Back to the Future of Ethnography: Internal User Research at a Consumer Internet Company

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The Advertising Products research team at Yahoo! is building an internal research practice within an organization that is user-centered, but optimized for consumer product development. While our fellow researchers observe millions of consumers on our websites, we study our coworkers: their experiences with the tools of online advertising, and how those experiences shape the service that our advertiser customers receive. Adopting methods such as task-oriented interviewing and extended observation, we are reconnecting with a tradition of ethnographic inquiry in the workplace that is largely unknown at consumer Internet companies. This paper describes how we have re-learned and built company support for this approach. I describe our work with Yahoo!’s advertising sales and operations staff, highlighting the structural challenges of conducting and applying this research. I conclude by reflecting on how qualitative research can help a company bridge the gap between product design capacity and the ability to produce great services.

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