Ethnographic Research Exercise

Jeff Smith

At thoughtbot, we’ve used product design sprints for over a year now to kick off client engagements. They work well.

However, one thing we’ve found is that the sprint relies heavily on the client’s understanding of the user we’re building around. This can pose a bit of a dilemma; not every client or stakeholder is a user of the product they envision bringing into the world. And, more importantly, they’re never unbiased. This isn’t a surprise: rarely do our clients have the full picture of their users. Sometimes they really don’t know who their users really are.

To compensate for this and assumptions in general, we bake a copious amount of validation into design sprints: the entire last day is dedicated to user testing. Likewise, throughout our post-sprint design process we often run weekly user tests.

Nevertheless, a gap still exists: we don’t adequately immerse ourselves in the design challenge before starting a sprint.

Ethnographic Research

Internally, we’ve been playing around with a Phase 0 in our design sprints to inform our designs before starting a sprint. We’re sharpening specific design tools for the earliest parts of our client engagements. Ethnographic research is one of those tools and a place where we’re actively growing.

According to Charles Pearson, an ethnographer currently working with Adobe Photoshop and who we’ve worked with in the past, ethnographic research is a method pioneered by cultural anthropology. Traditional ethnographic principles commonly focus on immersion and a long-term engagement with a topic or people. Often, it entailed living for roughly a year with another people group, experiencing all four seasons with them. The goal was, and is, to relate and engage; to develop a very deep empathy for whoever it is you’re trying to understand. It seeks out those in-between moments, those unscripted happenings and observations. As opposed to typical behavioral science methodologies which might depend on self-report, ethnography can bring to the fore truths that many might not know about themselves. This is the kind of data that has clear value to innovative design.

A great primer on ethnographic research was put together by AIGA if you’re interested in learning more, and “Just Enough Research” by Erika Hall is a good resource for a longer dive into user research, including ethnographic studies.

Charles helped us think through our research methodology. His insights significantly influenced our exercise and how we thought about ethnography as a whole:

  • Have conversations with at least five different people. This allows for enough data to begin developing insights.
  • Talk to people casually and engage on a human level – it doesn’t need to be sterile. Being casual and yourself produces better results everywhere: relationships, friendships, and, yes, user research.
  • Follow the conversation wherever it leads because that’s often where the nuggets are. Sometimes you want to stick to the script. Often leaving it behind is where the most interesting insights are found.
  • Try to construct portraits of real people instead of using an abstract persona. Personae are great. Concrete people with the granular details that come from living life are even better.
  • Avoid pointed questions. For instance, instead of asking “How do you store your photos?”, consider asking them to show you how they store photos.

Grocery Shopping

Following Charles Pearson’s advice, most of the San Francisco design team took a day to get offsite and practice.

There were several different locations and users we thought about visiting and we used two criteria to shape where the environment we chose to work in:

  • Is it easy to access? Can we go there without much preparation?
  • Is it a context outside of our own where we have limited familiarity? We wanted to limit the ease of making assumptions about the natives we talked to.

Location options

We settled on shoppers in local grocery stores, ranging from budget grocers to the bourgeois to the granola. We went out in pairs with a single goal: have a conversation with 5 people about their grocery shopping experience (the common opener: “Hey, I’m a designer trying to build an app to help people better shop. Mind if I ask some questions about your grocery shopping experience?”). How do they shop? What do they use to keep track of what they by? Do they collaborate during the process?

After a couple hours, we reassambled and in the office and aggregated our insights on the whiteboard. Many were observations. Most grocery shoppers assumed a particular posture: hunched over their cart as the clutch a slip of paper or balanced a smartphone percariously. Other insights came from conversation. We would never have expected one shopper to use a Dropbox file she assembled over the week for keeping track of her groceries. We wouldn’t have considered putting that into a persona before the exercise.


The process of observing and having open-ended conversations with people in their native environment is incredible and a valuable technique.

If we actually had been creating a tool to improve the shopping experience, we would have validated and invalidated many of our assumptions. Ethnography can be limited to a couple hours. Try it on your next project.