

This allows you to understand the who inspires them (e.g. is it what other people wear in the gym?) before they buy fitness related clothes and if social media influencers are actually influencing them?

The research can help you create aspects of your marketing strategy if you're planning to launch a fitness range - this research would help you reach the target audience, which is the one you observed.

Ideally, all ethnography studies would include multiple aspects including observation, interviews, surveys and even diaries to fully understand your target audience.

As I have previously mentioned, ethnography research is helpful for producing personas for your business. Spending time with customers, taking notes and recording conversations (all with consent) can provide insights.

Ethnography also works really well in terms of watching people use something and use competitors, a kind of mid-way between moderated usability tests and remote usability tests. You can observe but in their own home or office, rather than in a meeting room in your office.


As with all research methods, there are advantages and disadvantages and a clear big advantage of ethnography would be the depth of information you get. Ethnography is also all about understanding a customer in their natural environment, a focus group or usability lab is not natural.


The amount of time required, even on short studies, is still a lot of time out of marketers or researchers day, week or month. Such studies mean that participants may not act normal or natural during short periods of time and therefore observing participants for longer periods is seen as most useful. However, using ethnography to observe in a few meetings if you're a B2B product or spending several hours or days spending time with customers still helps with the understanding of your customer. It is however quite difficult to draw conclusions which is why ethnography should be used as part of a mixed method study. It's also sometimes difficult to fully understand why a customer or participant has done something, for example, if they are researching a product in a certain way but you may not fully know why. Observing does give you an opportunity to follow up, especially when it's done with surveys and interviews on top. By taking lengthy recordings and lots of notes also means that you have a lot of research to sift through, this is where various colleagues who are all also trying to understand your customers, or a researcher or research agency could help.

Should I use a researcher?

We do recommend using trained researchers and research agencies, ideally those with are Market Research Society (MRS) members, however, I also fully believe that as long as you follow guidance, published MRS guidelines on conducting research that ethnography can be used to get closer to customers for any level of a marketer. Ideally, junior execs and CEO's alike should be getting closer to customers and I am an advocate of using both trained and experienced guidance to design studies and carry out research, as well as doing your own.

Ethnography may have either sounded difficult or time-consuming before you read this article, but by using some concepts involved in ethnography and taking some time for it rather than a lot of time for it, you can use it to your advantage.

Author's avatar

By Robert Jones

Robert Jones is a specialist in CRO, UX Research, insight and digital Marketing. He is CRO Analyst at Enjoy Digital. He has a Psychology Masters of Research, has run large digital marketing campaigns to build research panels and worked in insight roles for Vision Critical, ASDA and WhatUsersDo. He also managed all of Smart Insights member resources and published several guides including "How to conduct Persona Research" as well as contributing over 100 blog posts to the Smart Insights blog. When he isn’t working on marketing campaigns he is most likely eating authentic Italian food or planning his next short trip. You can connect with Robert on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.

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Consumer researchPersonas

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