Why Ethnographic Interviewing is the Most Time- and Cost-Efficient HCD Tool 

As User Experience (UX) researchers and advisers, our goal is to provide the right solution to the right problem for the right people. We start by understanding the people we are serving. The best way to understand our users is to immerse ourselves in their world via Ethnographic Interviewing, just as anthropologists immerse themselves in a culture to understand it fully.  

Understand Users via Ethnographic Interviewing  

UX researchers have borrowed the term Ethnographic Interviews from the field of Anthropology to describe a qualitative research method where individuals are observed in their environment and are treated as the experts they are.  

Ethnographic interviewing, during generative user research, provides us with a deep understanding of users’ world:  

  • environmental context
  • domain and domain-specific vocabulary 
  • needs, goals, motivations, and tasks 
  • problems and frustrations with current product and systems 

Going into the user’s environment allows us to observe them where the behaviors of interest naturally occur. For example, we might be interested in understanding nurses’ process for tracking medications administered to patients. Data gathered from these interviews provide insights you would have likely missed if you had engaged in interviews without observation.   

Often, there is a mismatch between what people say they do and what they do. Relying on people’s memory for their process may lead to accounts that fail to include essential details. Also, users may be more reticent about disclosing areas of difficulty or challenge for fear of being perceived as unknowledgeable or incompetent. Being in the same room as the user allows us to mitigate these concerns by giving us the ability to be inquisitive about their process as it unfolds. We can observe what they do and ask them why they are doing it. Their answers highlight areas of frustration and opportunities for improvement.  

How Ethnographic Interviewing Saves Clients Money

In our client work, we have seen how ethnographic interviewing saved a health plan from investing large sums of money in creating the wrong claims solution. Similarly, this research tool helped us guide a school-based EHR vendor towards features that helped them enhance the user experience while further differentiating the product in the market. For the EHR vendor, for example, we observed nurses recording the administration of medications. The nurses should have been using a computer program to track this information. Instead, we observed nurses writing on paper each time they gave medications to patients. When we asked about it, nurses told us it was faster to write it down and enter the information into the system later – usually after hours. We learned that some nurses were spending hours on this ‘pajama time.’ We were able to discover this manual process because we sat in the room with them as they performed their daily tasks, something we would have surely missed had we only conducted remote interviews.   

Ethnographic Interviews Yield Value with Small Samples  

Ethnographic interviews are an excellent tool for UX researchers because they do not require large sample sizes. However, during the planning stages, designers must identify a diverse sample of users to interview. The diversity must account for differences in role, expertise (depth and type), demographic, and other variables that might influence users’ behaviors.  

Ethnographic interviews are essentially conversations centered around a specific topic. The idea is for the interaction to be smooth and natural. If the user does something that catches the interviewers’ attention, they can stop the proceedings and ask for details about that event. Having a highly-structured, rigid interview guide may inhibit the interviewers’ ability to go “off-script” and follow interesting but unexpected lines of questions that can yield important insights.  

Practical Advice When Conducting Ethnographic Interviews 

Research for any new design should start by understanding the business and technical context surrounding the initiative.  

Conduct Preliminary Research and Stakeholder Interviews First  

Stakeholder interviews should be conducted before user observations. Stakeholders will provide you with an understanding of the vision for the initiative and the desired business outcomes. You’ll have the opportunity to learn about any budgetary, time, or technology constraints that will inform how observations are conducted. The stakeholders can also tell you about industry literature to review and who their competitors are, so you can further research the domain before interfacing with the end-users.   

Creating an Interview Guide  

Once you have completed your preliminary research and are ready to schedule ethnographic interviews with end-users, spend some time creating an interview guide. This document should outline: 

  1. Goal of the Interview: What it is you are hoping to learn 
  2. Brief Introduction: Will help you set the stage for the user so that they understand how the interview will unfold 
  3. List of Topics: Questions you want to ask and items you want to capture 

Having this guide will give you the freedom to modify the questions and pace of the interview as needed, without steering too far from the original goal.  

User Observations: One User x Two Interviewers 

  • Schedule observations with one user at a time and have two interviewers available.  
  • One interviewer can focus on engaging with the user while the other interviewer focuses on writing detailed notes.  
  • Interviewing one person at a time allows you to capture the experience of this one person in their environment.  
  • Interviewing two or more people at a time will create a different dynamic and potentially introduce barriers that could impact the quality of the information obtained.    

Have the Right Learner Mindset for User Interviews  

One of the most important things is for you to have the right mindset prior to the interview. You are no longer the expertYou are an apprentice eager to learn from the master craftsman. Keeping this learner mindset during the interview will give you the freedom to avoid making assumptions and ask questions that may seem simple and basic, thus allowing you to gain a better understanding of your users and their process.   

Start User Interviews on the Right Foot 

  • Spend the first few minutes of the interview building rapport.  
  • Talk about neutral topics and create a relaxed environment through your friendly demeanor.  
  • Use this time to explain the purpose of the interview and to answer any questions they might have before starting.  
  • This experience is new to the people, and they may distrust your reasons for interviewing them.  
  • You need to show a genuine interest in improving their situation if they are to share the most intimate details of their work with you.   

Considering Recording User Interviews 

People move and talk quickly, so you should record video and/or audio during the observation that you can refer to later. Make sure to speak to the participant about the recording before you begin. There may be corporate rules that prevent you from recording. Also, don’t record if you feel that it will impact the participant’s candor. You may want to wait until you have established rapport before introducing the recording device.  

During the User Interview – Best Practices   

  • During the interview, avoid making the participant the designer and engaging in conversations about solutions 
  • Focus on the current state and the participant’s pain points.  
  • Encouraging storytelling (e.g., tell me about a time…) 
  • Ask the participant to show you how they do something (e.g., can you show me how would you go about checking if a request for a medical procedure needs a prior authorization?)  
  • Focus on asking open-ended, goal-oriented questions to give you a better understanding of why they do the things they do 
UX Pro Tip! Resist the urge to fill moments of silence. Giving people a few extra seconds to think and formulate their responses uncovers some of the most valuable nuggets of information.

After the User Interview 

Take time after every interview to synthesize the new data with the previously collected data. Look for emerging patterns and topics that should be validated in future interviews. Debrief with your interview colleague and review what went well, what could be improved, and create a plan for the next interview. 

Combining immersive observation with directed Ethnographic Interviews are the most effective and cost- and time-efficient tools that design researchers, like our team at SDLC Partners, have to gather qualitative data about what users really want from your products, services, and digital experiences.

Unlock Your Users’ Goals, Needs, and Opinions 

Our HCD team is comprised of experts in reaching and revealing users’ opinions, needs, and processes to help you create better products, services, and digital experiences.

Daniella Villalba
Consultant UX Designer, Application Development

Dr. Villalba is an expert in human-subject research. Her position as a UX designer at SDLC Partners allows her to use diverse research methods to gain a deep understanding of technology users and their needs. She has 10 years’ experience overseeing the end-to-end research process, including study design, survey and measurements tool development, data analysis, and presenting research results to diverse audiences. In her free time, she hikes, enjoys reading, and trains in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Read Bio

We can help you Achieve Real Results

Contact Us