Tutorial: The Ethnographic Arts of Interviewing

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Learn what makes ethnographic interviews distinct and distinctly valuable, how to develop interview protocols that align with a research brief, and specific skills for engaging with research participants.




This video has been edited to protect the privacy of participants in the live tutorial.

Interviews are research bread and butter. But a method often referred to as “common” and “easy” actually comprises a vast terrain of approaches, techniques, theory and analytical frameworks—not to mention the interpersonal and sensory arts at the heart of interviewing.

This tutorial provides a grounding in ethnographic interviewing, which generates unique value by prompting and actually participating in the articulation of our participants’ worldviews and discourse. It covers framing questions, asking questions well, actively listening, providing feedback and prompts for exploration. You will learn:

  • How to think about research project design in ways that value ethnographic interviews and the insights that emerge from deeply listening to and understanding people.
  • What makes an interview ethnographic, and what are some unique values of ethnographic interviews
  • How to develop effective interview protocols that align with a research brief
  • How to improve listening skills to better engage with research participants and help guide them through a fuller exploration of their world and their experience in it.

Ethnographic interviewing is distinct from an “extraction” model often found in user research, where participants are asked to explain themselves. It is also distinct from some consumer research frameworks, based in psychology, that seek to get at the “real” motivations behind participant behaviors. Ethnographic interviewing, when done well, is much more conversational, productive, and generative of dialogue about culture and meaning.

Good interviewing skills are a core value that professional ethnographers provide. But these are not just methods that we can learn and then move on. They require constant development, evolution, and adaptation, which can happen through diverse research experiences, but also greatly benefits from ongoing and challenging discussion of these essential skills.

Particularly relevant to the EPIC2022 theme, good interviewing requires practitioners to be resilient in the face of often unexpected research contexts. These dynamic situations demand that practitioners rapidly learn, adapt, and evolve their orientation or relationships with participants—asking the right questions, deeply listening, engaging in productive conversation, and taking note of unexpected conditions.


Michael Powell, PhD, is a professional cultural anthropologist with 15+ years of consulting experience in research, strategy, branding, and design consulting. He currently works as an independent consultant and in partnership with fellow anthropologists at Practica Group, Culture Concepts, and Redsquared Consulting. Recent strategic consulting projects include ethnographic research, cultural analysis, and user experience research in a wide range of industries, including health care, food retail, and transportation. In prior experiences, Michael worked in-house for an architecture firm designing grocery stores and other everyday destinations, as well as being part of a couple startup companies. Michael is also a published writer and speaker on culture and design, for professional, academic, and public audiences. Michael received his PhD in anthropology from Rice University. He is based in Houston, Texas. Find him on Linkedin and his website at https://www.michaelgpowell.com


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