Using ethnography to improve user experience

Photo of people buying books

How can you ensure your service stands out from its competitors in the marketplace as the one people want to use?

One way is to uncover how your users interact with you and find new ways to support their behaviours'.

Usability research can show you how successfully users engage with your website and how you can improve it to better fit user needs, but ethnographic research can tell you about the circumstances users go through before they interact with you online, and tell you about user's needs that you weren't aware of.

Understanding user motivations is the key to developing your website into a service that people actively want to use.

What is ethnography?

Ethnography is a type of social research that’s conducted ‘in the field’ and descends from anthropology. Ethnographers observe, participate and interview groups of people in their natural environments and devise theories based on analysis of their observations and experiences. This contrasts with other forms of research that generally set out to prove or disprove a theory.

An ‘ethnography’ is a written document that results from ethnographic research having taken place. The written element is an important aspect of this type of research as it combines the findings from the researchers' experiences, and their analysis of the phenomena they have investigated.

Ethnographies cannot produce universal (scientific) laws, instead they produce ethnographies particular to the groups of people and the location they are based in. These might differ in focus to the original intention of the study, as unexpected findings often come to light through the analysis process.

How does this help online businesses?

The activities users undertake online only make up part of their user journey. Many tasks associated with buying a product online take place offline in the build up to the purchase. Understanding what these offline activities are, and supporting them online is one way ethnography can illuminate otherwise unknown aspects of user journeys.

Understanding how to adapt your online service to meet the needs of your users can increase the volume and quality of interactions they have with your company. This increase in positive interactions builds a better relationship with your users and makes them more likely to want to use your services again and again.

Example car purchase customer journey

Ethnography and business environments

Ethnography, in a business context does not work in the same way as in its academic format. To start with, time constraints and budgets are likely to limit the scope of the research. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

We like to combine several data collection techniques to ensure that time and budget constraints are minimised. We combine techniques to collect a variety of data that can be compared in a process known as triangulation (see diagram below). These techniques include participant observation, interviews, diary studies and participant scrapbooks. The data produced from these may be further investigated by analysing them alongside usability testing, quantitative surveys and website traffic analysis (Google Analytics, ClickTale etc).

The potential for professional bias to leak into the data gathering and analysis is a problem all research companies need to address when they are planning research methodologies. This is a complex issue I cannot explore within a single blog post, as the debate could fill a book. Instead, I will explain how we have tried to work with this issue and continually aim to modify and develop our practices.

Reducing effects of researcher bias

We acknowledge that researcher bias does exist, and we work to explore the bias, understand what it is, and determine if it is true or false. By actively questioning any bias that is apparent in our research we can minimise any distortion it might otherwise have on our results, and use it as a means to generate interesting lines of investigation.

Due to the shorter time frames involved in business ethnography, it is useful to maximise researcher-participant compatibility so that relationships can be established quickly and participants are made to feel more comfortable with the situation, and so, more able to share their stories and experiences openly. Choosing an appropriate researcher for the situation also helps to reduce bias as they will be better able to engage participants and collect more interesting data.

Ethnographic analysis and outcomes

The large volume of data collected during ethnographic research provides a wealth of analysis to take place. The structure of the analysis depends on the size of the project and the time constraints clients have. Broadly, we use an analysis method that is influenced by academic practice but adapted for a business environment.

We practice analysis throughout the data collection process, not just at the end. This enables us to react to events and adapt - ensuring that we do not miss opportunities to gain insights into user behaviour. Grounded theorizing inspires this technique. During the data collection and on-going analysis we feed back information to clients so they can be involved and help guide the direction the research goes in when interesting data is unearthed.

Diagram showing three different research techniques being linked through analysis

When planning an ethnographic project we aim to include multiple research methods to allow us to conduct a form of triangulation on the data – comparing results from multiple methods helps to identify themes and anomalies that could otherwise not be seen when using only one data collection method and helps calculate a full range of behaviours that improve reliability by eliminating judgemental bias.

Using ethnographic research

Example customer journey for car purchase

Gathering lots of rich data about participants lifestyles and attitudes helps us to build a picture of users that we could not gain through other methods, and goes beyond simple demographics. This knowledge provides us with a deep understanding of the circumstances users approach a website with.

For instance, a user looking to buy a new car may spend time looking in dealerships, talking to friends and family and reading magazines, as well as investigating websites. Seeing this behaviour take place, and asking why they are doing things provides insight into both their information gathering purposes as well as their decision making process.

This broader understanding of users and the tasks they want to complete help us to make informed design recommendations that can increase the contact brands have with their customers.

Improving user experience

Gaining a deeper understanding of users motivations and the context in which they undertake their user journeys helps us to identify areas of a website which are unsuited to the conditions users are in.

When we have identified these areas, we can begin to design solutions that will improve the user experience and overall usability of the site. Having rich experience of participants’ lifestyles and needs helps us to effectively match brand and customer needs together, creating a product that performs well for both parties.

I hope this post has helped you see how ethnography can be used to benefit online business and improve user experience. If you are interested in finding out more about ethnography, I would recommend Hammersley and Atkinson's 'Ethnography: principals in practice' which provides an excellent overview of the subject.

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Bonny is an esteemed former member of the cxpartners team. Her articles are still here to enrich us.