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The process of gathering information about users and tasks directly from users in their normal work, home or leisure environment. Traditional ethnography focuses on long-term studies spanning weeks, months, or even years. Information may be collected through participant observation, interviews, audio or video recording, observer logs, artifact collection, diaries and photographs.<

Ethnography is a valuable source of data for personas, scenarios, task analysis, requirements elicitation, and storyboards. Some of the concepts of ethnography are being used for studies that do not require immersion in a culture for extended periods of time. These short-duration techniques are referred to as "quick and dirty ethnography", "rapid ethnography", and "concurrent ethnography".

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Detailed description

Benefits, Advantages and Disadvantages


  • Provides a much more comprehensive perspective of the user and their environment than other forms of research
  • Employs a theoretical framework for contextualizing data
  • Behavior observations are best understood within their natural environment. Ethnography allows for this.


  • Observer bias and emphasis play a role, though video observation helps curb this.
  • Information and results are highly dependent on the researcher’s observations and interpretations
  • Quantitative analysis is next to impossible because of the qualitative nature of the data


Ethnography studies tend to be more on the expensive side, given the planning, coordination, and resources needed to conduct even a few meetings with participants. In contrast to other methods, ethnography is at the top of the expense chart.

The following are a number of costs associated with conducting an ethnographic study of any size:

  • Travel and food costs (if doing remote work outside city of origin)
  • Planning and logistics
  • Supplies (both participant and observer)
  • Participant fees for their time
  • Resources need to create, design and publish results (usually in a comprehensive report with artifacts).

Appropriate Uses

Ethnographic studies are appropriate for qualitative endeavors, aimed at understanding the circumstances and environment users and customers are engaged in when making decisions. They're also very important for understanding the localization factors with products and services with an international reach.


Lifecycle: User research
Sources and contributors: 
Cathy Herzon, Robert Skrobe, Chauncey Wilson, Lisa Battle
Released: 2009-06
© 2010 Usability Professionals Association