Observation in Ethnographic Practice

Share Share Share Share Share

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

Enrollment: 20
Schedule: November 4–December 16 (see Coursework and Schedule)
Registration: Membership is required to register—join us!

  • Regular price US$700: Choose this price if the fee will be paid or reimbursed in whole or in part by your organization
  • Self-pay price US$500: Choose this price if the fee will not be paid or reimbursed in whole or in part by your organization

*REGISTRATION IS CLOSED—BUT THE COURSE WILL BE OFFERED AGAIN IN 2021! To be notified about the next session and other EPIC News, please join our email list.



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.

The next three sessions 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.


Required coursework includes live, online sessions as well as independent work to be completed between sessions on your own time. The instructor will also hold “office hours,” giving participants additional opportunities to ask questions and extend their understanding of course content and its application to their own work.

The course schedule is designed to be feasible for working professionals, but does require your active engagement and commitment to these components:

  • 6 live, online sessions (schedule below)
  • weekly assignments to be completed on your own time, including research exercises, readings, videos, etc; approx 30–90 minutes per week
  • optional office hours for extended discussion/Q&A with the instructor
  • optional weekly assignments for participants who want to do more!

Total commitment: approx 14 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 six Wednesdays Nov 4, 11, 18; Dec 2, 9 16 (no class Nov 25). Sessions run 4:00–5:15 pm Pacific time (convert time zone), except the final class, which is 4:00–6:00 pm (2 hours).

Optional office hours take place immediately after sessions on Nov 11, Dec 2 & Dec 9 for up to 45 minutes.

Session 1, November 4: Theory & the Observer

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.

Session 2, November 11: Observation and the Researcher's Toolkit + Office Hours

What is the role and value of observation among other modes of research? In this session we will 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. Session followed by optional office hours.

Session 3, November 18: Observing Frequency and 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 session we will take a deep dive into two basic techniques—counting how often things occur and timing how long they last.

Session 4, December 2: Observing Space and Movement + Office Hours

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 this session 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. Session followed by optional office hours.

Session 5, December 9: Observing Processes and Relationships + Office Hours

Our interactions with people and things commonly take the form of routines and processes that are embedded in complex webs of relationships. In this session we will explore techniques for observing and analyzing these dimensions of interaction and interpreting their larger significance. Session followed by optional office hours.

Session 6, December 16: Research Ethics and Research Planning

In this final session, we will practice defining observational approaches as part of larger ethnographic research plans. Working in breakout groups, 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).

Terms & FAQ

Who can enroll in EPIC Courses?

All EPIC Learning events are open to EPIC Members, and membership is open to everyone. Become an EPIC Member to register!

What are your cancellation and transfer policies?

If you need to cancel more than 14 days before the start of the course you’ll be refunded 50% of the registration fee. No refunds will be made within 14 days of the start of the course. You may transfer your registration to someone else; the recipient must be an EPIC Member prior to transfer. To request a transfer contact courses@epicpeople.org

What is an Open Badge?

The badge you’ll receive when you complete an EPIC Course is a verifiable record of the skills and expertise you’ve gained. Our badges are based on the Open Badges accreditation system: “Each Open Badge is associated with an image and information about the badge, its recipient, the issuer, and any supporting evidence. All this information may be packaged within a badge image file that can be displayed via online CVs and social networks.”

Can teams enroll together?

Yes, EPIC courses are an excellent experience for teams. If there isn't sufficient space left in a session for your whole team, or if you’re interested in a customized course or training, contact us.

If we didn’t answer your question, please get in touch.