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The Value of Ethnographic Research and Contextual Inquiry

October 19, 2020

UX design begins with UX research. Studying the contexts in which people experience a product or application is pivotal in developing an understanding of how they engage with it, as well as to understanding the many, varied factors that lead them to the moment of engagement.

Ethnographic research is the professional practice of stepping outside of one’s own bubble and into someone else’s reality. Contextual inquiry is a method of practicing being present with users. UX professionals use these methods to understand users and the significance and complexity of their contexts, enabling designers to create nuanced experiences that users not only want, but desperately need.

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While you can also perform domain research, which enables you to gain some idea of the general landscape in which a business operates, conducting user interviews with potential or actual target users is essential because it provides the opportunity for you to initiate a dialogue with users, as well as ask follow-up questions that delve deeper into the whys behind people’s actions and ideas.

In this article, I’ll explain the value that both contextual inquiry and ethnographic research provide and discuss why these practices are a crucial, even indispensable part of UX research and design.

Walking in Another Person’s Shoes

Now, let me take you on a journey: Imagine that you can walk in another person’s shoes. As you slide the sole of each of your feet into those shoes, you’ll actually begin to feel what it is like to be the person whose shoes you now are wearing. Go outside, out into public. Go do what that person does. What does it feel like to buy a coffee when others perceive you as being this other person? What are you thinking about as you walk down the block? Take notice of the way the strangers who are passing by look at you in your new shoes. What does it feel like for them to see you in this new way?

There is a paradox in this imaginary situation: Trying to imagine holistically what it is like to be another person while also viewing this experience as imaginary is impossible. To actually understand what it’s like to live another’s experience, you must leave your own experience at the door. Ridding yourself of your carefully constructed ego and identity—which often become one—is no small feat. While some people believe that it is possible to rid ourselves of our ego, I am not convinced. Recognizing the ego and observing how it operates—sure. But ridding ourselves of our ego? That seems counterproductive to being able to function in society. So the paradox remains:

How can I possibly understand what it is like to be you, right now, and know all of your story that has led you to this moment while still also carrying my own identity?

Another person is not holding my experience for me. So, if I am trying to understand life from this other person’s point of view, there is a glitch in the process.

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The Context of Story

What does this have to do with contextual inquiry? Quite a bit, in the sense that we use this method of research to understand the context in which someone interacts with a product or application. Context, in this case, could be synonymous with story. The who, what, where, when, why, and how, which all add up to create the story of the persons’ interaction with the product. The more we, as UX professionals, are able to empathize and absorb a person’s whole experience, the better we can design products that serve the person.

Let’s look at an example to which we can all relate: having a disagreement with a friend. Your friend might get upset with you for behaving in a certain way with which he disagrees. You want to understand why he is upset, but cannot fully wrap your head around it because you are invested in a particular way of thinking—your side of the disagreement. How is it possible for you to understand your friend? You must remove yourself from the situation emotionally—which you could do after great practice, but this ability is most definitely not in most of our hard-wiring. This is why therapy can be so helpful. A third party, who is detached from both you and your friend—and could, therefore, see all sides’ positions from a neutral standpoint—could be invaluable. If I can remove my own identity and story from the situation and choose to view my friend’s experience holistically, I might be able to gain a vantage point from which I can see what it’s like to be friends with me.

This example is complicated because having friendships—or any relationships—can be equivalent to shining a magnifying glass on our own personality, which most of us are not prepared to handle. However, as UX researchers, it is our task to practice what our close relationships most closely emulate: seeing other people as themselves, separate from ourselves.

Contextual Inquiry and Ethnographic Research

Contextual inquiry and ethnographic research are methods of bearing witness. When you embark on a user-research study, it is imperative that you leave your biases, your own story, and your identity at the door. You must bear witness to the way a person interacts with a product or application. Your responsibility is to ask probing questions to determine the whys behind the user’s actions, without assuming that you know anything about the user. The more room you leave for the unknown, the more you can learn.

As a UX designer and researcher, I have the responsibility to understand how people interact with products or applications and the situations in which they do so, as well as the circumstances in which they are rooted as individuals.

This is where contextual inquiry bleeds into ethnographic research. Contextual inquiry provides an initial opportunity to understand how a user interacts with a product or application and can allude to the why. However, it takes an ethnographic framework to deepen your understanding of the individual you’re studying. To take a thorough and holistic approach, you really need both research methods to fully understand the complete story.

For example, I could interview a patient who is filling out an intake form in a doctor’s office and inquire about how she is going about it. But fully understanding that person would require ethnography. I would need to follow that person through her days for months and witness how she navigates the world. I would also learn how the world sees and perceives her.

The Value of UX Research

There are situations in which these UX methods are more applicable and also more necessary. It seems that many see UX research as having a high cost without believing it would provide a valuable return on investment. I would argue that the value of UX research is paramount because the overall success of our products and applications is entirely contingent on the intricate experiences of the people who use them. If a product or application is targeting a specific audience—as is usual—it can be tremendously helpful for a product team to gain a thorough understanding of that audience, which lets them better evaluate what sort of product these people need and how they might go about using it.

Whether you’re putting on your own shoes as you walk into your day or are getting paid to imagine yourself taking a stroll in someone else’s shoes, you must constantly be ready step outside of your bubble—even if only for a glimpse of a moment or perhaps viewing someone from above. To do so, you must be able to recognize that the bubble even is a bubble You must beg this question and consider its importance: Who are you—beyond that to which I can relate?

People’s entire life stories create the needs for which we design solutions. The more we can leave room for growth and understanding, the more potential our innovations can hold. If your goal is to conduct thorough UX research, the methods of contextual inquiry and ethnography ought to take precedence. These methods provide invaluable ways of understanding the audiences for which we, as designers, create. 

Independent UX Researcher and Designer

Hudson, New York, USA

Lylo TrottaLylo is an avid writer and researcher who studies product user experiences to achieve designs that meet the needs of the people who use them. He studied UX research and design at the Flatiron School.  Read More

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