Ethnography in Industry: Methods Overview

It’s really hard for companies to understand ethnography let alone the number of data collection methods that ethnographers use to understand a particular population or situation of interest. While specific needs vary, for our clients the general goal is to help them address a murky problem or innovate differentiated products. Here I will explore how our social science team collects data and information to later analyze.

Observation, observation, observation

PARC's James Glasnapp in the field for observation.

PARC’s James Glasnapp in the field for ethnographic observation.

Before joining PARC, I used popular observation methods to understand public health interventions. Since joining PARC, I have greatly expanded my definition, scope, and toolkit for “observation” because I have been faced with conducting ethnographic studies to satisfy the diverse goals of varied clients.

My colleagues and I still do what PARC has been credited with pioneering in the technology space, and that is human-centered observation: particularly through the use of video ethnography. We observe, record, and, when feasible, actually participate in the activity at hand. Video doesn’t lie — it adds a great deal of power to human behavior analysis — and we have an entire lab space devoted to video data sessions where our ethnographers join together to analyze human behavior recorded during ethnographic observation.

But the insight doesn’t stop with us. By showing client stakeholders examples of phenomena observed through ethnography — whether in the mobile domain, leisure settings, workplace, cityscapes, or elsewhere — we try to bring a “real world” view they might not otherwise see. In a recent workshop where we presented the end-user’s vantage point, our client commented, “Wow, we never really considered that user of our product — we have been so focused on our competitors’ product features that we didn’t consider this group of users.”

While the insights we show to clients are private to them, here’s a video of projector use, just one example of how we use video to show human behavior.  Our ethnographic insights can also result in prototypes.

Asking, watching, and listening

Observation, though extremely powerful, is usually not enough. Ethnographers therefore can use any of the below methods depending on the situation or need to gain different slices of understanding a target group or situation of interest.


Glasnapp during ethnographic study of parking.

Semistructured or in-depth interviews. Ethnographers create a set of concepts or research questions on behalf of stakeholders. For us, the exploration plays out much like a conversation — answers tend to come out naturally, we may vary the order of the questions, and we can allow tangents if worthwhile. This flexibility (as opposed to sticking to a templated script) makes more probable unexpected discoveries and really getting what people care about.

Show-and-tell. To avoid relying on imagination in unfamiliar situations, we often ask study informants to demonstrate the very things they are describing.

Think-aloud protocols. We ask study informants to fully explain what they are doing and thinking as they do it, so that we can better understand their objectives, thought processes, and decision-making processes.

In situ interviews. Often used in combination with more unobtrusive direct observation, we ask questions as people go about their usual activities so we can understand context that may not be obvious.  While we do this sparingly to avoid burdening study informants, we are always balancing the need to observe undisrupted behaviors with the need to understand what we are observing.

Shadowing. In some cases we are interested in the behavior of one individual over a length of time so we will shadow virtually every second of that person’s life for a set period of time (e.g., 1-8 hours a day).  We mike the subject and use wide-angle HD video cameras to capture as much as possible of his/her life within the given time period.

Focus groups. Used sparingly at PARC (at least in the way that market researchers use it), this technique is more often a problem-solving vehicle or design endeavor. So we may use these in an ethnographic consultation where local informants are given the opportunity to participate in outcomes. Groups can range from the classic 8-12 participants from a particular demographic to subjects gathered at a study site for a particular set of questions or reactions.


PARC_Blog_Ad_0616_1aIt may not be enough — or even feasible — to watch and ask. So we’ve adapted or developed many methods to assist in tracking and ultimately understanding human behavior, including:

  • surveys — one-off or repeated (e.g., daily)
  • diaries — paper or electronic
  • mobile- or desk-based experience sampling — which may be randomly timed or triggered by contextual data from logging, sensing, or instrumenting interactions in information, social, and virtual environments.

These methods can generate qualitative data (e.g., diaries) or quantitative data that might be analyzed using descriptive or inferential techniques and include machine-learning approaches.
Enter customization. We often have to build custom software to collect this data, which often requires advanced computational methods to analyze it. Since PARC has the advantage of social scientists working closely with other scientists, we regularly collaborate with our computer scientists to conduct “hybrid” studies that combine some of the above.

The science and art of ethnography is not in a preset formula for these individual methods. It’s in the selection, unique combination, customizations, and analysis — which together can yield the “deep” understanding that in turn inspires innovation, or fosters change.

There is a method to the madness.

A version of this article also appeared in UX Magazine.

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