How to Conduct Ethnography in Qualitative Research — Indeemo (2023)

The aim of ethnographic research is to generate rich insights into the lives, habits, experiences, and behaviours of those we seek to understand. The systematic descriptive nature of ethnography positions this long-standing methodology within the diverse ecosystem of qualitative research. So, what exactly is Ethnography?

In many ways, there is no ‘exact’ to this research methodology. When we design ethnographic research, we are eager to explore, discover, understand, and grow empathy. But Ethnography is defined by several key characteristics that researchers, practitioners, designers, innovators, and many more adopt to generate insights, formulate an understanding, and develop empathy.

How to Conduct Ethnography in Qualitative Research — Indeemo (1)

1. Peoples Natural Environment

Our goal is to see people’s behaviour on their terms, not ours.

(Source: Ken Anderson – Harvard Business Review, 2009)

Unlike other traditional qualitative research methods where participants may be required to attend experiments, interviews, or focus groups at a specific location, Ethnography aims to explore the lives of others in their natural environment. Social interactions, daily habits, morning rituals, and much more, are key to understanding how people experience a service, or naturally behave with a product. When conducting research in a controlled environment, the risk that participants will withhold their true feelings and opinions increases. By comparison, when a participant goes about their daily lives, the intrusive nature of a controlled study is virtually omitted and it is here that we generate a closer version of the true experiences and behaviours of those we are observing.

(Video) Indeemo Mobile Ethnography and Online Qualitative Research

2. In the Field

When studying natural use of the product, the goal is to minimize interference from the study in order to understand behaviour or attitudes as close to reality as possible.

(Source: Nielson Norman Group – 2014)

Complimenting the aim of establishing the research in the natural environment, the researcher typically immerses themselves in the lives and culture of others. Traditionally, the distant presence of the researcher was (and in some ways continues to be) an integral, yet sensitive characteristic of ethnographic designs. Like any human-centric research, there is always the possibility of bias. In the case of ethnography, observation biases can arise. A product user may subconsciously adjust their use habits for example. As researchers, designers, and innovators, our aim is to reach the closest version of the truth. The evolving landscape we live in today helps minimise observation biases. With the use of digital, online, and mobile ethnography platforms, the customer is empowered. This sense of empowerment enables the participant to document and describe their true feelings and opinions that may not be uncovered through an one-to-one interview technique.

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3. Everything in Context

When it comes to discovering unmet customer needs and innovation opportunities, there’s no substitute for in-the-moment, in-context observation for making meaning out of the complex weave of emotion and rationality that drives consumer behaviour.

(Source: Julie Wittes Schlacks – Harvard Business Review, 2015)

Just like data holds different meaning and value when it is relative, the same can be said for our understanding of our customers, product or service users, and patients. Context is directly associated with the natural environment customers use and experience products. Contextual inquiries often go hand-in-hand during the discovery phase of UX research and design. When we observe and capture the who, what, where, when, why and how of our users/customers we then begin to understand. As a result of this contextual understanding, we then begin to develop empathy. Context is everything.

4. Perspective

If you design from your own perspective, based on your own life experience, you will likely create a really super great product that’s perfectly suited to your own needs...which could have nothing to do with the life of the user.

(Video) What is Mobile Ethnography? Indeemo


Gaining deep and rich insights should always come from the perspective of those whose lives we are eager to understand and empathise with. Insights derived directly from the user enables researchers to achieve the closest version of the truth and realistic experiences. Again, we must always consider the possibility that those being observed may change their behaviours, resulting in observational bias. But techniques such as diary studies through the application of mobile ethnography platforms for experience research can reduce these biases often seen in traditional ethnography because the researcher is not physically present.

5. Describe & Interpret

Ethnography relies on the researcher to interpret meanings and develop greater understanding.


Whether your research focus is user experience, customer journeys, healthcare, or academic, an ethnographic methodology requires you to describe and interpret the experiences and behaviours of others. This is essential. Traditionally, field notes would be taken by the ethnographer. After days, weeks, or even months of note taking, the next steps involved a synthesised description of the real-world rituals encountered. Yes, we must accept that in-the-field note taking can result in some biases, but by empowering people to describe their own experiences, we can increase the validity of our exploration into their lives. Aligning with the principles of autoethnography, the power of smartphones and mobile technology can be harnessed to capture the detailed and meaningful moments in people's lives. Experiences and behaviours described directly by the user of a product through a video diary can effectively reduce biases resulting from traditional ethnographic techniques, such as direct observations. In addition, a traditional approach to ethnographic research involves hand-written note taking, which can be time consuming for the observer, but can also result in key actionable insights being left out of the transcript. Designing an ethnographic methodology through the use of mobile mobile technology can distinctly increase the reliability of the data being obtained because those being observed are directly providing the information through techniques facilitated by the digital component, such as video diaries. In order to describe and interpret what is being observed, time must be dedicated to this process. A digital approach to ethnography can speed up this process. Instant access to people's experiences can be quickly interpreted by leveraging on technologies that afford effective analysis. Automated keyword analytics and journey mapping are functionalities that enhance the research process.

6. Rich Unknowns

When you see how customers interact with your product, you can identify problem areas that you may have overlooked.


There are two primary differences between quantitative and qualitative research. Any research adopting a quantitative methodology will have one or many hypotheses that need to be tested. Measurements built into a consumer questionnaire will help prove or disprove a hypothesis. The design of a qualitative research methodology on the other hand seeks out to discover those things we do not know about.

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In UX, a team of researchers may conduct a discovery method research. Answers to general and open ended questions will be sought after, and a valuable technique to discover the unknowns is diary studies. In academia, a researcher may design an explorative study to identify themes and patterns that occur in people’s lives. More broadly, it is important to know that in your design of an ethnographic research method, you should be open and explore.

The qualitative nature of ethnography will uncover insights that you would not have anticipated. This is critical to organisations and brands that seek to understand how customers experience a new product or service. For example, user experience design is and should be directly informed by the user research that has been conducted. Designing qualitative research to inform the design process, such as ethnography, enables the UX researcher to uncover the unknown user behaviours and interactions with a new product or feature. The richness of data obtained by empowering potential users to record and narrate their experiences and behaviours in the moment, can result in core insights that may not have been anticipated at the outset of the discovery phase of the innovation journey.

(Video) What are the benefits of Mobile Ethnography? Indeemo


In summary, ethnography has served many diverse industries and researchers with tools and techniques to further our understanding of human-centred research. Whether your team is at the discovery phase of UX design for a new commercially viable brand, or you are looking to generate a detailed map of a patient's journey, an ethnographic design can give you rich insights into experiences and behaviours. In context and in the moment qualitative data are core attributes of ethnography that can be leveraged all through innovation and design. Moving forward with experienced-based research, the techniques applied to ethnography are now being adopted to further empower participants through mobile. Mobile ethnography is increasingly being adopted by teams and brands as a seamless reporting tool with journey mapping capabilities and visual interactive dashboards intertwined, resulting in a better understanding of the customer, and the development of empathy of those that are central to the success of a product and/or service.

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