.: 19 April 2015 :.

7 Things I learned from doing 10 days of ethnographic research

As an Interaction Designer I am always trying to understand people, however this not my final goal. Part of a student project for Skype I got familiar with the basics of ethnographic research in just ten days. These are 7 things I learned in 10 days of ethnographic research.

1. The ordinary person does not exist

We started our ethnographic research by selecting general profiles which we expected to be interesting in relation to communication. We wanted to avoid casting the “ordinary” person.
As we did our research with militaries, journalists and travellers, we certainly got rich stories. However we also realized that these where not necessary related to our expectations. We continued researching people we did not specifically cast. The richness we got out of them made me realize that the ordinary person does not exist. Every person carries unique and rich experiences, viewpoints and stories.

People might look ordinary on a general level, but this is a sign you are not digging enough for that rich data.

2. The ordinary day does not exist

I expected that the looking for an ordinary day that represents the person’s life would allow me to get into the person’s head. Therefore I made people talk about an “ordinary” day in their memory. Often they picked a random day in their last week and talked about it on a general level.

When I tried to dig deeper, they often concluded that the day was not really an “ordinary” day. This made me realize that on the more you zoom in, the more unusual a day becomes. I also learned that it is not in the ordinary, but in the unusual where you will find your rich ethnographic data. If your day looks “ordinary”, you are not digging enough.

3. Make them tell stories

I realized that people abstract their experiences in order to process them. I think that as an ethnographic researcher you are not looking for abstractions but for concrete situations instead. This will enable you to abstract more objectively. “How do people feel?”, “Why do they act in a certain way?” and “How do they handle themselves” are just a few questions which can be answered through stories. Besides that, the story the participant decides to tell will also unveil what is important to them.

4. Take them back to the moment

In some of the interviews we used a journey mapping method in which we visualized a story chronologically with the participant. This method did not just give us a better idea of what happened, more importantly it helped the participants to recall their memory. We got a lot more rich data just because we took the participant back to the moment.

5. Become part of their moment

Ethnographic research is not just about what happened in the past. It is about getting into people’s mind’s and understanding their viewpoints. Many of the techniques I used relied on past experiences. Unfortunately, memories get vaguer over time and people have interpretations. I realized that some loss of this richness can be eliminated by becoming part of the moment. Doing field research and switching between participant and observer is key.

6. Listening versus waiting to talk

Interviewing people challenged my listening skills. The more I truly listened, the deeper I could dig in my follow up questions. This made me realize that there is a difference between listening and waiting to talk. In the first interviews I prepared questions and was mostly reading them out one after the other. I waited for the answers in order to ask my next questions. Once I got some more experience interviewing, I listened better and dug deeper.

7. Try to eliminate expectations

Once we made the mistake to communicate the expectations of the session with our participant. The uncertainty to live up with it made himinsecure. I think we made two mistakes here: having expectations and communicating expectations. Expectations influence interpretations which negatively affect objectivity. The fewer you expect, the more you are open for surprises as well.

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Martijn van den Broeck (@MartijnvdBroeck)

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