Ethnographic research is the cornerstone of user-centric design. In the user-centric design process, designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process. These needs are defined through ethnographic research (also called ethnographies), a qualitative method where researchers observe and/or interact with a study’s participants in their real-life environment. The aim of conducting ethnographies in real life environments is to get ‘under the skin’ of a design problem. By learning about the user’s values, needs, and psychological makeup, researchers can better empathize with their pain points, and where best to deliver value. Value is perceived differently across consumers, and ethnographies are a key tool in understanding these differences.

RKS is a comprehensive ethnographic research firm. Our quantitative and qualitative approach to research design and implementation is fueled by not only how products make customers feel, but how those products make them feel about themselves. Whether creating research for new products and services or existings ones, we believe a carefully designed ethnography can be a cornerstone to creating great products. We use our advanced Psycho-Aesthetic process to solve complex problems that address design, engineering, brand, and regulatory issues. Our cross-disciplinary specialists, researchers, designers, and engineers leverage their deep experience within multiple industries and technologies to spark creative and innovative solutions.

Our Clients

Planning Methods

Careful planning of ethnographic research is essential to creating long-lasting products and services. At the same time, a well-designed ethnography can reduce the cost of product development by targeting the essential and necessary data required, without wasting valuable time and resources. The ethnographic research process has multiple phases that move from planning, to execution, and to applications. At the beginning of the study, it’s important for a researcher to fully understand the intent of the study to develop discussion guides, questions, and stimuli to gain insights into the areas that are important to the clients and other stakeholders. Once the locations for the study have been identified the researcher can determine the best presentation method, or collection method. Finally, the researcher can acquire the necessary permissions from our subjects and access to the locations we need to be in.

Research Question

The initial part of our ethnographies begin with a question – what problem are we seeking to better understand? Developing a problem statement allows us to raise questions about the problem we seek to know more about. This problem may be about nearly any topic that addresses people in a designated environment. For example, we may be trying to better make sense of their culture, relationships, interactions, processes, or anything else that affects how people think and/or behave. A research problem usually implies a person or group of people to study, which makes it easier to identify the right subjects from the beginning. Identifying a clear problem makes the rest of the ethnography process efficient. Without a clear problem or question, the process risks go too shallow or too deep into the right problem.

Location

After identifying the research problem it’s important to identify the best place to conduct the research process. The guiding principle for location selection is to provide the best opportunity to observe, participate, take field notes, and make sense of how the people in that environment act, communicate, and think. Locations can be local or global. In some cases we may choose more than one location if the question/problem warrants it. While it’s not necessary that we travel to the locations, it is necessary that our presence whether real or virtual allow us to connect with the subjects. We have the capability to AR, VR, and other technologies to create the virtual presence we need.

Interview Methods

The interview method is a key consideration for ethnographic research. The method will consider the participants, locations, and problem being

considered. Ultimately, we consider the most effective way(s) to obtain objective information. In cases where we need to adopt a role of a person in the community or organization we need to be present. On the other hand, where the problem requires us to be covert we may need to be creative in covering our presence. In both cases, there are instances where we can find ways to be present or remote, depending on the needs. Ultimately, we know that in many cases if others know we are a research team, they will act and respond differently. Our experience helps us overcome those issues

Consent

One of the biggest challenges of ethnographic research is gaining the informed consent of the participants. Obtaining this consent requires empathy and communication skills, which in turn require deep experience in doing this type of research. Consent is required for many parts of the research. For example, it is usually necessary to obtain permission for access into the location. This consent might be from the owner of the location, the manager of the location, or staff of the location. In addition to consent, it’s important to explain to the decision-makers what our interview methods will be. This includes what observational methods we’ll use, how we plan to participate, and how the information we collect will be used. Being ethical and considerate at this point is critically important.

 

Planning Methods

Careful planning of ethnographic research is essential to creating long-lasting products and services. At the same time, a well-designed ethnography can reduce the cost of product development by targeting the essential and necessary data required, without wasting valuable time and resources. The ethnographic research process has multiple phases that move from planning, to execution, and to applications. At the beginning of the study, it’s important for a researcher to fully understand the intent of the study to develop discussion guides, questions, and stimuli to gain insights into the areas that are important to the clients and other stakeholders. Once the locations for the study have been identified the researcher can determine the best presentation method, or collection method. Finally, the researcher can acquire the necessary permissions from our subjects and access to the locations we need to be in.

Research Question

The initial part of our ethnographies begin with a question – what problem are we seeking to better understand? Developing a problem statement allows us to raise questions about the problem we seek to know more about. This problem may be about nearly any topic that addresses people in a designated environment. For example, we may be trying to better make sense of their culture, relationships, interactions, processes, or anything else that affects how people think and/or behave. A research problem usually implies a person or group of people to study, which makes it easier to identify the right subjects from the beginning. Identifying a clear problem makes the rest of the ethnography process efficient. Without a clear problem or question, the process risks go too shallow or too deep into the right problem.

Location

After identifying the research problem it’s important to identify the best place to conduct the research process. The guiding principle for location selection is to provide the best opportunity to observe, participate, take field notes, and make sense of how the people in that environment act, communicate, and think. Locations can be local or global. In some cases we may choose more than one location if the question/problem warrants it. While it’s not necessary that we travel to the locations, it is necessary that our presence whether real or virtual allow us to connect with the subjects. We have the capability to AR, VR, and other technologies to create the virtual presence we need.

Interview Methods

The interview method is a key consideration for ethnographic research. The method will consider the participants, locations, and problem being

considered. Ultimately, we consider the most effective way(s) to obtain objective information. In cases where we need to adopt a role of a person in the community or organization we need to be present. On the other hand, where the problem requires us to be covert we may need to be creative in covering our presence. In both cases, there are instances where we can find ways to be present or remote, depending on the needs. Ultimately, we know that in many cases if others know we are a research team, they will act and respond differently. Our experience helps us overcome those issues

Consent

One of the biggest challenges of ethnographic research is gaining the informed consent of the participants. Obtaining this consent requires empathy and communication skills, which in turn require deep experience in doing this type of research. Consent is required for many parts of the research. For example, it is usually necessary to obtain permission for access into the location. This consent might be from the owner of the location, the manager of the location, or staff of the location. In addition to consent, it’s important to explain to the decision-makers what our interview methods will be. This includes what observational methods we’ll use, how we plan to participate, and how the information we collect will be used. Being ethical and considerate at this point is critically important.

People being interviewed by RKS research team

Process

Once the planning is done, we begin the process of conducting research. The process of conducting ethnographic research varies depending on the project. However, there are relationships between the type of product or service we’re researching for and the process we use. For a consumer product, for example, we’re likely to focus on participants in their homes, vehicles, or other locations that would normally use a consumer product. For an industrial product, on the other hand, we would likely visit participants at their place of work, during work hours or a shift. In the case of brand strategy, we may do both. In all cases, we’re making decisions based on the type of information we want to gather from the type of participants we need to get it from, in the place that’s most natural. We have years of experience selecting the right process for the right type of work.

Observation and Participation

Ethnographic research is a combination of observation and participation. Effective research requires observing the subjects in their environment, and participating in the organization we are researching in some capacity. Collecting notes during this observation and participation is an important way to derive values from the experience. We use the problem statement and questions developed earlier to help direct our engagement, the most effective ways to collect notes. We try and be as objective as possible when observing and participating. To do that, we try to document during the research rather than afterwards, immediately writing down descriptions, things we remember, impressions and feelings, and ideas that come to mind.

Interview Process

When most people think of ethnography and ethnographic research they immediately think of interviews. Interviews are indeed a large part of many of our ethnography projects. Interviews allow us to increase our visibility into behaviors and actions. In some cases we conduct interviews

immediately after an observation or participating in an activity. In other cases we will conduct an interview at the end of a designated observation period, at the end of the day, or even at the end of the entire research period. In all cases we determine who is best to interview and what questions are critical to helping us understand your research question.

Data and Synthesis 

In addition to creating our own data, an important part of ethnographic research is using data that has already been created. Organizations usually have collections of papers, emails, physical artifacts, phone conversations, marketing collateral, websites, and other information-rich sources that enhance our understanding. A researcher who studies the anthropological and social habits of participants through these other types of data can generally fill in gaps in their knowledge. In addition, this type of data allows a research to contextualize the primary research, as well as help us navigate some of the complexities of specific organizations or industries. In this way, the method of ethnography can be enhanced by the study of secondary research. 

Process

Once the planning is done, we begin the process of conducting research. The process of conducting ethnographic research varies depending on the project. However, there are relationships between the type of product or service we’re researching for and the process we use. For a consumer product, for example, we’re likely to focus on participants in their homes, vehicles, or other locations that would normally use a consumer product. For an industrial product, on the other hand, we would likely visit participants at their place of work, during work hours or a shift. In the case of brand strategy, we may do both. In all cases, we’re making decisions based on the type of information we want to gather from the type of participants we need to get it from, in the place that’s most natural. We have years of experience selecting the right process for the right type of work.

Observation and Participation

Ethnographic research is a combination of observation and participation. Effective research requires observing the subjects in their environment, and participating in the organization we are researching in some capacity. Collecting notes during this observation and participation is an important way to derive values from the experience. We use the problem statement and questions developed earlier to help direct our engagement, the most effective ways to collect notes. We try and be as objective as possible when observing and participating. To do that, we try to document during the research rather than afterwards, immediately writing down descriptions, things we remember, impressions and feelings, and ideas that come to mind.

Interview Process

When most people think of ethnography and ethnographic research they immediately think of interviews. Interviews are indeed a large part of many of our ethnography projects. Interviews allow us to increase our visibility into behaviors and actions. In some cases we conduct interviews immediately after an observation or participating in an activity. In other cases we will conduct an interview at the end of a designated observation period, at the end of the day, or even at the end of the entire research period. In all cases we determine who is best to interview and what questions are critical to helping us understand your research question.

Data and Synthesis 

In addition to creating our own data, an important part of ethnographic research is using data that has already been created. Organizations usually have collections of papers, emails, physical artifacts, phone conversations, marketing collateral, websites, and other information-rich sources that enhance our understanding. A researcher who studies the anthropological and social habits of participants through these other types of data can generally fill in gaps in their knowledge. In addition, this type of data allows a research to contextualize the primary research, as well as help us navigate some of the complexities of specific organizations or industries. In this way, the method of ethnography can be enhanced by the study of secondary research. 

RKS designers working on ethnographic research for design

Applications

Understanding human behavior is key to our user-centric design focus. Human behavior is drive by deep psychological needs. However it’s usually impossible to simply ask people to describe these needs. We have alarming blind spots when it comes to describing our own behavior. In trying to recall what we did or believe we did, our recollections will often not align with what actually happened. We falter especially when trying to define why we did something. When we try to describe the motivations behind our actions, we’re often unable to name the things that compelled us. The needs or desires that urged us toward an action simply might not be clear to us. As a result, ethnography is incredibly important to the work we do.

UX

As a methodology for UX design, ethnographic research is both about how people interact with technology, and also about how they describe their experience of interacting with their technology. Ethnography as applied to UX design has been referred to as digital anthropology. It observes people in their natural environments in order to understand their needs. Using data gathered from this use helps us design UX that is proven to work. For example, if we’re designing an industrial product that’s used in high-stress environments, it’s important that our UX reduces or eliminates this stress. We can use ethnography to understand the key stressors in the environments and design around them.

Brand

Ultimately, brands informed by ethnographic research are more durable, better targeted, and more financially successful. A strong, lovable brand can be a major asset that can ensure continuous growth, encourage

user consistency, increase demand, and create a competitive advantage. This competitive advantage is created through an emotional connection derived from a deep understanding of the needs and wants of customers. Our ethnography research is used to generate qualitative and quantitative insights into consumers, their needs, their aspirations, their challenges, how they work, how they live, how they play, and the interior and social architecture of their lives. We use this picture as the basis of our designs.

Product Design

Determining a design for a consumer device requires a holistic approach. We consider everything from our client’s priorities, to financial investment, to regulatory requirements, to market identification. In other words, we are not just looking at the product, but the entire context of the product in the user’s life. Ethnography is used as a key data for this holistic approach.

Applications

Understanding human behavior is key to our user-centric design focus. Human behavior is drive by deep psychological needs. However it’s usually impossible to simply ask people to describe these needs. We have alarming blind spots when it comes to describing our own behavior. In trying to recall what we did or believe we did, our recollections will often not align with what actually happened. We falter especially when trying to define why we did something. When we try to describe the motivations behind our actions, we’re often unable to name the things that compelled us. The needs or desires that urged us toward an action simply might not be clear to us. As a result, ethnography is incredibly important to the work we do.

UX

As a methodology for UX design, ethnographic research is both about how people interact with technology, and also about how they describe their experience of interacting with their technology. Ethnography as applied to UX design has been referred to as digital anthropology. It observes people in their natural environments in order to understand their needs. Using data gathered from this use helps us design UX that is proven to work. For example, if we’re designing an industrial product that’s used in high-stress environments, it’s important that our UX reduces or eliminates this stress. We can use ethnography to understand the key stressors in the environments and design around them.

Brand

Ultimately, brands informed by ethnographic research are more durable, better targeted, and more financially successful. A strong, lovable brand can be a major asset that can ensure continuous growth, encourage

user consistency, increase demand, and create a competitive advantage. This competitive advantage is created through an emotional connection derived from a deep understanding of the needs and wants of customers. Our ethnography research is used to generate qualitative and quantitative insights into consumers, their needs, their aspirations, their challenges, how they work, how they live, how they play, and the interior and social architecture of their lives. We use this picture as the basis of our designs.

Product Design

Determining a design for a consumer device requires a holistic approach. We consider everything from our client’s priorities, to financial investment, to regulatory requirements, to market identification. In other words, we are not just looking at the product, but the entire context of the product in the user’s life. Ethnography is used as a key data for this holistic approach.