How reading ethnography has helped me to understand the power of observation and help me in my work as an experience designer.
As you know, observation is one of the vital components of User Experience Research. That said, one can feel powerless when confronted with observing in situ or interviewing users. What should you be focusing upon during your research? How to gather intelligible and actionable insights that can be leveraged by your designers?
Copyright: Eva Madezo
Ethnography and Anthropology have a great deal to teach us when it comes to understanding people and communities. And since the human-centered design is a process that starts with the people you’re designing for, I thought it would be worthy to share with you what I’ve learned in terms of observation by reading an ethnographic book.
I recently finished reading Reindeer People and it gave me a better grasp of how to behave and what to observe when you go out of your comfort zone. When you try to understand a culture you are not familiar with. The book is the result of 20 years of long-term fieldwork among the Eveny of Siberia, carried out by the anthropologist Piers Vitebsky. The latter embedded himself in the culture of the Eveny Reindeer herders, studying and examining the various aspects of their lives.
Observation is a key ingredient of all qualitative research, and since there is a lot to research, my first advice is to start by splitting your research into three domains: the physical, cultural, and spiritual life. It will enable you to see the large picture of what you are focusing on and therefore be able to dig deeper and concentrate on the right details with a methodological framework.
To do so, start reflecting on time and space. What does a typical day look like? Ask yourself how people structure it: where do they go? To do what? How do they manage their time?
Then again, try to get some perspective: what have you learned? What does it teach you about their view of the present? What about their projection into the future? Space and time perception tell you a lot about the mindset of the people you observe. This opens the path to build relevant user-personas with actionable dreams and aspirations.
Now, what attitude should you adopt to make sure you appreciate other societies in terms of their own cultural symbol and values? How can you distance yourself as much as possible from your individual prism?
Empathy is a movement - ©Eva Madezo
Last but not least: what tools do you need to constantly carry with you? Ethnographic work is qualitative work, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to collect any data on the research field.
The toolkit for observation - ©copy: Eva Madezo
Observation requires you to constantly challenge your intellectual curiosity. It is all about alternating between objectivity and subjectivity, and this is the reason why I would recommend you to actively participate in your user’s activities to get true empathy with them, even though sociocultural ethnology and anthropology are guided by the principle of cultural relativism and try to avoid any sort of judgment.
Adopting the right posture at the right moment is no easy challenge, but I am convinced that a great observer has to keep his senses awake constantly. The search for valuable insights takes time and one has to focus on details to capture what makes a single individual or a larger community what they intrinsically are, what they aspire to be, and what they dream about being.
Now, keep in mind that being a good observer only accounts for half of the job. Translating your observations into a story that others can connect with is equally important. Only by doing both can you help designers build a service or a product that fits your users’ needs and desires. In this regard, Piers Vitebsky’s book is a model of its kind.
This article was originally published here.
All illustrations in this article are made by Eva Le Saux Madezo. See more of her work here.