A Dozen Things Every Client Should Know about Ethnography

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by LAITH ULABY, UX Researcher, AnswerLab

In the past decade we have witnessed the proliferation of mobile platforms, social media, and cloud computing. At AnswerLab, the user experience research firm where I work as a researcher, we have seen demand for ethnographic research steadily grow as technology becomes more and more a part of people’s lives. From the bus stop to the boardroom, technology is changing how we interact with other people, build our identities, and create communities.

Over the past few months, we conducted several exciting ethnographic projects, including some of the most ambitious ones to date in both scope and scale. Coordinating large numbers of participants across multiple markets can be both daunting and exhilarating.

In the course of these projects we were reminded how critical stakeholder education is to making the project a success. I'd like to share 12 client education best practices we have developed in our decade of experience.

Explaining the value of ethnography

  1. Clearly define and document objectives by collaborating with all relevant stakeholders to figure out what the pertinent research questions might be. This often includes asking the client team to prioritize objectives or even conducting a series of stakeholder interviews yourself. Investing effort to make sure you are focused and aligned with the client’s objectives will pay dividends as the process unfolds.
  2. It is important that stakeholders realize that the biggest value of the research is not so much in developing definitive findings, but identifying trends, patterns, and ways of understanding the world. Provide examples of what other projects have uncovered for clients.
  3. Emphasize that these kinds of projects are good at producing knowledge, as opposed to more limited “findings". Therefore the value of the research tends to have a much broader applicability and a longer shelf-life than, for instance, a tactical usability study.

Collecting the data

  1. Since AnswerLab focuses on user experience research, we work with a lot of tech companies. We have found that some of these clients get uncomfortable with qualitative research. Therefore it can be critical to communicate that qualitative data works in concert with the quantitative approaches they are perhaps already familiar with. Again, sharing examples of how qualitative data has explained quantitative findings is always illuminating.
  2. Similarly, the “data” in ethnographic research are the observations made by the researchers. Familiarizing client stakeholders with the types of observations they will get can help put them at ease if they are new to ethnography.
  3. It is important to diagnose the appropriate scope for sessions. In a recent project we had researchers shadow participants for an entire 8-hour work shift, when half that time probably would have yielded equally robust results. This approach put too many eggs in too few baskets, and the researcher’s time could have been more effectively spent meeting with more participants.
  4. Another benefit of rigorous stakeholder interviews is that the process will help the researchers become familiarized with the nomenclature and pertinent issues of the industry making their time in the field more effective.


  1. Clearly communicate what the report will look like. Examples, even hypothetical, can be useful.
  2. While the report may take some time to develop, a high-level Key Findings document can help satisfy curiosity as you work on the final deliverable.
  3. Talk to your client to determine what quotes and/or video clips will ultimately be most impactful for their key stakeholders. These are often fairly time consuming to assemble, but also often some of the most powerful deliverables in the entire process. Make sure they are as targeted as possible.

Logistical considerations

  1. If the client or other stakeholders are going to go into the field with you, it is important to educate them on the do’s and don’ts of fieldwork and interviews. Little things like always accepting a glass of water (when offered) might be something someone new to field research might not think to do.
  2. Ethnography in any setting is an audacious endeavor. At AnswerLab, because of client demand for ethnography and the resulting need for formalization of our approach and deliverables, we recently developed a new ethnographic offering called UXploreTM to help the client education process. Working with clients new to the process can be extremely rewarding as you can help them understand the world view and needs of their customers and users. With just a bit of planning you can position yourself for success!


Author: Laith Ulaby, UX Researcher, AnswerLab

Laith Ulaby is a User Experience Researcher at AnswerLab, a user experience research consultancy with offices in San Francisco and New York. Over the last decade Laith has been immersed in the study of culture. He has conducted years of policy, academic, and user experience research on the power of communities and social networks. Starting his career as an academic at UCLA in ethnomusicology he has enjoyed his transition into applied research. Laith currently leads user research engagements for financial services, pharmaceutical, social media, and eCommerce clients across digital platforms.

  2 comments for “A Dozen Things Every Client Should Know about Ethnography

  1. #11 is the unsung hero of a good ethnographic interview. Say yes, to water, coffee and treats. There is so much that is un-natural about strangers going into a home with cameras and notebooks and asking a bunch of questions – it is helpful to have some banter before a person turns into a participant. On one project, we were very lucky to have a great client to accompany us. We gave this very advice to the client and it helped them and the participant relax and open up. Of course we did not want any more coffee. It was 7:00pm. But the moment of standing in the kitchen, recorders off, asking for sugar, looking at refrigerator magnets and asking a few questions… chit-chat… so invaluable for hitting the tone of a real-life conversation. It helps everyone remember that this is indeed a novel situation and that we the researchers need to be patient, authentic, conversational and human. Just say yes!

  2. A story that I use in my classes to explain the importance of understanding local manners and customs comes from an earlier EPIC conference. The “ethnographers” were interviewing inside an Arabic household in Jerusalem, when there was a disturbance outside. The head of the household went outside and to inquire, and then came back in and offered the researcher a glass of water. “No thanks, I’m fine,” was the researcher’s reply, not understanding that he had just offended his host. Understanding that an offer of hospitality must be accepted, and that in some communities accepting hospitality puts you under the protection of the householder, was something that they should have known before going into the field. Even at 8:00 PM, if offered coffee, I would accept.

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