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Contextual Analysis and Ethnography are terms referring to a collection of methods with the same purpose: to understand your users in the context in which they will be using your product.

These studies require researchers to visit workplaces, homes, schools, or other locations where users or potential users can be directly observed. While traditional ethnography involves cultural immersion over months or years, design ethnographers focus on getting information in a few hours or work days. See the “Sub-Methods” tab for details regarding particular methods of observation.

Studies of this variety are carried out before any design or development work has taken place in order to gather information about how your customers work and live in their natural environments. Researchers can see potential users’ existing routines, find out why users do what they do, and gauge their emotional response to long-standing practices that they do or do not have control over.

This information informs design decisions, and helps the product team create a product that customers can easily integrate into their routines in order to make their jobs or lives easier or more pleasant.


Schedule Time & Gather Materials

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Schedule Time:

  • Each Visit: 4 – 6 Hours
  • Total Visits: 3 – 4
  • Time to Completion: About 1 Year
Gather Materials

Gather Materials:

  • Video camera
  • Still camera
  • Notebook & pen

Carry Out This Method

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  1. In the early stages of a product, determine your target user base so you know who to observe.
  2. Contact the workplaces, schools, or homes you would like to visit. If you need to interview office employees, schedule a visit date that will not interfere with their deadlines.
  3. Recruit multiple researchers. Each researcher will notice different things; varied observations mean more useful results.
  4. Instruct researchers to take photos and video of observations. Quotes, actions, and context of those actions need to be documented accurately. These materials can also make for more impactful presentations.
  5. When observing users, note repetitive actions, tedious extra steps, unexpected interruptions, and moments of apparent satisfaction. Ask the user how they feel about these events. Seek to understand which are issues that need to be addressed and which are not.
  6. Ask users why they use the tools or software they use.
  7. Ask users why they perform tasks a certain way. Assure them that “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer.
  8. Visit each site 2 or 3 more times, several months apart, over the course of about a year. Different times of year mean different workloads.

Try These Tips

  • Some test users may feel a need to chat with you, which does taint results somewhat. Politely discourage this, reminding them to work on whatever they need to – you will ask questions if you need clarification.
  • Once your product has launched, you can optionally return to the observation site and perform an evaluative ethnography study. This will show where your product has succeeded and what issues still need to be addressed.

Explore More Resources

See our related methods below for more resources.

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