Observation in Ethnographic Practice

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Learn a toolkit of observational research techniques and interpretive frameworks for projects in human-centered design and innovation.

Enrollment: 20
Self-paced study + group sessions.

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Today smart devices and sensors are all around us, detecting and recording information 24/7. Yet observation—the foundational method of human and natural sciences—remains uniquely powerful. Whether we’re looking at naturalistic social environments, task execution, or even video footage, observation by trained ethnographers produces key empirical data and interpretive frameworks for projects in innovation, design, product or service development, or organizational change.

In this course you’ll learn observational techniques as a hands-on ethnographic practice. How we look and what we look at is driven by theories of human action and meaning, so the course starts by embedding observational techniques in larger sociocultural and behavioral frameworks. Participants will also situate observation within their overall research toolkits, considering application to different types of questions and contexts, and the value of observational data in concert with other types of data.

Next is a focus on core observational research practices. You’ll learn techniques for detecting and recording meaningful details that drive insight into larger patterns, including details of frequency and duration, space and movement, and processes and relationships. In the final session, participants will bring all the coursework to bear on a business challenge by creating a robust observational research plan and a rationale for the investment. We will also consider ethical and practical issues related to this work.

The course is grounded in a wealth of real-life examples from the instructor’s own research for clients in homes, bars and restaurants, car dealerships, urban neighborhoods, schools, medical environments, and more. Participants will take away a mindset as well as a toolkit of observational techniques that can be used to gain insight into human experience and add depth to other methods.

In this course you will learn and practice:

  • Essential frameworks and theories that underpin observational research
  • A toolkit of techniques for conducting observational research
  • Designing and planning observational research
  • Integrating observation into your existing practice
  • Using observational research to address business challenges
  • Ethical principles and best practices
  • Conceptual frameworks to enhance innovation and design, whether in UX, XD, marketing, R&D, or strategy

This course is for people in any industry or organization doing human-centered research, user experience, product and service development, brand strategy, organizational culture, and related practices. It is valuable for those who are new to observational techniques, as well as more seasoned observers seeking an effective toolkit they can use to train others.


This is an online course with a combination of asynchronous, self-paced materials and live sessions. Assignments are designed to be flexible and feasible for working professionals, but valuable learning in this course does require your active engagement and commitment. Components include:

  • 6 self-paced units, each consisting of:
    • Video lectures: The instructor explains critical observational techniques and practices along with relevant theory, logistics, and other considerations. ~40-60 minutes per unit
    • Exercises: These brief exercises will activate the learning for participants with hands-on observation. ~30 minutes per unit
    • Read/Watch: Articles or videos. ~30 minutes per unit
  • 4 live group sessions: Discussion on lecture topics, exercises, readings, and ways to apply the course materials to your own work context and real-world projects

Total commitment: approx 18 hours over 6 weeks


"I gained a LOT from this course—hands down, it's the best one I've taken as a user research professional since college! It's one thing to observe, it's another to structure and document those observations. Previously, I had struggled with how to document my observations creatively and Mike gave us many tools for how to do so. I also loved that Mike did office hours—I found a lot of value in listening to other researchers' questions and current projects, as well as Mike's perspective and experience on those questions. As a research team of one in closed settings, I'll apply these tools to my future ethnographic and direct observation. It filled me with inspiration."
—Laura Lighty, Design Researcher, Medtronic

"I came into being a UX Researcher from a series of career shifts over 25 years (software engineer > human factors engineer / UI designer > UX architect > UX researcher). I've never been formally trained as a UX researcher. Most has been through apprenticeship, self-taught and experience. I enjoy observational research and wanted a better understanding of the fundamentals and a solid baseline of a process. This course filled in several gaps in my knowledge, especially around techniques and methods."
—Mark Pappalardo, Senior UX Researcher, Lowe's Home Improvement


Live groups sessions on 4 Thursdays, 8–10:00 am US Pacific Time + self-paced coursework.

Session 1, April 20: Introduction & Orientation

Why and how do we observe? What is the role of observation in understanding larger frameworks of behavior, sociality, materiality, and meaning? In this session we will examine the role of observation as a foundational method in cultural anthropology and consider the cognitive bases of observation as a means of knowing.

Homework: Units 1 & 2

Session 2, May 4: Theory, Observation & the Researcher

Why and how do we observe? What is the role of observation in understanding larger frameworks of behavior, sociality, materiality, and meaning? What is the role and value of observation among other modes of research? We will examine the role of observation as a foundational method in cultural anthropology and consider the cognitive bases of observation as a means of knowing. Then we consider observation as a method—its strengths and limitations, its application to different types of research questions and contexts, and the value of observational data alongside data from other ethnographic methods such as interviews.

Homework: Units 3, 4 & 5

Session 3, May 25: The Observational Toolkit

This session digs deeper into the observational toolkit, using exercises and examples to help you bring these core practices into your own work:

  • Frequency & Duration: Observational research often focuses our attention on small details that give us insight into larger patterns or raise new and significant questions. In this third week we will take a deep dive into two basic techniques—counting how often things occur and timing how long they last.
  • Space and Movement: People engage the world around them in ways that are mostly unconscious or unreflective, making behavior difficult for ethnographers to understand without objective observation. In week four we will learn and practice two methods—diagramming and mapping—that can help identify significant and meaningful patterns in people’s interactions with each other and the material world.
  • Processes and Relationships: Our interactions with people and things commonly take the form of routines and processes that are embedded in complex webs of relationships. This week we will explore techniques for observing and analyzing these dimensions of interaction and interpreting their larger significance.

Homework: Unit 6

Session 4, June 1: Research Ethics and Research Planning

In this session we will practice defining observational approaches as part of larger ethnographic research plans. Working in breakout groups with other participants, you will respond to a hypothetical business challenge by creating a robust observational research plan and a rationale for the investment. We will also consider ethical and practical issues related to observational research.


Mike Youngblood, PhD, is a cultural anthropologist working at the nexus of social science and human-centered design. He has worked with for-profit and not-for-profit clients around the world in a wide range of industries, including financial services, transportation, telecommunications, food and nutrition, education, healthcare, and social services. Mike has taught at the School for International Training, Maryland Institute College of Art, UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, and Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. His recent books are Rethinking Users: The Design Guide to User Ecosystem Thinking and Cultivating Community: Interest, Identity, and Ambiguity in an Indian Social Mobilization. He is also editor of the Sustainability and Ethnography in Business Series on the EPIC blog Perspectives (and is eagerly seeking new contributors).

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