Back to home page

Ethnographic Study / Field Observation 

What is it?

Observing users in the field is often the best way to determine their usability requirements. Traditional usability testing, while providing a laboratory environment that makes data collection and recording easy, also removes the user and the product from the context of the workplace. Sometimes, it's best to see exactly how things are done in the real world.

How do I do it?

You begin by arranging for a field visit with users. Choose a variety of users of your product, from different workplaces, industries, and backgrounds. You may have to arrange with your sales staff for contacts within your customer's organizations.

Use your time onsite wisely. You'll have just a few hours at the field site, so try to collect as much data as possible while you're there. You can analyze it later when you get back to the office.

Part of field observation is inquiry; that is, interviewing users about their jobs and the ways they use your product. Part is observation; watching people use your product in the way they normally would in the course of day-to-day life.

One way to ensure adequate data collection is to identify as many artifacts and outcroppings as possible:

Both of these terms come from anthropology--some mention the term ethnographic observation, which I take means "watching people."

Post-It notes can be both artifact and outcropping.

The layout of cubicles, and location of personnel (who sits next to the boss, who sits near the loading dock, etc) can be informative as well.

Someone you consult for advice or information is neither artifact nor outcropping, but can be characterized as part of a relationship.

How to Collect Artifacts and Data about Outcroppings

"Collecting artifacts and outcroppings" sounds like you're going on an archeological dig; in actuality, it's quite similar. In the same way an archeologist looks at the pottery of an ancient civilization to determine their nutritional intake, you can find objects during your field observation that will help identify how your users use your product. Perform the following steps:

Representing the Data

When using such data to form decisions or sway opinions about design alternatives, try some of the following representations:

Group Relationships

Group relationships can help identify process and information flows. They include organization, hierarchy, informal and formal links/interactions among groups, reporting relationships, etc.

Communication Patterns

Communication patterns show who talks to whom, and how often. For communication-intensive products, such as telephony, email, or advertising, this information is vital.


When asking people how they do things, or how they're supposed to do things, ask them, "Does that work?" "Do others do things differently?" "Why?"

When should I use this technique?

This technique is best used in the early stages of development, when you need to know more about the issues surrounding the use of a product rather than actual metrics. In the really early stages of development, when you just have an idea that you might need a product to satisfy this particular need, field observations help gather user requirements and issues for incorporation into preliminary designs.

Who can tell me more?

Click on any of the following links for more information:

Portions of this topic are from notes taken at Judy Ramey/Denise Carlevato/Erin Leanne Schulz's presentation at the 1996 STC Annual Conference.

Kane, Kate, "Anthropologists Go Native In The Corporate Village," October/November 1996, Fast Company magazine.

Nouveau-biz zine article on ethnographers finding work in corporations.

Macht, Joshua, "The New Market Research," July 1998, Inc. magazine.

Biz-zine article on using low-tech field studies instead of expensive focus groups for market and user research.

Tamakoshi, Laura, 1996, Field Methods, and Field Notes.

Online Web pages at Describes Tamakoshi's methods used during her anthropological research in Papua New Guinea. Geared toward anthropology folks, but still useful.

Wixon, D. , and Ramey, Judith (Eds.), 1996, Field Methods Casebook for Software Design, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY. ISBN: 0-471-14967-5

Nice overview of ethnographic techniques used in software design--the only book on these techniques as used for software design that I've seen so far. Similar to the Wiklund book in that it discusses individual practitioners' experiences. 

All content copyright © 1996 - 2019 James Hom