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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
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
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."
Artifacts are physical objects in use at a site (notebooks, forms,
reports, spaces, walls)
Outcroppings are noticable physical traits that mark or characterize
the site (size of cubicles, size of whiteboards and what's written on them,
uniforms written by certain castes of personnel). For example, in one hospital
study, people who got to wear scrubs around the hospital had more status
and influence than those who couldn't, either by management decree or by
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
Identify the artifacts and outcroppings during interviewing/observation
Collect and mark them onsite
Take photos, get files on disk, ask for maps or layouts of physical objects
You can do remote observation by sending a disposable camera out to a site,
and have the people there take pictures of their environment. Once you
get the pictures, discuss them over the phone with the people at the remote
Representing the Data
When using such data to form decisions or sway opinions about design alternatives,
try some of the following representations:
Show the artifact itself
Show a photo of the artifact or outcropping
Show a diagram of the artifact or outcropping
Show a drawing of the object with the parts labled
Show a drawing of the object before and after use
Show repeated instances of the artifact or outcropping
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 show who talks to whom, and how often. For communication-intensive
products, such as telephony, email, or advertising, this information is
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
Nouveau-biz zine article on ethnographers finding work
Macht, Joshua, "The
New Market Research," July 1998, Inc.
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
Online Web pages at http://www.truman.edu/academics/ss/faculty/tamakoshil/.
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,
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