Ethnographic interviews

Caretaker: Kayleigh

What are they? 

Anything where you’re watching people actually do things as opposed to asking them to tell you about things they do:

  • Performed in the natural habitat / context
  • Observations can cover individuals or small groups
  • Require an extended length of time to allow behaviour to occur naturally; 3 hours minimum
  • Typically guided rather than pure natural ethnography; mix of spontaneous behavior emergence and completion of key tasks identified as relevant to study
  • Cover a number of activities in one interview, a number of contexts across the project
  • Session involves a mix of questioning and pure observation: overall session structure is usually spontaneous observe, tasked observation, review of key behaviours / insights. 

Bad for:

Good for: 

  • Requires rigourous recruitment; only as good as the participants
  • Time consuming; might have to watch someone for hours to uncover anything
  • Hard to analyse; unstructured, highly intricate data set
  • Complex data; plethora of macro and micro findings
  • Can be unreliable / inefficient; no real guarantee you will see anything useful
  • Requires discipline from the researcher; hard not to jump in.
  • Great for uncovering unknown unknowns – not limited by the researchers explicit or implicit assumptions / hypotheses
  • Helps define the indefinable; people often can’t articulate what they want from a service / product or experience
  • Inherent passivity makes it the least susceptible to bias.



Best practice tips

  1. Conduct scoping interviews as part of recruitment to fully understand the specifics of the context that the user would be using the product or service
  2. Schedule to match reality of context
  3. Moderate with moderation; need to build rapport and guide the session when needed but also fade into the background for most of the time
  4. Don’t be afraid to normalise; Better to normalise than ignore discomfort created by a slightly unnatural situation. “I know it's a bit odd, but try and do exactly what you would do normally and forget I’m here”
  5. Be aware of physical space and your place in it: don't crowd
  6. Practice stillness
  7. Restrict questioning in observation portion of sessions
  8. But if you have to… focus on “what” questions. Save the why’s for review section
  9. Don’t note take; if you’re thinking about what to write and looking at a book or screen you’re not listening or watching in that moment
  10. Be disciplined about downloading: use analysis framework to document your findings immediately after the session.