Ethnographic Research As A Tool For Understanding Users

Key design firms have long used ethnographic research methods to study the users of products they are designing in order to understand how the users actually use the product. When IDEO was asked by Apple to innovate a new mouse for the Mac many years ago, the IDEO folks spent hundreds of hours studying people using the mouse device, as well as trying to better understand what people wanted to do with the mouse.

This article “Big Brands Turning To Big Brother” (not a particulary good title) describes how the makers of consumer products are turning to ethnographic research to understand how consumers choose and use their products. According to the article:

In less than a decade ethnographic research – detailed observations of the day-to-day behaviours of a small sample from a target group of consumers to shed light on how they use, choose or buy products – has established itself alongside consumer surveys and focus groups as a leading tool of market research.

In libraries, usability studies are far more common than ethnographic techniques. One weakness of most usability testing is that users are asked to perform certain functions and then are observed doing them. But the users will often do what they think the observers want to see (such as how fast can they find a book in the OPAC), rather than what they would normally do. Ethnographic research just observes the users as they use the products with no specific tasks in mind. This is one way in which the makers of the product learn that users are doing things they never expected or anticipated. This leads to unique forms of discovery and innovation.

But as you will learn when you read this article, proper ethnographic research techniques can be far more invasive into the lives of the subjects, and may be beyond what libraries could be capable of accomplishing. But by studying and understanding how ethnographic research works there may certainly be possibilities that we can integrate some of the techniques into our user studies – which will no doubt contribute to the design of better user experiences for library users.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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