The Science of UX: Applying Ethnographic Principles to User Research

August 25, 2016 Kateryna Topol

In this mini series, we’re exploring transferable skills, rooted in anthropology, that can be leveraged in the design strategy process – highlighting skills and tools that can help streamline the research process and strengthen client work.

Prologue

As an Art Director and Designer, my academic background in anthropology may come as a surprise to some. I get it, what does the scientific study of human societies and cultures have to do with UX Research and Design? More than one might think.

To me, the relationship between design and anthropology is clear. As designers we spend a lot of time coming up with solutions that will move people to action. Good design consists not only of a seamless experience, but it also discreetly encourages specific behaviour in the user. In order to do this effectively, I tend to rely on my creative and anthropological skill sets as a package to better understand and engage the target audience.

In very simple terms, anthropology is the observation of people in their natural habitat with as little intrusion as possible. These observations, collected over months of fieldwork and research are compiled into an ethnography – an in-depth description of the everyday customs and practices of the people you have been observing.

The ethnography has to follow a simple set of rules and ethical considerations in order to achieve the most unbiased, clear results. These rules can be easily applied to user research; in fact, you might already be doing so.

Let’s dive in.

 

Chapter 1: The Rules of Engagement

Introduce your biases: We each approach a situation with our own set of experiences. An ethnographer (or strategist and designer) should be able to consider and state his or her biases and familiarity with the topic in order to understand how their particular lens might impact the study (or project).

When it comes to user research, your biases are mostly a good thing. Biases provide a familiarity with, and an understanding of the user group that helps you relate to them and propel the project forward. On rare occasions, your bias might negatively impact the task. In this case it should be stated immediately. Extreme lack of interest in the subject matter, for example, is a negative bias.  

Define core questions and goals: What are you trying to learn and achieve? What are the probing questions that could help you move towards achieving the larger goal?

For example, if your goal is to build the Best Clock Ever app your questions should not only consist of asking people what kind of clock they like or what other clocks they use. Your research should look at how they set their alarms, how they wake up, and how many times they hit snooze. Do people want to wake up to a certain song and if so how loud should it be? You can keep going deeper with considerations like where people put the said clock, how they reach it, and if there are other people sharing the bed with them.

Examine your assumptions: What are the existing assumptions made about the user group you are studying? What are your client’s assumptions about the project needs and the users? During the fieldwork your task is to validate or discredit the set assumptions. What typically happens is you discover things between the lines – ideas that were lost due to assumptions, because they didn’t fit, or were unknown.

Let’s look at a couple assumptions about the user group for The Best Clock Ever:

1)    The app needs to be mobilefirst

2)    An average person snoozes 3 times

3)    Alarms must be loud to be effective

Based on these assumptions, the app might be built to fit a list of needs that have not been validated. What if you learned that people don’t like to use their mobile alarm clock because it drains their battery? Or, that an average person snoozes twice but has multiple alarms set? You might also learn that people who sleep with a partner set their alarms more quietly and put the device under the bed while single people sleep with their phones under their pillow, using the loudest setting possible to make sure they hear it. The learning possibilities are limitless and exhilarating!

Stay tuned for Chapter 2, coming soon!

About the Author

Kateryna Topol

As a Senior Art Director, Kateryna guides the design department in creating intuitive and attractive visual solutions. Working collaboratively with strategy and engineering, she strives to grow Architech’s Design Department into a practice that consistently delivers smart and creative products that satisfy client and market needs.

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