Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Recalibrating UX Labs in the Covid-19 Era


Early in 2020 as a result of Covid-19, Convo—along with companies around the world—moved all research in India to remote solutions. This was quite a change and presented new challenges to the research team. While our preference is almost always to go in-home, particularly for foundational and ethnographic research, for UX research a temporary though centralized “lab” is typically more time and cost efficient. This post focuses on the impact of remote methods on UX Labs where, paradoxically, remote methods can render the lab situation more ethnographic.

India, pre-Covid-19

We are in a tier two city, sitting in a viewing room, looking in on the UX lab setup as a session was about to start. It was typical for India in many regards, with multiple cameras, various wires, and recording equipment set up in a temporary location (typically a hotel). Usually you can’t help noticing the wallpaper (it’s so not me) and the lights may be dim and fluorescent. In a few moments, our research participant will arrive. Many of our lab participants are first timers, often from lower SEC segments, and many with limited literacy, which adds to the technical challenges presented by new apps and methods. Representative of millions, these people are the next generation of mobile users as India expands connectivity by 10s of millions per year.

While the venue and location are chosen to make participants more comfortable, it also has to have good connectivity and viewing facilities for our clients. For research participants the experience may even be a treat, access to somewhere they don’t go to often. Our lab environment, no matter how simple and local, more often than not represents a place our respondents may only go for a wedding or really special occasion. So many times, I have observed participants taking selfies in the main entrance, or collecting pictures of the buffet and meal. Indeed, the novelty of the situation is also part of the incentive to make the trip and come to a lab session. Many will travel for one to two hours each way.

In the next room, the moderator has called the participant in. My screener says he’s a dhobi (an ironing man—a low paying job). Yet in the other room I see a dapper gentleman looking very professional. What gives? Somewhat later, we learn from our field recruiter that he borrowed his customer’s clothes for the occasion!

This is not unusual; men might borrow a brother’s t-shirt, or women a sister’s top. Some will even change just before they arrive. In a lab situation such as this, identity and origins are rendered opaque: you often don’t see the standard markers of where participants came from, or who they are. So it’s important to build a broader contextual understanding around their life and how they live, as these factors can affect how they respond to stimuli. It’s also one of the reasons we believe it is so valuable for international visitors to do some in-home/business ethnographies: it’s too easy to stereotype based on the clothing.

The Transformation of “Labs” during Covid-19

Roll forward a few months. With 1000s of hours of research completed remotely, most with participants talking from home or, more recently, places of work, “labs” have been rendered more ethnographic, even when our “tech” footprint is now nothing more than the respondent’s mobile phone. The social, personal space that phones occupy in people’s lives mean they are both an intimate object and boundary marker. People are very practiced at using even in the confines of a small home, often with many other people around.

Folks sometimes situate themselves in a corner, or lie on a bed, or prop the mobile up on a window ledge. Or maybe we are outside on a balcony, or on the roof. We see people in contexts not available to us in lab situations. A driver decided his idle autorick was the best place. Even the bathroom is used for an interview on occasion for privacy! Of note, our participants aren’t dressed for a visit out, or special occasion. They had no special preparation. The space is typically shared and we may get a little look into their world and home even if others are around (who may also jump in from time to time). The moment is extraordinarily ordinary; our participant is just talking on the phone.

At this point the benefits of remote start to emerge. While there may be a Covid-19 factor with boredom at home, we see…

  • Participants are simply more comfortable at home in their environment. They have invited us in, but only to a degree and it may not be obvious to others in the home what they are doing. It’s their safe place.
  • Participants tend to feel more in control. There is no additional tech or the apparatus of a Lab. While they may have downloaded an app, a video call is no longer a big deal. We soon get them sharing screens and viewing new information.
  • Participants may feel freer and safer to share POV than in a more public setting or when away from home in a formally constructed setting.
  • As in a typical UX lab, we can capture the mobile view (screen-sharing) and respondent views, although the actual finger touch cannot be observed (as we would on a sled cam).
  • Remote may have network/connectivity challenges from time to time, however, when this occurs it is seen as normal and ordinary, something both parties work at for a successful outcome. By contrast, when a network doesn’t work in a lab it’s simply bad news.
  • Participants give their time happily, even if it runs over.

There’s another set of benefits too:

  • Our participant doesn’t have to travel, so times may be more flexible for scheduling. We’re also more likely to run to a fixed interview time (harder when respondents are late to a lab session). Similarly, we often see a saving in multi-day travel for the researcher and team on the project. So, some project costs go down.
  • Dropping the need for a geographic lab location enables us to draw from a much wider pool of potential candidates. In some cases it means we can go to multiple centers or even different languages in the same day.
  • The translator doesn’t have to be on-site and the same systems we use remotely may in future be used in the field.
  • We stream multi-channel audio so for clients “viewing” they have options of both local language and the simultaneous translation. This can make pilot sessions easier too, and again save physical lab costs.

And now let’s just think about you and me. While we love going in-home and working the elements of ethnographic enquiry around UX research, the reality is remote methods (that are agile, cost effective, and easy to participate in) are a welcome addition to the researchers’ overall toolkit.

As with all good things, they aren’t without their shortcomings:

  • You may not be able to reach the unconnected or the lowest SEC groups;
  • Sometimes you will need to get a support person (a family member, neighbour, etc.) to help set up a participant for the calls;
  • It might be difficult to find a private spot in small, crowded homes, and this could impact how participants react if sensitive issues arise;
  • Participants may need to talk through their actions in more detail, as you won’t see what word or click point they are pointing to on a device (unless activated).

Remote doesn’t mean our teams work less hard; in fact, to the contrary. Working this way opened up many new avenues amongst the team for discussion, learning new skills and finding new ways to dig deeper. It’s also taken some of the stress away. It’s a whole lot easier on home life in general and, in this case, working safely. Having work has been both a privilege and a pleasure.

Finally, remote continues when other methods can’t. The challenges we have all faced in 2020 are likely a part of some new normal. Like anything new, a lot of the old skills transfer and yet remote work makes us aware of all the other observational tools we can draw on, particularly when asking participants about their behavior.

We’d love to talk and share thoughts around this topic more at EPIC2020.

Convo is an EPIC2020 Sponsor. Sponsor support enables our annual conference program that is curated by independent committees and invites diverse, critical perspectives.


The Ethnographer’s Spyglass: Insights and Distortions from Remote Usability Testing, Christopher Golias

Do You See What I See?: Mobile Labs Enrich Ethnographic Nuancing, Aparna Ray et al.

Great Interpreters Inspire Insights, Stuart Henshall



Stuart Henshall, Convo

Stuart Henshall is a co-founder of Convo, a qualitative research and strategy firm based in Mumbai and San Francisco. Our practice is built on a deep understanding of human behavior and nuancing of cultural context. Stuart has worked as a futurist, facilitator and strategist across, software, telecoms, FMCG and Retail. His focus is on providing teams with opportunities for deep immersive learning and co-creation. He evangelizes meaningful conversations for clients, around observations, inspiring insights, innovation, finding design solutions, and approaches for change.