Prof R K Gupta
BE (Hons), MBA, FIE
Aravali Institute of Management
E-mail : /


"Why do you want to film me when you can just ask me"

One of the powerful technique that has emerged fast and successfully used by companies such as Intel Corporation (1999, in 5 west European nations 45 households were covered non random, in small, big towns, and metros), is Ethnography, the use in social sciences and business of anthropology in understanding consumer behavior, living and watching very closely, the way consumers live, think and use their environment. It is like studying the culture for purpose of developing products and designing marketing tools. It is essentially participant observation. The research often continues for a longer period of say 2 to 6 years or even more, for good results.
Why should user interface designers be concerned with the user culture?  There are several reasons why ethnography is of vital importance to good interface design, including these:

* An ethnographic study is a powerful assessment of users' needs :
A crucial goal of an ethnographic study is to gain the capacity to view a system through the eyes of the user.  This perspective is extremely useful in creating a user interface to fit the needs of the end-user.

* It uncovers the true nature of the system user's job :
A goal of an ethnographic study is to uncover all tasks and relationships that combine to form a user's job. It is often the case that a user performs tasks and communicates in ways that are outside of their official job description.

* The ethnographer can play the role of the end-user :
The high level of user understanding that an ethnographer can gain through his/her fieldwork can be a useful bonus.  For example, the ethnographer can act as the end-user in participatory design when "real" end-users are difficult to procure.

* The open-ended and unbiased nature of ethnography allows for discovery :
Other HCI research methods, such as task analysis and controlled experimentation, must formalize, categorize, and/or theorize how users interact with a system in order to yield quantitative results.  The unassuming nature of ethnography can often yield unexpected revelations about how a system is used.

Observing user activities provides an incredible quantity and richness of data. Using techniques and approaches derived from linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, journalists and documentary photographers, teams can be trained to observe the everyday lives of consumers at home, at play, at work, while shopping and on the go. This will reveal insights people are typically unable to express within focus groups, interviews or other traditional research method. Team members share experiences with users that build a broader understanding of user needs, emotions and aspirations. Innovation teams can then convert this information into new concepts that can be tested for appeal and effectiveness.

Four Stages :

The first stage is to capture and understand the full range of users' experiences.

The second is to apply analytical frameworks to the data to help model the relationships between the elements of those experiences.

The third stage is to create a powerful new generative model that outlines future experiences from the users' point of view. It should also include user-centered principles that will guide the team's decision making throughout the rest of the development process.

The fourth stage is to develop, refine and prioritize concepts, using the research data for guidance. 
User research should bring new information into your product development process and communicate that information in the most vivid and useful way possible.

When a researcher goes into the field, the situation is often complex because unlike controlled laboratory conditions, the variety is important and huge range of conditions make prediction of outcomes quite difficult.

The Four Basic Techniques that can be employed are >>

Photography, Videography, Interviews and taking Field notes.

There are many opportunities to combine these techniques into research approaches that meet both field requirements and project goals.

The best approach for any situation will emerge by balancing costs, ethics, available time; complexity of execution and degree of observer effects against project goals and needs. The need for developing a well indexed system for all the material and notes prepared during research cannot be over emphasized here.

Building on the approach of our discipline of cultural anthropology, Context ethnographers go into people's home, work and play environments. We listen to people's stories, watch what people do on a day-to-day basis, and turn what we discover into actionable ideas, innovations and applications. Context ethnography brings clients closer to the actual experience of their customers, and ultimately accomplishes our simple and concrete mission: To help people get better products and services. - From "Context" a research group

Such research brings out more deep knowledge about the cultural setting of the prospective consumers, their finer needs, the way they use space and technology, the product and functions they need in their day to day life, their beliefs and attitudes. The pay-offs in some studies have been quite encouraging. Conventional research just cant meet such a need.


Bernard, H.Russell. Research methods in Anthropology; 2nd ed. London. Sage publications 1994

Behavioral Research Methods in Environmental design. Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, 1975.

Robson, Colin (1993) real world research: A resource for social Scientists and Practitioner-Researchers, Blackwell Publishers. Oxford UK.

Ethnography: Principles in practice, Hammersley, M & P.Atkinson; 2nd ed. London:Routledge: 1995

Prof R K Gupta
BE (Hons), MBA, FIE
Aravali Institute of Management
E-mail : /

Source : E-mail

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