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Ethnographic research: What is it and how to make use of it?

By AMI Blogger | September 15, 2022

Before we dive into this topic, let us first try and understand what exactly ethnographic research is?

What is Ethnographic research?

Ethnographic research is a qualitative one that involves the research entity to interact with the participant entity in their authentic environment.

It is also useful to note that ethnography is a study by itself and is a sub division of anthropology and has been in use and service in various other industries since time immemorial, many researchers are specifically trained to execute just this manner of research.

Ethnography allows a designer or any problem solver for that matter to gauge and analyze relevant details and variables on a much more deeper level. Understood and used right it could contribute to superior usability, user- centred design, service design, and audience satisfaction (just to name a few)

More often than not, the goal behind conducting an ethnographic research is to truly understand the subject or problem in a substantial way. It is believed (and proven)  that doing so would lead the designer to come up with a better and more effective solution to the problem at hand.

The most relevant kind of ethnography in the world of business is corporate ethnography. It is extremely pivotal in understanding customers and their needs in a way the product can truly serve them. Ethnographic research contributes heavily to the strategy and long range plans put in place by the company.

One major distinction and advantage this ethnographic research has over their traditional counterparts is while the latter indulges in asking highly specific, practical, and logical questions the former involves observation and interaction with the subjects over a short  period of time (two to three days) in a non directed and relatively more casual way. This enables them to truly cop a feel and arrive at significantly more concrete conclusions. After all the aim is to understand people of their terms and authentically, which is made possible by ethnographic research.

It is also useful to note that high tech companies usually employ corporate ethnographic researchers and believe them to be extremely advantageous to the process of releasing beloved products.

Although this is a concept that is yet to gain momentum there is no denying the merit in it.

Types of ethnographic research:

There are obviously many different sub categories of this but the most prominent ones are, business, educational, and medical. This just goes on to show just how multidimensional, adaptive, as well as effective this method really is.

Methods of ethnographic research:

Without getting into too much detail it is important to note that  there are multiple methods to execute this, five of them more prominent than the others, they are:

Live and work

Participant observation

Archival research



Advantages of employing ethnographic research:

One of the biggest advantages of choosing to employ this method is that it usually uncovers an issue or problem that wasn’t previously anticipated. While conducting other types of surveys and analysis that involves interacting with subjects the prescribed direction of the interaction, although leading to relevant answers, fails completely to accurately gauge the authentic and unanticipated problems that only materialize during an unorchestrated interaction.

Moreover, it is obvious that this leads to a more detailed and trusted representation of the user’s experience, beliefs, as well as expectations. Due to the extremely subjective nature of the entire process the data collected would be far more potent and resourceful than the data collected from any other method.

Disadvantages of employing ethnographic research:

One of the biggest disadvantages of this method that cannot be ignored is the amount of time it takes to be executed. It is true that not all ethnographic researches are time consuming but the amount of time invested into the process is directly proportional to the quality of the data collected in the process.

Another disadvantage is that sometimes subjects might project inauthentic versions of themselves, thus defeating the purpose of the whole process, this is known to happen mostly in the short term studies rather than the long term studies. Longer studies usually see more authentic results because the subjects learn to trust and get accustomed to the tester over a considerable amount of time.

Yet another point of concern with this is that the test subjects chosen must represent their overarching larger audience and making the wrong choice at this stage would lead to a great deal of unnecessary wastage of resources. The choices for subjects as well as researchers is an extremely crucial one that can make or break the project, this obviously leaves the project in a very precarious position and increases the risk factors associated with it considerably and significantly.

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